Welcome to alphanumeric car hell

Brands trade personality for numbers

Et tu, Hyundai?

Until recently, the Korean brand offered two upmarket cars, the Genesis and the Equus. The first name had biblical shades and the latter shared a title with a play where an adolescent likes to get naked and straddle horses. So while the connotations were a bit muddled, at least they were memorable.

Now Hyundai has spun Genesis into its own luxury brand, akin to what Toyota did with Lexus decades ago. And in so doing, it has cast off those memorable names in favor of an alphanumeric naming strategy. The Hyundai Genesis is reborn as the Genesis G80 and the Equus sheds its horsey homage to become the G90, which guarantees that I won’t remember the new names. I’ll just call the G90 the Model-Formerly-Known-as-Equus. And while the two models seemed well differentiated before, now the distinctions are hazy. The G90 apparently has 10 more units of something over the G80. Perhaps it is 10 percent better. Ten percent bigger? Ten grand more expensive? Welcome to Alphanumeric Hell.

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.


Here’s a quick quiz: who makes the QX70? Or how about the ILX? Or the K900 or the MKC? In what way is the GS 450h F similar to the GLA45?

Trick questions all. The correct answer to each is this: nobody gives a damn.

Somebody should point out to carmakers that we consumers are pretty busy. We’ve got to keep up with each new iPhone model and its latest operating system, the difference between a Charizard and a Charmander, and which DC universe flick has the lowest Tomatometer score.

So, Infiniti, you’ve got some hubris expecting us to learn your new and utterly complex Q/QX system. Half of consumers don’t even realize your brand isn’t spelled with a "y."

Once upon a time, when only a few automakers used alphanumeric appellations, these names might have come across as sophisticated and tech-savvy. Sensical, even. As in so much of automotive history, this mostly began with the regimented style of Germans.

Look at the venerable Mercedes-Benz SL model. SL stood for "sport light" (or sport leicht in German), and the number indicated the size of the engine. The 190 SL from the 1950s had a 1.9-liter engine, while the 500 SL had a 5.0 liter engine. The name actually told you that it was a lightweight sports car with either a small or big engine. The modern SL550, however, has a 4.7-liter engine, not a 5.5-liter one, and it isn’t particularly light at some 4,000 pounds.

BMW’s naming system was also once quite transparent. The 3, 5, and 7 Series each stepped up in size, price and complexity, while the rest of the name indicated the size of the engine. A 325i was a 3 Series car with a fuel-injected, 2.5-liter engine. But now the company is one of the worst name offenders, breaking their own rules with mad abandon. Take the 4 Series Gran Coupe, whose model names states in two different ways that it is a two-door car. Nope. It has four. (BMW also wins the prize for longest names.)

Even so, a Bimmerophile is still likely to parse the difference between a 230i Coupe and the M240i xDrive, just because they’re passionate about the brand. I’m less sure that the average consumer is going to make the same time and thought investment for the struggling Lincoln, which abandoned real names like the Town Car, Zephyr, and Aviator for zingers such as the MKZ, MKX, and MKT. At least they’re bringing back the classic Continental nameplate. And the Navigator name is hanging on, too.

Yes, there is a long list of documented pitfalls when it comes to "real" names. Usually a name that has one meaning in its home language had an unfortunate connotation in another, often involving masturbation (Buick LaCrosse) or dung (Toyota MR2).

But better to evoke something. To take a shot at greatness or insert a dose of attitude. For every misfire like the LaPuta and Aspire, there was a Legend and an Integra; for every Pinto or Nova, we had a Hornet and a Marauder, a Barracuda and a Talon.

To the likes of Hyundai and its new Genesis luxury brand, looking for a sheen of refinement, may I point out brands like Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce? Aston isn’t afraid to have a little alliterative fun with models like the Vantage, Vulcan and Vanquish Volante. But it doesn't come at the expense of sophistication. And one of Rolls-Royce’s latest models is the Wraith — total bad-assery. See also the Phantom, Dawn, and Ghost.

You tell me: which name will history — or you —  remember?