For Electric Cars, What’s In a Name?

As the Bard might have put it, “That which we call an all-electric emissions-free vehicle, by any other name would drive as sweet.”

To gain mainstream acceptance by mainstream car buyers, electric cars will face all kinds of real economic and technical challenges—such as limited driving range, hefty price premiums, and lack of charging stations. But a car company’s first task in marketing an electric car or plug-in hybrid is coming up with a name that gives a sense of a bold new step in automotive technology, yet one that is not too strange or off-putting.

EV-makers have shown mixed results based on a review of the upcoming crop of electric-drive vehicles.

Smart ED

When the folks from Daimler decided to add an electric drive to the diminutive Smart ForTwo, it was only too obvious to take the term “Electric Drive” and tack it on the end of the car’s name with the acronym, “E.D.” That was an unfortunate choice in the age of Viagra, especially for a wee car lacking a high horsepower engine. Daimler started production of the first 1,000 units in France last month, but hopefully the marketing guys in Stuttgart will man up to the oversight, and switch the name to “Smart EV” before bringing the car to the United States.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf on Stage

Sure, it’s a nice play on words for a car to help the world “turn over a new leaf” when it comes to cars, energy, and the environment. Of course, the leaf is one of nature’s ways of replenishing the air with fresh oxygen. But do high-tech early adopters really want to be driving…a Leaf? And what’s the plural, “Nissan Leaves?”

Th!nk OX

Think OX

In the past year, the car company called “Th!nk”—with an exclamation point instead of an “i”—has teetered back and forth over the precipice of bankruptcy. The company, resurrected by Valmet Automotive and battery-maker Ener1, recently resumed small-scale production of the Th!nk City in Finland. As if it’s not already confusing enough to figure out when to use an “i” or an exclamation point, the planned follow-up to the two-seat Th!nk City is the more practical Th!nk OX, an electric five-seat car crossover vehicle. That vehicle is pronounced “Oh-ex,” like the Mac operating system, not like the castrated male cattle used for plowing and transport.

Mitsubishi I-MiEV

In another case of acronym confusion, Mitsubishi named its egg-shaped 100-mile-range electric car based on a mashup of the company’s “i” minicar, and the “Mitsubishi in-wheel electric vehicle,” the abandoned previous iteration of the car that placed motors in the wheels. That became the “Mitsubishi innovative electric vehicle.” Consumers probably won’t care much about that naming history of the vehicle, but they will want to know how to pronounce its name. Our best sources say, “i-meev,” to rhyme with sleeve.

Plug-in hybrids aren’t immune to the naming conundrum. Fisker Automotive went spiritual on us with its Karma, even though the cosmic cycle of cause and effect can be positive or negative. Neighborhood electric vehicles from ZENN, or “Zero Emission No Noise,” also borrow from an eastern spiritual concept. The Canadian company recently stopped producing vehicles and will become one with selling electric drivetrains.

The Chevy Volt follows in a line of vehicles using electric methaphors, including the Toyota Volta hybrid supercar concept, the Tesla, the canceled Dodge Circuit, and the old-school Solectria Force. GM spun off a social networking website for the Volt called “Voltage,” which could be pronounced Volt Age. Of course, this opens the door to punster critics who might find the $40,000 price tag “revolting.”

The naming situation will only get worse as new models are introduced. It makes you nostalgic for the last generation of electric cars, which kept things very simple: GM’s EV1, Honda’s EVPlus, and Toyota’s RAV4 EV. In our estimation, the car company that has most successfully captured the best qualities of efficient hybrid, electric and fuel cell vehicles is Honda, with its Civic, Insight, and Clarity.

What’s your bright idea for a good electric car name?

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  • Eric

    Though Leaf isn’t a great name to sell to the masses, it will sell like hotcakes to eco-enthusiasts. I’m likely to buy one even though I think the name is lame. But who really cares about the name? Ever think about how many dumb names are given to regular I.C.E. cars? People buy regardless. Remember the Ford Aspire? All I could think of everytime I was behind one was “that guy aspires to not be driving that P.O.S.”

  • Rob D

    I liked the humor in the article which was useful in bringing home the naming issue. Funny but informative. And I also like the first comments usage of acronyms. It’s nice to see that people still have a sense of humor when discussing things near and dear to their heart.

  • Cedar

    And, of course, everyone remembers the Chevy “No-va”, whose name didn’t translate so well in spanish-speaking countries.

  • Nelson Lu

    I have to say that I find it disturbing that the article featured Th!nk and Smart, but not Ford — which will probably be the first brand who will put two EV models in the North American market simultaneously.

    And I think Ford’s naming scheme make sense: keep it simple with the Focus and the Transit Connect, rather than making up names for the EV versions.

  • scolas

    Watt? Is that the best they could come up with? Ohm…let me think a byte.

    How about the AMP?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    The prototype for the GM EV1 was called the “Impact”, another ‘great’ name for a car :-
    I hope we get beyond associating EVs with names and moving on to associating them with performance. We’ll have to get a few models on the road first and the manufacturers will have to get a few things right though.
    Hopefully the lame naming won’t be followed with similarly lame design.

  • Anonymous

    Volt’s name for its distinctive paint is Veridian Joule. Veridian means green in Latin, or so I am told.

    Electra would be a good name for a Buick EV model.

  • Old Man Crowder

    Don’t forget about the Zap company.

    A couple of ideas:

    My personal “un-favourite” was the Probe. I never wanted to get rear-ended by one.

  • Old Man Crowder

    … or how about “Bean-o”?

    Get it? Because it doesn’t have gas…!!

  • Shines

    OK, Dodge has an opportunity to compete with the Camry hybrid and the Fusion hybrid if they modified the Charger…

  • Carl

    The really sad thing is that the name does make a diference.
    Name, color and shape. That’s what sells.

  • Shines

    And what if Honda made an all electric version of the Accord.
    They could name it the Cordless ;- O

  • Mr.Bear

    I’m thinking the Prius Plug-In should be abbreviated to Prugin.

  • veek

    This isn’t a name for the car, but a company renting electric cars would be an appropriately named … Hertz!

  • jamesmilner

    I’m a big fan of hybrid cars, obviously.But the problems of hydrogen distribution plus onboard storage are huge. Best estimates are that it will take another eight years before fuel cell cars can be produced and sold at a reasonable price.

  • D. Anderson

    As soon as I saw that yellow electric car the name Spark came to mind. Call it the Spark.

  • tapra1

    but hopefully the marketing guys in Stuttgart will man up to the oversight, and switch the name to “Smart EV” before bringing the car to the United States.Mobile News