Car Nameplates: What’s In a Name?

Car nameplates have , but they play a huge role in the identity of cars. These names dispense with the need to mention the brand – Golf, Cortina, Prius, F-150, Camry, Civic, Camaro, Viper. They become part of the emotional bond car owners develop with their cars. So why do car companies play fast and loose with them?

Returning Icons

’69 Bronco, waiting for its 2020 successor to arrive

Prototypes are on the road, and its return is coming very soon. The Bronco nameplate is finally returning after a 24-year hiatus. It will be accompanied by a little brother, possibly called Scout. The Bronco of the 60’s through to the 90’s had its avid followers who have wanted the nameplate to make its return.

Still waiting for an official announcement, the yet-to-be-named Bronco stablemate

With a return of an iconic name however, there comes a level of responsibility. Enthusiasts will be quick to accuse manufacturers of tarnishing the once-great nameplate if it fails to live up to expectations. Wrong engines, wrong gearboxes, styling too modern, styling too retro, overall capability, all things that are ripe for a mis-step. In the case of the Bronco, it will be interesting to see how well it compares to the Jeep Wrangler, another iconic nameplate, especially off-road and I for one cannot wait for 2020.

Recycling Old Staples

Nameplates are often long-lived, spanning generations and often decades with evolution and revolution in design, but at their core, they remain the same car. The Mustang was great in the ’60s and ’70s, quirky in the ’80s, dull in the ’90s, and a return to form in mid-’00s and ’10s. But it has always remained a 2-door coupe at heart.

But the recent trend of recycling is less positive for the reputation of a nameplate.

In some cases, it can seem inconsequential. In China, Ford and GM launched vehicles that brought nostalgia from the UK in the ’80s. Back in those days, the Ford Escort and Vauxhall Cavalier were a common sight. These names have returned albeit in China, with the Ford Escort and Chevrolet Cavalier.

In others, the change can incite a stronger reaction. In 2017 Mitsubishi revived the Eclipse, its compact sports car, in the guise of an SUV as the Eclipse Cross. Similarly, last month Ford revived the Puma, its compact sports car, in the guise of an SUV. Notice a theme?

It appears to be OK when a name is brought back when it retains the spirit of its ancestor but can cause strife when it diverges from the familiar. In the long term though, if the customer base is different and potentially the generation is different, does it really matter? If it is the right product, the marketplace is the ultimate judge and typically people seem to get over the name.

Repurposing Familiarity

One of the strangest name stories I have seen recently is that of the Jetta name. Carrying many different names such as the Bora, the VW Jetta is the sedan sister of the VW Golf, and can be seen in the original Fast and Furious movie and in Knocked Up. The new seventh generation car even started production recently.

“I don’t know it’s just something about engines that calms me down you know? ” – Jesse, The Fast and The Furious, 2001

However, when VW looked for a name for a new lower cost sub-brand for China, it chose Jetta. What?

VW cited that “In China, the Jetta plays an extremely valuable role for us as a Volkswagen model. It has brought mobility for the masses, just like the Beetle once did in Europe. Developed by Volkswagen and built in China, the Jetta placed China on four wheels”.”

Jürgen Stackmann, VW, cited in Autocar

Along with the sub-brand come three models:

  • a rebadged VW Jetta (Jetta VA3, because Jetta Jetta would have been ridiculous)
  • a Seat Ateca look-alike (Jetta VS5)
  • a 7-seat SUV (Jetta VS7).
A new logo has been created for the new JETTA brand in China. In future, JETTA will be signalled by a dynamic capital J.

Nissan did something similar, reviving the Datsun brand. But that was its old brand name, not an active nameplate.

It will probably work out really well for Volkswagen, but on the face of it is seems strange to me.

Playing the Long Game

Tesla’s Elon Musk has an interesting sense of humour, but it adds some much-needed spice to the automotive industry. He finally has the 4 base models out, now just waiting for the Semi truck and Roadster, but pending and other new schemes he has in mind apart from tunnels and space travel. I am not the first to point this out by any stretch, but it is definitely worth including in a story about car names. Look at the names of the Tesla line-up:

  • Saloon:
    • 2012: Model S
    • 2017: Model 3
  • SUV:
    • 2015: Model X
    • 2020: Model Y

S. 3. X. Y. The Tesla line-up is Sexy. A gag nearly 10 years in the making.

Honourable mention: the former Top Gear reasonably-priced car, the Kia Cee’d which was launched in 2006, gained a performance sibling in the Pro Cee’d in 2014, and will be joined by a crossover sibling in 2020, to be known as the XCee’d. Opportunities arising 14 years after the first.

The Trouble with New Names

Are new names harder to come up with? There are pitfalls to be avoided, such as making sure the name doesn’t mean something rude or unfortunate in another language, like the Mazda LaPuta, and the Mitsubishi Pajero or Chevy Nova. There are uninspiring names, such as anything made by Mercedes-Benz, BMW or McLaren.

When manufacturers do try, it sometimes doesn’t work.

Other times, it can be confusing.

So with all this potential for confusion, can you blame manufacturers from digging out old names and re-using them?

How important is the name of a car, and the legacy associated with it? Have your say in the comments below!

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