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X Marks the Spot for New Car Names

By Evelyn Kanter, January 24th, 2015

Gone are the days when new car models were born with names linked to speed, like Mustang and Charger, or a city like Santa Fe.

These days, X marks the spot for new car names. A partial list includes Acura's all-new TLX performance sedan, which joins the ILX entry-level luxury sedan and the MDX luxury SUV. Others include the Lexus RX350, and Lincoln MKX. Fiat has just launched an extended-platform four-door, the 500X, and Mazda's update of the popular Miata two-seater is called the MX-5.

Car names with an X are nothing new. Jaguar has been X-ing its models for decades, as far back as the iconic XKE, and continues with the all-new XE sport sedan.

You can blame global marketing for the new growing popularity of X, along with more cars with Q in their names. Simply, it's getting more difficult to find a name that hasn't been trademarked somewhere and means the same in every country the vehicle will be sold, especially not something negative.

Remember the 1960s Chevrolet Nova? It took General Motors a while to realize why it wasn't selling in parts of the U.S. with large Latino populations or in South America. In Spanish, "no va" means, essentially, "does not go." Who would buy a car that doesn't go? So, it's much safer to name a vehicle with a letter that cannot be trademarked or misunderstood. Although that's not always safe, either.

Kia's new luxury sedan was launched in Korea as K9, until somebody told them that's what police dog units in the U.S., including the military, are called. So Kia renamed it the K900 for North America, which, in my humble opinion, is still a dog of a name.

Automakers also are avoiding taking retired model names out of mothballs. When Ford brought back the iconic Thunderbird a decade ago the new model was pretty much laughed off the road and disappeared again after a couple of model years. Cadillac wants to re-invent itself as a Euro-style luxury brand, and models named CTS, ATS, and ELR sound more modern than such heritage names as Eldorado or Fleetwood.

Once upon a time, letters and numbers meant something. When legendary racecar driver Dan Gurney introduced the Toyota MR-2 sports car he helped design in the 1980s, I asked him what the name meant. "Mid-engine roadster, second version," he told me.

BMW's alphanumeric names make sense, too. The best-selling 3 Series has a smaller engine than the 5 Series, and so on, and anything with an X in the name means it is all-wheel drive. Ditto the best-selling Ford F-Series truck. The 350 is bigger than the 250, which is bigger than the 150.

Infiniti changed all its models to a Q designation, often including an X, along with changing the numerical designation, for the 2014 model year. The FX37 and FX50 became the QX70, the JX37 luxury crossover became the QX60, and the popular G37 sedan is now the Q50.

The same is true for the recent renaming of Lincoln models, which no longer have memory-lane names like Continental or Town Car. Now, we have to navigate an alphabet soup that's impossible to explain or remember. MKZ is the midsize sedan, MKC is the midsize crossover, MKT is its larger sibling, and MKZ is the full-size luxury sedan formerly called the Town Car.

For sure, naming a car X-something is also safer than a double-entendre like Probe (Ford) or Swinger (Dodge), or something you can't pronounce or spell easily, like Touareg (Volkswagen). So expect to see even more X cars to be driven by X men and X women, not limited to those of Generation X.

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