The chance to name a new car is precious, a billion-dollar branding exercise with decades of potential staying power.
Many vehicles have names that have been around for 20-plus years -- even when the underlying car has changed.
The Porsche 911 was introduced in 1965, one year after Toyota unveiled its first Corolla. Making its debut in 1934, the Chevrolet Suburban is the oldest badge in U.S.
Over the past few years, this rite has kicked into overdrive. Automakers are racing to electrify their product lines and launching new vehicles at a pace not seen in decades.
Battery-powered driving offers a cleaner, quieter and eventually cheaper way to travel -- an aspirational viewpoint that branding executives must distill into a slew of catchy new car names.
It’s not going great.
Take Toyota. The company has been perfecting battery-assisted vehicles since the late 1990s finally unveiled its first mass-market full-electric car in 2022. Its title? The bZ4X.
The “bZ” stands for “beyond zero” emissions; the 4 refers to its four-wheel drive and X denotes a crossover shape -- all of which is probably lost on the Corolla crowd.
Not to be outdone, Honda announced that its second EV will be known as the e:Ny1, a gamble on the appeal of a colon.
Over at Jaguar, a driver could be forgiven for assuming the brand’s electric option is the E-Pace, but that model has a gasoline engine. The battery-powered Jaguar is the I-Pace.
And no one could fault a VW fan for confusing the core brand’s ID4, an SUV-shaped EV, with the ID Buzz, a recast of the company’s famous van.
“Honestly, a lot of these names are just trying too hard,” says David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, which helped name Lucid, the Subaru Outback and the Honda Ridgeline. “Everyone is kind of scrambling.”
Placek says a great product name needs to check three boxes: It has to be memorable, noteworthy and distinctive within its category. It also helps if the moniker is “what we call ‘processing fluent,’ ”
Placek says. “When the mind looks at it and says ‘OK, I can get that.’”
Many new EV names fall short. They either hew too closely to tradition to feel noteworthy or stretch so far for distinction that they are not memorable.
No one’s saying naming a car is easy, or that doing it poorly is unique to EVs (see: the Daihatsu Naked, Ford Probe and Studebaker Dictator).