Proposing alphanumeric model name rules for manufacturers

I’m going to get right to the point here: I can’t stand modern alphanumeric model names. They are more confusing than what you hear eavesdropping on a conversation between two quantum physicists speaking in pig-latin.

Alphanumeric model designations are as old as dirt…or John McCain, for that matter. Actually, they’re older — think 1922 Citroen 5CV or the famous Alfa Romeo 8C 2300. Back in the old days, naming a car model after a combination of number of cylinders, displacement and/or horsepower was standard practice.

For those like me who grew up before the era of Japanese and European automobile dominance, alphanumeric names were the exception, not the rule. Model names showed the creative prowess of domestic product marketing. My family had relationships with LeSabre, LeBaron, Special, New Yorker, LTD, and the neighbors had Corvette, Duster, and even a Beetle and Rabbit.

My parents still live in the same house, but now the carport is home to a Lexus ES300 and BWM 335ic. One neighbor put his ’63 Corvette in storage, and instead drives his Mercedes Lexus LS430.

As an automotive guy holding a Bachelor’s Business Marketing (who whooped-ass in every competition against MBA candidates taking the same courses from the same professors), I certainly understand the perceived benefits of alphanumeric designations.

Among the upsides:

  • It prevents model identity from eclipsing brand identity
  • Enables dealers to have a better chance at upselling to more expensive cars and more options due to product benefit confusion.
  • Provides upsell potential due to envy of higher numbers that come with a more expensive car in the lineup.
  • Makes a model year-oriented designation publically obsolete (ES 300 vs. ES 330 vs. ES 350) much quicker, causing consumers to either lease or buy new cars on a truncated schedule to keep a new-appearing model.
  • Minimizes problems and demarketing costs associated with curing negative name recognition with failed models, such as with Pinto, Pacer, and Aztek.

    When looking at the benefits, one immediately understands why this is now common practice among the mass-production luxury car brands.

    But Alphanumerics have huge downsides:

  • Lack of convention translates to lack of model recognition and identity.
  • It becomes very hard to differentiate the intersections between product lines, products and options.
  • Most importantly – AN designations often lead to customers linking a model with the wrong manufacturer.

    The market has a right to be confused. In some cases, the letters represent the product line, while the numbers indicate a displacement or other option category. This is true for Mercedes, which offers the S, SL, C, E, CL, CLK, GL, SLK, ML, as well as other product lines with a bunch of engine options, which gets you something like a S550 or S430. Lexus (LS, LX, GL, GS, GX, IS) and Infiniti (Q, G, M, QX) follow Mercedes lead with first the letters, then the engine displacement.

    Acura once relied on AN model names — flipping the Mercedes/Lexus/Infinity convention by listing the engine size then the model line, as in 3.2TL. Now, however, they also just offer the RL (which used to be the 3.5RL), MDX, RDX, TSX.

    BMW uses a different methodology. Its product lines are numeric or alphanumeric – 7, 6, 5, 3, 1, Z4, X3, X5, and M (in 3,5 and 7 guises, as well as “M Roadster” and “M Coupe” forms of the Z4s). BMW used to also attach a number indicating the total displacement of the car’s engine and a letter for the body configuration, so a 740iL was a 7-series sedan with four-liter fuel injected V8 and a long wheelbase. Now the numbers no longer always identify the displacement, as the 3.0L sixes in the 328 and 335 prove. (For the record, the 335 has the twin-turbo engine, while the 328 has the normally aspirated engine.)

    Audi uses yet another letter-number methodology. They have the 8, 6, 5, 4, and now 3 series lines. Most can be had in A (standard) or S (sport). One can have a four-cylinder engine, six-cylinder or eight-cylinder in the 4 and 6 lines. Oh, then there’s the Q7 and R8…which has a V8 now, but will have a V10 next year.

    Since seemingly all the foreign luxury brands went away from real names, so are Caddy (DTS, STS, CTS) and Lincoln (MKZ, MKX). If I were an executive for Ford, the brain surgeons who decided to rename the Zephyr to MKZ just a year after the product launch would all be blackballed from holding any marketing or product management positions anywhere. In fact, I’d ensure the only things out of their cornholes was “Welcome to M-C-D’s, would you like fries with that?”

    The FTC needs to mandate some type of naming convention, so car shopping (or in my case – helping people car shop) is less like trying to pick up a girl in a bar who doesn’t speak English.

    So this is what I suggest: When using alphanumeric model designations, the letter must identify a series (product line) and the number following it must either represent the number of cylinders or engine displacement. Displacement can represent the total, or in traditional Ferrari-style, of a single cylinder. A letter can follow either the number or initial letter to designate a body style.

    While we’re at it, companies should be banned from using an “I” to indicate fuel injection anywhere in the model name. BMW – when was the last time someone thought your cars might be equipped with a carburetor?

    I’m not a guy who likes to yearn for “the good old days”, because as Billy Joel once said “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”. My kingdom, however, for a model line of clever names like Studebaker’s President, Dictator and Commander.

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