Watercooler: What’s in a car name?

Car names are often incomprehensible—and sometimes they backfire

Credit: Kagan McLeod

Car names are often incomprehensible—and sometimes they backfire

What’s a Camry? Is there an English translation of Acura? Is Qashqai a New Delhi game show? How many calories are there in Previa? Should I be concerned if my doctor says I have a severe abdominal Lexus?

Car brands are a language of their own—often connected to other human dialects, but just as often beyond translation. Toyota’s Camry is apparently a corruption of the Japanese word kanmuri, meaning crown. The proper translation of Lexus might be “a long meeting where everybody just wanted to make a decision and go home.” But whether or not they mean anything, car names can tell us something about the ins and outs of international marketing.

The Nissan Qashqai is a sport utility vehicle that has gotten good reviews. Aside from any technical innovations the car may offer, it has certainly succeeded in the grammatical breakthrough of separating q from u. But unlike some generic vehicle names, Qashqai has a specific meaning. The Qashqai are a collection of tribes living in southwest Iran, mostly Turkic in origin. The word qashqai is believed to mean a horse with a white star on its forehead, although other meanings have been proposed.

It’s an exotic name for a vehicle—apparently too exotic for the U.S. market, where the Qashqai is sold as the Nissan Rogue Sport. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that American marketers looked at the results of the last presidential election and decided that a name taken from a group of Islamic Iranian nomads might not fly in Texas and Iowa (it might even be denied entry at the airport). But if they did come to that conclusion, they probably had a point. When you’re trying to sell cars, you don’t need Sean Hannity frothing at the mouth about insidious corporate brainwashing campaigns intended to destroy America’s Christian heritage. Best to keep the focus on cargo space and gas mileage.

There’s a German sports car called Lotec, a brand that seems refreshingly free of focus group influence. It brings to mind the famous story of the Chevy Nova, said to be a disaster in Spanish-speaking markets because it translated as “won’t go.” Alas, this durable and amusing anecdote is a myth. It is worth noting that Mexican state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos S.A. de C.V. (Pemex) long sold a brand of gasoline called Nova, and nobody seemed to think it carried any unfortunate message for Mexican motorists.

Still, the provenance of names like Lexus, Acura and Previa suggests that automobile marketers have heard the legend of the Nova disaster and are determined to avoid trouble by crafting the most meaningless collections of pleasant syllables they can muster. Even if the Nova fiasco is a myth, there have been other unfortunate vehicle names. In 1937, with Hitler ruling Germany, Mussolini running Italy, and Salazar in Portugal, not to mention Francisco Franco fighting to take over Spain, the Studebaker company decided to change the name of one of its sedans—the Dictator. (The company had another model called the President—presumably you could choose a Studebaker not only for its features but for your political views.)

The Qashqai name is intriguing for another reason. The Jeep Cherokee brand has long been controversial because it refers to a Native American band; other nameplates like Pontiac and Comanche have been retired, in many cases after a long history of racist advertising. Not only has the Cherokee brand survived, it was revived in 2014 to go along with the existing Grand Cherokee models. The familiarity of the brand appears to have won out over other concerns.

Is taking a name from an Iranian tribal group different from calling your vehicle a Comanche? Lacking space here for a full-on rhetorical barroom brawl, I will just suggest that subjecting a group of people to years of military atrocities, cultural oppression and racist caricature ought to be a factor in whether it’s cool to adopt their ethnic or tribal name for a product sold in North America. The name Qashqai does not carry the same historical baggage as Cherokee or Apache. All the same, it would be nice to think Nissan asked first.

Meanwhile, spare some sympathy for China’s GAC Motor, which hopes to introduce its Legend model in North America. Unfortunately, the Mandarin word for legend is trumpchi. They’d be better off calling it the Pinto.