A short rant on exquisite cars with terrible names

Added on by Patrick Greene.

As the dust of our economic collapse begins to settle, a handful of once-begotten automakers is on the ascent. One of particular note is Ford, which entered 2008 with a decidedly lackluster lineup, slumping sales, and an impossibly complex global manufacturing scheme, and emerged profitable, robust, and unified--all in the absence of the much-bemoaned (and yet undeniably successful) "bail-outs" awarded the other two of the Big Three American car companies.

I start off with Ford not because I'm going to discuss any Ford-branded vehicles, but because the two marques with which I'm concerned---Jaguar and Lincoln---have beenirrevocably affiliated with the big blue oval for quite some time, and both brands are getting back on their feet after decades of neglect and terrible decisions. One---Lincoln---because Ford abandoned Mercury, and the other---Jaguar---because Ford abandoned them.

Rolls down the road, not off the tongue

Jaguar, of course, is now owned by Tata, an Indian firm. Cut free of the Old Ford fetters (shoddy platforms, badge engineering, confused marketing), Jaguar has retaken its place as a global design icon. The current XJ, released in 2009, is---and I sincerely mean this---one of the most beautiful, uniquely artful automobiles I've ever seen. Like the evergreen E-Type, the XJ is fluid grace made manifest. And powered by a can of Whoop-Ass. Just look at this thing:

   I didn't even notice the woman until the second time I saw this.

I didn't even notice the woman until the second time I saw this.

It's the kind of beauty that, though immediately apparent in pictures, is magnified when it's in motion. The interplay of light and dark, the gleam of black metal and cold glass, the sweeping profile of its greenhouse as it slips by you---it's just a masterpiece, and one that only cements Ian Callum's place in the pantheon.

And then, take a look at the strikingly redesigned XK:

   The new, supercharged iteration of the XKR.

The new, supercharged iteration of the XKR.

While we're at it, here's the delightful XF:

   This is the spankin' new 2012 model.

This is the spankin' new 2012 model.

What we have here is a thrilling lineup---just three vehicles, suited for different, distinct purposes and demographics. No bloated, confusing, cross-platform nonsense.

And yet, for the life of me, I can barely remember what they're called.

XF, XK, and XJ are acronyms utterly devoid of meaning to the average consumer. I'm a self-professed car nut, and I have to struggle to remind myself that there was a different XJ before the current one, and that it looked completely different. That the name "Jaguar XJ" has been in use, more or less continuously, since 1968. That the original XJ's powerplant was largely based on the then-new "XK engine," and that designs based on the XK engine (including the XJ) occasionally made use of an innovative fuel-tank arrangement adopted from the Jaguar Mark X.

All of this is to say that XJ means absolutely nothing. It's a half-century old term that supposedly bridges the heritage gap between these two vehicles:



What makes matters worse is that there's no discernible pattern here. The XJ, a full-size sedan (think Audi A8) is much larger than the XK (a diminutive grand-tourer à la the Audi A5), and slots in directly above its little sedan-brother, the XF (comparable to the Audi A4). Something the Germans do well (one of many things, admittedly) is plan: like addresses in a well-laid housing development, the numbers go up as you make your way through the line, but space is afforded between them in case a tougher-to-classify model has to slide in between.

Examples:

BMW's 1 Series (teeny tiny), 3 Series (compact executive), 5 Series (mid-size), 7 Series (full-size luxury). When they built a large, two-door executive sports express, they called it the "6 Series." When they wanted a small roadster, they called it the "Z4." When they want to specify things like engine displacement, the taxonomy specifies gradations within a given line, like "328" or "335." You know a 335 is rear-wheel drive when it's called a "335i." Likewise, you know it's directing power to all four wheels when it's labeled "335xi."

When they build a crossover, even, you immediately know the specifics of the platform in relation to those initial, odd-numbered product lines. The X3 is a sport-utilified version of the 3 Series. If you want something racy, look for anything with an "M" in front of it. The M3 and M5 are salient examples.

All this is to say that BMW's nomenclature---while not exactly thrilling or evocative---serves a purpose, and serves it well.

Jaguar's nomenclature isn't only devoid of thrills or evocations, but it doesn't tell the consumer anything about the vehicle they want. I'm a connoisseur of these things, and I don't even really know what to call them. When I mention the XKRS to someone, I have to stop and think if I'm even talking about the right vehicle.

In the end, though, I can mostly forgive Jaguar for these marketing mishaps. They are currently putting out only three vehicles, and these three vehicles are truly among the best in each of their respective classes. I can't quite say the same for our next guest, unfortunately.

A comedy of grammars

Lincoln doesn't produce anything right now that competes with any of the big players in the entry-level luxury arena. They have, however, produced some visually striking vehicles over the last two years, and on this basis alone have entered my "cars I vaguely desire" list.

One of said vehicles resembles, for all intents and purposes, a sperm whale. It is called the "MKT" (I had to look that one up, FYI).

   Ahab would be covetous. His would be in white.

Ahab would be covetous. His would be in white.

Its basic shape is that of a distended sea cucumber (rendered in mammoth proportions), flanked by a grille looking for all the world like a gaping maw filled with baleen plates and a rear that looks like ... well ... this:

   Here we go, Ahab.

Here we go, Ahab.


Yet there's something about the sheer ballsiness of the MKT that I just can't help but admire. I'm not sure if I'm revolted by it, or if I'm attracted to it, but I can't really take my eyes off the thing.

The MKT's little crossover-brother is the MKX, which is built on the same platform as its sedan alter-ego, the MKZ (the Ford CD3 platform). The MKZ's slightly larger sedan-brother is the MKS, which I'm just now realizing I've been calling the MKZ for the last year or so. Just to make things even more awkward, the platform underlying the MKS isn't the CD3: it's the D3. Not sure what was lost in the slipping of the "C," but it certainly wasn't size.

Lincoln is finally building cars that are interesting, if not quite enviable. They're selling many, many more of them than they were back in 2008, too. They just brought a new design chief on board, and he's just the right person to make the brand competitive with rivals both domestic (Cadillac, even Buick) and foreign (das Germans).

The problem is, it's very nearly impossible to remember what the heck these things are called. Here are three reasons:

  1. The whole "MK" business is directly descended from Lincoln's long practice of labeling things "Mark ___." I can get on board with that. It reminds me of WWII-era fighters. But now that they are "MK_," I don't really know if I'm supposed to be saying "Mark" or "MK" when I refer to them. I have to watch video reviews to find out, and even they don't always say the same thing.
  2. If you're going to have this diverse of a lineup (small sedan, large sedan, small crossover, large crossover, not to mention the Navigator and the on-its-last-leg Town Car), you absolutely have to come up with a way of making them distinct. The MKS looks like a bloated MKZ, but I can't even really remember why. It's just bigger and ... mushier. Not in a bad way---actually in something of a good way---but in an indistinct way. Naming them essentially the same thing just puts this problem in sharper relief.
  3. The Z is smaller than the S, and the T is larger than the X. I don't know what that's supposed to indicate.

The single most frustrating thing Lincoln's done in recent years---this is minor, sure, but it's frustrating to me at least---is to dump the one truly wonderful name it's resurrected in recent memory, the "Zephyr," in favor of "MKZ." "Zephyr" had historical significance for the brand, and was evocative, romantic even. "MKZ," on the other hand, was the first of the modern "MK" cars, and heralded the trend that's resulted in the mess I've been writing about.

Anyway, that's about enough about Lincoln. I still don't know why I like the MKT, but I have a feeling I wouldn't want to find out.

Or was it the MKX?

Lastly, a thought on the exotics

I'll end by comparing two cars that are so viscerally appealing that it almost pains me to look at them: the Lamborghini Aventador and the McLaren MP4-12C. I'll wait while you catch your breath, don't worry.

   "Aventador" is the name of a famous fighting bull.

"Aventador" is the name of a famous fighting bull.

   "MP4-12C" is derived from, well, see below.

"MP4-12C" is derived from, well, see below.

Here we have two cars representing the peak of modern automobile design, running in the same vaunted circles as the Ferrari 458 Italia and the Bugatti Veyron. Everyone who hears "Aventador" a few times will never forget it: the bull-fighting connection, the sweeping, exotic way it sounds when you say it out loud, the down-sweeping "A" jammed against the up-sweeping "V"---it's sensual, memorable, icon-worthy.

"MP4-12C," however, took me forever to memorize. The name is derived from about a thousand different sources. "MP4" is McLaren's internal name for the F1 chassis it's been building for thirty years. The "12" is apparently indicative of McLaren's internal "performance index," which it uses to rate vehicles on a scale of 1 to something. Probably not 10, but something. The "C" is short for carbon, or more precisely carbon fiber, a material used liberally in the construction of the car.

Two things make this even more ridiculous:

  1. McLaren's championship-winning, late-'90s Forumula One racer was called the MP4/12. So for 15 years or so, car geeks around the world were quite familiar with "MP4" and "12" being used by McLaren to talk about a vehicle utterly unrelated to the sports car that swapped the backslash for a dash and added a "C" to the end.
  2. In England, where the car is produced, people pronounce the "dash" in the middle. So whenever someone (take, for example, Jeremy Clarkson) wants to talk about the car, they have to pronounce six syllables, and not even syllables that constitute a word. They constitute a string of acronyms.

I've always liked my cars named, and named proudly. When I tell people I drive a Charger, they immediately know what kind of car I'm talking about even if they know nothing about cars. When I say I've been passionately pining for a Viper for most of my life, they can imagine why. When I say "Gremlin," everyone immediately reacts (usually with disgust, but often with fond memories of awkward little cars from a bygone era).

The first car that was truly mine was a brand-new, bareboned, black Pontiac Sunfire. It might not've been particularly sunny or pyrotechnical, but come on: Sunfire. That's just a wonderful name, and one that I'm glad for having said out loud.

Cars, whether we like to admit it or not, are never blank slates. They aren't just palettes on which we paint our personalities. They are developed over years by teams of people who love engineering and design, and they arise in response to our basic need to transport ourselves, to hurtle our bodies through the air so that we may get where we're going quickly, safely, and---some might argue---even thrillingly.

I say "bring the balls back."