Contemporary Maseratis are known for their arousing shapes, their redolent interiors, and their mellifluous Ferrari-sourced engines. What they are not known for is creative names. The four-door sedan is called the Quattroporte, which literally means "four doors," and the GT is called GranTurismo, which is what GT stands for. So when the trident brand began showing an SUV concept a few years back, we fully expected it to be named something like Sportutilitino. Instead, they rolled it out saddled with the oddball moniker Kubang, which not only sounds like something you'd experience at Sri Lankan massage parlor, but is almost impossible to pronounce without a terminal exclamation point. They've since changed the name to Levante, which, contrary to the vehicle's appearance, is not a contraction of Leviathan and Anteater.
Strangely enough, Maserati's generic appellations align with purported trends in the odd world of vehicular nomenclature, where the name should be good, but not too good, and memorable, but not overshadowing.
When Cadillac wanted to regain its squandered position as the standard of the world, one of their first steps was to privilege the name of the brand over that of particular models. "We found through research," said Cadillac's Global Marketing Director Jim Vurpillat, "that in the luxury space, it's all about the mother brand — it's about having a BMW, having a Mercedes — and less about the car name within the lineup." Because of this, Cadillac has done away with iconic lines like the Eldorado, and switched to a more innocuous system: ATS, CTS, XTS, and next year, the ELR for the Chevy Volt-based coupe.
How do automobile companies avoid designating disaster? A quick survey of the internet could probably have helped Buick determine that LaCrosse was Canadian slang for self-pleasure, and simply saying the name aloud in mixed company might have precluded Ford's use of the gynecological Probe. (No one has yet claimed credit for naming the Pontiac Aztek, what with all its other crimes.) But with individuals hiring consultants to name their baby, there is always the option to contract with an expert.
This tactic dates back to at least the 1950s when Ford employed it in creating an honorific for their new mid-priced vehicle line. "They did a lot of research to find a name for that car," Leslie Mark Kendall, Curator of Los Angeles's Petersen Automotive Museum, told us. "They even went so far as to engage a poet, Marianne Moore. She came up with some interesting names like Mongoose Civique, and Utopian Turtletop, as well as some not horrible ones like Altair Impeccable and Arc-en-Ciel." We rather wish they had gone with Mongoose Civique, as it has the advantage of not being synonymous with derision and abject failure like the one they eventually chose: Edsel.
Unfortunately for the poets, contemporary manufacturers now have the benefit of hiring nomenclature firms, especially high-profile ones like Lexicon who—with their immense network of consumer researchers, trademark analysts, and geo-linguists—are responsible for an unconscionable range of popular product names, from Swiffer to Blackberry to Febreeze. Lexicon also does work in the automotive space, where they've granted us Outback, Onstar, and Scion among others. "The principles of what makes a good name go across almost any category," David Placek, the Founder and President of Lexicon told us. "Get attention, generate interest, and for god's sake say something new."
Placek cited number of recent (non-Lexicon) names that adhere to this strategy—or don't—in the emergent electric car category. "The Leaf," he said, "I think that's a great name. It says we're sensitive to the environment. It's fast and smooth to say. And it's surprising—a non-car car name." He contrasted this with the Volt, which he felt is "too expected, too one-dimensional." But his favorite example is the Tesla. "Not everyone is going to know that Nikola Tesla was a scientist and an engineer with all this perfect relevance to electricity. But even if you don't know any of that, the smoothness of the name is compelling—it has a fresh pattern. It does everything that a good name should do: Wow, what's a Tesla?"
But he sees two more germane nomenclatural modalities as well. With the key roles of aerodynamics and weight reduction in increasing efficiency, the first pertains to the relevance of new forms and materials. "We've been looking at names from the world of geometry," he said. "And we came up with Euclid. It's an odd name, a little awkward, but there's certainly something new there."
The second derives from the idea that upcoming vehicles will function as much more than transportation. "Cars are already becoming communications and entertainment centers," Placek said. "But as you pack in more information devices, the vehicle becomes less of a car, and more of something else. And if it is something else, is it called the Base, or the Home? Do I buy a car called the Office?" If that's too literal, Placek also recommended the following names for a small, efficient car with advanced entertainment and communications systems: Zel, Vero, and Nuro. His client rejected all of them as "too forward-thinking."
Complicating these vehicular baptisms is the struggle to integrate the varied designations that consumers now expect. "It's not just how you name your car line," Cadillac's Vurpillat said, "If somebody's bought an up-level engine, you want to show that in the name. If they've bought all-wheel drive, you want to show that. If they've bought a hybrid, you want to show that as well." He chuckled. "And there's only so much space on the back decklid."
Of course, it's hard to determine how much influence all of this has on a car's success. So many of the car names we adore — Corvette, Mustang, Suburban, S-Class — are beloved in no small part because they've endured. According to the Petersen Museum's Kendall, a car's name may bring as little to the table as a Vice Presidential candidate. "If a car is bad, a good name won't help," he told us. "And if a car is good, a bad name won't hurt." Kendall is equally fatalistic about onomastic prognostication. "Being a historian, I know there is absolutely no way to predict accurately what happens next," he said. "The history of the future is full of mistakes. Maybe the name Asteroid would seem cool now, until one of them strikes the earth, and then that's out."