Lexicon® Blog

Do You Want to Drive a Leaf? (Part 2)

In Branding, Business, Cars, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on October 15, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Fusion Vs. Leaf Vs. Volt Vs. Prius

 

Ford Fusion

Ford Fusion

 

Ford Fusion

The gasoline-powered Fusion first appeared in the 2006 model year, but for 2010 Ford added the Ford Fusion Hybrid, a gasoline-electric hybrid with EPA ratings of 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. It placed at the top of Kelley Blue Book’s 2009 list of “green cars.”

As a car name, Fusion blends a scientific notion, atomic fusion, with the mixing of world cultures associated with fusion in the food business. In this way, the high energy associated with atomic fusion is combined with, but not at all lessened by, the sophistication of cultural fusion. This double life wouldn’t sit well with a smaller car, but it’s a reasonable reach for a mid-sized one like the Fusion. It would be nice if the name also conveyed human charm, but that’s really not the case.

 

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

 

Nissan Leaf

Nissan’s Leaf, scheduled to begin appearing in December 2010, is a compact 5-door hatchback electric. Its all-electric city driving range is estimated at 100 miles, as compared with an estimated 700 miles for the Fusion.

As a car name, Leaf exudes attributes like “green,” “natural,” “good for the environment.” In a daring break with tradition, the name doesn’t say power or luxury. As a name, Leaf may strike consumers as overly delicate, but something about leaves — their beautiful contours, the grace with which they fall from trees — helps us think “comfort” when we see Leaf on a car.

Most important of all, thanks to its uniqueness among the luxurious, muscle-bound, and sports-centric car names of yore, the quiet name Leaf furthers the aim (announced by Nissan America’s Vice-President of Marketing) to make this car the “poster child of innovation” for the company.

 

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

 

Volt

Chevrolet’s Volt is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, anticipated in November 2010. Its batteries will power the Volt up to 40 miles, after which a small gasoline-powered engine will kick in, extending the Volt’s range to over 300 miles.

The name Volt would have had appeal even in an earlier era when gasoline-powered engines were practically the only choice. In those days, Volt would have scored high for expressing power and highly-charged performance. In today’s changing marketplace, Volt will of course also draw attention to the electric side of this hybrid.

What’s especially nice is that the name’s pronunciation is not far off from bold and jolt — a possibly advantageous contrast with the mellow associations of Nissan’s Leaf.

 

Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius

 

Prius

Since its U.S. debut in 2000, this car has done more than any other to popularize hybrid vehicles as a practical choice for the mass market.

The car’s perceived advantages were enough, with some help from government rebates, to outweigh a price premium of several thousand dollars over similar-sized conventional models and a wait of up to six months for delivery. Two symbols of the car’s stand-out qualities were its unique shape, with the roof forming a near-perfect arc, and its distinctive name Prius.

The name Prius joins a new root pri with the ending -us first used in Toyota’s Lexus. The root pri begins with the same three sounds as the root prem of premium and premier. The three letters Pri also begin the prim of prime and primary. Both prem and prim go back to the same Latin root, meaning “first.” With this name, Toyota chose to express Prius’ stand-out quality without focusing specifically on its green appeal.

That choice now seems prescient, as the marketplace readies itself for many new models and technologies designed to appeal to consumer (and government) desires for greener autos. With each successive introduction, Prius’ green appeal becomes a less distinctive selling point.

•          •          •

By now most manufacturers are offering a hybrid model. Chevy’s plug-in hybrid Volt is due to appear shortly. Buick’s plug-in hybrid SUV is coming in 2012. New plug-in hybrids are also expected between now and 2011 from Ford, Volkswagen, and Volvo. But Prius remains the first commercially successful hybrid, as its name will always remind us.

Today’s car names reflect ongoing changes in auto technologies and in global marketing. Thankfully, rather than everyone jumping on the same naming bandwagon, the newest crop of names reflect a variety of creative guesses about what values will count most to the consumer. Of course the nuts and bolts of the cars themselves will have the most to say about which new models succeed or fail. But, as in the gasoline-only era, the names themselves are sure to play a key role in which models attract the most attention, and for how long.

— Will Leben, Director of Linguistics

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