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A 4-Door, 7-Passenger, V-6 Engine ... Shoe?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Auto makers have latched onto almost every conceivable theme in their struggle to come up with names that will help sell cars.

There are fish and fowl, insects and trees, Latin words and foreign places, letters, numbers and the human races. They’ve used royalty, meaningless alpha-numeric combinations, weapons, celestial bodies, poisonous snakes, mythology and more.

But never before has anyone named a vehicle after a shoe.

Ford Motor Co., fighting to come back from a disastrous series of safety, marketing and reliability problems in recent years, has decided on CrossTrainer as the name of a new sport-utility-styled vehicle.

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“I think a cross trainer is an athletic shoe, isn’t it,” said Tom Healey, director of marketing services at the automobile research firm J.D. Power and Associates. “What are they trying to resonate with? I don’t know the point.”

Indeed, a cross trainer is a type of shoe that purportedly allows the amateur athlete to engage in a range of activities, from tennis to running, basketball to television watching.

The new Ford vehicle will fit a genre that packages a station wagon with the image of a sport-utility vehicle. The idea is that it supports many activities.

It’s not a particularly glamorous look, but no doubt Ford’s research has shown a sizable market for a rugged vehicle that is smaller, better performing and less costly than a true SUV.

Ford is betting big on it, converting a Taurus/Sable manufacturing plant in Chicago to CrossTrainer production in 2004.

But oh, that name.

Will you get a car or a pair of athletic shoes when you ask the parking valet to bring you the blue CrossTrainer?

More important, will questions like that cross consumers’ minds--and color their decision making--when they go car shopping?

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The trend in car naming in recent years has been to select names loaded with testosterone or to swing to combinations of letters and numbers.

Infiniti, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Lexus, among others, use virtually all alpha-numeric names: Q45, 330i, SLK320, S80, IS300.

But even with something so bland, there are pitfalls.

Mostly, the numbers denote a vehicle’s engine size. But Mercedes-Benz, among others, has tripped up when the engine size changed but the model name remained the same.

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In a bid for novelty, some car makers have strung things together in unmanageable fashion: the bonkers Merkur xr4ti, a short-lived Mercury from Europe.

Meanwhile, the growing dominance of trucks has given vehicle naming a tougher edge, said Kenny Morse, the Mr. Traffic radio host.

Take, for example, one edition of the most popular vehicle in the nation, the Ford F-150 pickup truck. The company this year came out with the Harley Davidson F-150 Super Crew, Morse said.

That’s consistent with such names as the Sequoia, Expedition, Mountaineer, Tahoe, Trailblazer and the Ironman, a special edition of Isuzu’s Vehicross sport-utility--a model discontinued this year.

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“There is almost no appeal to women, which is the strangest part of it all,” Morse said. “They are the car buyers in the U.S. They are involved in most of the car purchases.”

Some names have simply been around too long.

Does Ford’s Crown Victoria, apparently referring to British royalty, resonate well with today’s buyers? Or Mercury’s Grand Marquis?

These are old names on old vehicles, perhaps intended at one time to appeal to the pretensions of the middle class. Names such as the Dodge Monaco and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo are in the same vein. They are unlikely to ever be duplicated.

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Except for its success, the same might be said of the venerable Suburban, the king of the SUV class that has been around for decades.

Suburbia today is the often-unattractive sprawl of the 1960s and ‘70s.

But when GM named the vehicle in 1935, the Suburban was purchased by a lot of rural dwellers and “instead of saying you were a hick or a farmer, it said you are a suburbanite,” Healy said. “Somebody from the boonies would see the suburbs as glamorous.”

Animal names are consistently popular. Among the best have been the Falcon, Mustang, Sting Ray, Barracuda, Super Bee and Viper. The antithesis of these are the engineered names of imports: Camry, Acura, Jetta.

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The Japanese have an odd affinity for Latin or Latin-sounding names: Lexus, meaning law, or Maxima, the biggest.

Spanish pops up sometimes in domestic as well as import names: Japan’s Isuzu had an Amigo, Ford had a Ranchero and Chevrolet had a Nova.

There have been a smattering of Indian names too: Aztek, Cherokee. In fact, the Aztek is a Pontiac, which is an entire brand named after a Native American chief.

Terrible names often are associated with failed models. Among the worst: the General Motors Impact.

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“Why not call it the crash-boom-bang?” Morse asked.

The Chevy Citation, the so-called X-platform car that was to beat back imports in the 1970s, became known as the traffic ticket.

Finally, there is the Edsel, the car named after Henry Ford’s downtrodden son.

“It has become synonymous with a bad idea. I don’t think there is anything essentially goofy about the name,” Healey said, “but it has come to mean loser.”

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Although the car was a styling experiment that didn’t catch on with buyers, naming it after someone who spent most of his life pushed into the shadows by a domineering patriarch wasn’t the keenest piece of marketing savvy.

“After a time,” Healey said, “the name will define the car.”

In the Edsel’s case, it became the definition of a failure.

And that’s about as bad as it gets in product marketing.

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph .vartabedian@latimes.com.


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