Travel | ON THE ROAD

What's behind all the funny car names?

Foreign-sounding words simply sell better in Japan

Over the years, Japanese car names have been a source of unending comedy, frivolity and perplexity in international motoring circles.

Let’s face it, many of the names that surface only in Japan are simply hilarious. Note That’s Century Life Zest Move Latte. Fit Cima Every Inspire Freed Naked President Crown Odyssey. No, that’s not some new language from the back of beyond — but two sentences exclusively comprised of Japanese car names.

One look at such names and you feel like you are watching a badly dubbed martial-arts movie. Remember those early Bruce Lee flicks such as “The Big Boss,” in which the actors’ mouths seemed to move at random as the English voice-over struggled to keep up.

That’s the way the vast majority of Japanese car names come across. A little bit weird. It’s like you’re in a parallel universe where all the rules of language have been thrown out the window and just about anything goes.

So why do the Japanese use English or Latin-sounding words? One Japanese colleague, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that “they sound more exotic and culturally deeper than Japanese names, even if we don’t understand the actual meaning of the word.” He has a point, though I think the bottom line is this: The vast majority of Japanese involved in naming products just don’t really give a hoot what a name means outside of Japan. As long as it looks cool, and captures the attention of domestic buyers, then that’s all that matters. The problem is, however, that many of the words just don’t make sense.

Take the Mitsubishi Legnum for example. To the company’s marketing types, Legnum must have sounded cool, although I can’t imagine why. When you think of it in an English context, it couldn’t be worse for a sporty wagon that purports to be a driver’s car. I mean, hey, drive it too long and you get a “leg numb?” Not good.

And what about — hang on, parents, send your kids out of the room — the Daihatsu Naked? Woah! That’s like calling a car mappadaka, the Japanese equivalent of naked. Check out the little 660 cc minicar’s exterior, though, and you can see where that “raw” name might have come from. The car looks like it has lost its top layer of sheet-metal! In its defense, it does actually look naked.

And what about the Nissan Fuga, a V-8- powered sedan? In Japanese, it means “elegance,” while in Italian it means “escape,” two perfectly reasonable descriptions for a luxury car. In English however, it sounds like a stale mushroom.

So if you say, “I drive a Fuga,” to a group of Italians or Japanese, then it sounds impressive. To a gathering of English speakers on the other hand . .

Toyota’s marketing moguls have over the decades employed countless names starting with the letter C. Why that is so remains a mystery. One industry insider suggested that because there is no hard C in Japanese, it looks and sounds soft and classy. So names like Camry, Carina, Corolla, Corona, Celica, Cressida, Crown, Celsior, Century, Curren, Cynos, Chaser, Cresta, have been used with uncommon frequency and make their impression on many thousands of Japanese buyers.

But nearly every carmaker in Japan is guilty of carelessly naming their products, sometimes with embarrassingly sleazy results. This is where you should cover your kids’ ears or show them their favorite Disney movie again.

Take the Mazda Laputa for example. Mazda’s car-naming gurus thought it might be cute to name a small car after a fictional place — Laputa — from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift. But they failed to explore what such a name might mean in other languages. Such as Spanish.

When you consider that Spanish is spoken by well over 300 million people worldwide, making it the third-most- spoken language on the planet, might it seem a little ignorant to call a car something that means “a lady of the night”? And the fun with Spanish does not stop there. What about the Mitsubishi Pajero? Let’s just say that in Spanish, it, ahem, refers to “someone who is more interested in themselves physically than in others.”

One name that is not Spanish but is almost guaranteed to generate instant giggling in the English-speaking world is the Isuzu Bighorn. Now out of production, its name speaks for itself.

When I heard that Mitsubishi was going to name a car “Dingo” just over a decade ago, I thought they were joking. They were not. I can’t believe that none of their marketing people, those responsible for naming cars, had not heard that dingo refers to an Australian dog infamous for stealing babies out of tents. What will they come up with next? The Mitsubishi Pitbull? Or the Suzuki Rottweiler?

As we have witnessed on countless occasions, and not just in the car world, Japanese companies don’t really care too much about what their product names mean overseas. As long as it sells, what’s wrong with a sports drink called Pocari Sweat or a chewing gum called Black Black? As one colleague said: “We’re not trying to sell these products overseas, so why does it matter? As long as it sounds good to us then that’s OK.”

That’s fine as long as none of these names are considered culturally insensitive by overseas governments. That’s why the name Pajero became the Shogun in certain parts of Europe, and why in Australia the Subaru Legacy, which refers to an organization that cares for the widows and dependents of deceased servicemen, became Liberty.

Japanese also like words ending in the letter O, because many names, both male and female, with that vowel. To finish a car’s name with an O makes it sound more familiar, cuter and more fun. So it is no coincidence that many 660 cc minicars are given Italian- or Latin-sounding names such as Solio, Pino, Moco, Toppo, Cervo or Mira Gino.

There we go again. Now I feel as though I need some English subtitles to help me with those names. The trouble is that the Japanese don’t even know . . .

Peter Lyon is a 20-year motor journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.

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