Last November, Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s executive vice president, took the stage at the L.A. Auto Show. He was there, he told the standing-room-only audience, “to show you our new flagship sedan, the Lincoln MKX.”
Oops. Fields quickly corrected himself because he wasn’t introducing the MKX, a luxury sport utility vehicle, but the MKS, a luxury sedan that will come out this summer. The gaffe wasn’t surprising, considering that Lincoln also produces the MKZ, has a concept car called the MKR and is set to debut the MKT, another concept car, in Detroit this month.
If a guy like Fields can trip up, one can only imagine what may happen to the ordinary motorist who is checking out the 2008 offerings from Cadillac -- CTS, DTS, XLR, STS, XRS, XLR, ESV and EXT -- or Lexus -- LS, GS, ES, IS, SC, LX, GX and RX -- or Volvo -- S40, S60, S80, V50, V70, XC70, XC90, C30 and C70.
Where are the Gremlins of yesteryear? Or the El Dorados, for that matter?
They are history. The industry is on an increasingly strict diet of alphabet soup with numerical garnish. Alphanumeric nameplates -- which consist of nonsensical combinations of letters and numbers -- were on 135 models in the 2007 model year, compared with 80 a decade ago, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Alphanumerics can enhance a brand’s status and make cars more marketable internationally, automakers claim. With many of the most marketable names already trademarked, companies say letters and numbers are easier to secure from a legal standpoint.
All that may be so, but many marketing experts say alphanumericism has gone too far.
“The poor consumers can’t keep anything straight anymore,” said Teresa Pavia, a professor of marketing at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and an expert on alphanumeric branding. “I don’t know what these names are supposed to mean.”
Blame BMW and Mercedes, which set the bar for naming luxury cars with their decades-old alphanumeric nameplates -- BMW with the 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series; Mercedes with the C-, E- and S-Class.
When Japanese automakers launched their own luxury lines, they had what Karl Brauer, editor of Edmunds, calls “Euro-envy” and were eager to associate themselves with the German reputation for quality. Thus Lexus debuted with two-letter names; Infiniti combined letters and numbers.
Acura, which launched with proper names, eventually followed the trend, dumping Integra and Legend because “it got to the point where the names overshadowed the brand itself,” according to a spokesperson.
“Companies have grown frustrated with the traditional process of naming,” said Jason Baer, director of verbal identity at New York-based Interbrand, which has helped carmakers including Chrysler, Ford, Nissan and Subaru come up with nameplates for new models. “Alphanumerics transcend cultural and legal barriers.”
The switch from names to letters and numbers keeps on spreading, as seen with Lincoln and Cadillac, which produced its last DeVille in 2005 (it became the DTS) and now has alphabetized almost all of its lineup except for the very popular Escalade SUV, a name the company says won’t change. Lincoln also won’t alter the name of its equally popular Navigator SUV.
Luxury cars are no longer the only vehicles to have alphanumeric nameplates. Mazda’s once mostly name-driven fleet has in recent years been winnowed down to just one, the Tribute. Even the legendary Miata is now known as the MX-5. And Toyota’s entry-level Scion line never had names, favoring instead monikers such as xA and xC.
(Carmakers are discovering that letters and numbers can provoke a lawyer’s ire. Ford spokesman Jim Cain points out that when the company released the Lincoln MKX SUV two years ago, it got angry calls from Acura, which produces the MDX, also a luxury SUV. Acura didn’t sue, he said.)
In a perfect world, letters and numbers serve as clear-cut cues to buyers, telling them where a model sits on the price continuum (a BMW 3 Series car costs less than a 5 Series) or what category of vehicle it is (such as with Mercedes’ M-Class, which are SUVs, and S-Class, which are sedans).
But the world isn’t perfect. Many alphanumerics have no meaning and make for a mystifying game of Scrabble with no apparent rules.
“The confusion factor is huge,” said Bob Martin of Car Lab, an industry consultant in Orange. “There’s no potential for differentiation.”
Cadillac’s product director, John Howell, is concerned about that problem. The brand is conducting studies in the U.S., Europe and China to come up with a more orderly system for naming -- and some new names.
“It started to get to the point where it wasn’t very pure,” Howell said. “People want meaning, or a sense of hierarchy, in their car names.”
But nostalgists shouldn’t get their hopes up. Carmakers don’t seem to have plans to return to using to good old-fashioned names -- the Dodge Polara, the AMC Pacer, the Ford Pinto.
An Acura spokesman said the company would “never go back to Legend or Integra,” and even genre-inspiring Mercedes has moved to 13 class designations, including the CL (which isn’t a C-Class) and the SLK (which isn’t an S-Class).
That’s a shame, said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Irvine-based Kelley Blue Book.
“The right name can really lend something to a vehicle. Mustang works. But I doubt anyone will look back with nostalgia at an XTR.”