How to Crack the Code on Car Names

Car Names

What do all those numbers and letters in your car name really mean?

Years ago when I bought my first new car — a Hyundai Excel SE -—I remember thinking how cool it was that its name included my initials, SE. I had no clue what SE meant, and even today, when I’m writing about cars, I still don’t fully understand how most car names came to be. Why are some vehicles named with a word while others are given letters or numbers? And still others have a name and an alphanumeric designation. What’s the difference between a CT and a CTX, or 1500, 2500, and 3500? I decided to find out.

X Marks the Crossover

While letters do not always mean the same thing across every manufacturer, many are fairly standard and that’s a good place to start. For example, take the X. X typically stands for a crossover, which may also be designated by AWD, or all-wheel drive, a vehicle built with the body and frame being one piece. Crossovers are commonly lumped into the SUV market, though SUV’s are technically built on a truck chassis — the body and frame are two separate pieces. S is typically a sedan, while C is often a convertible or coupe. Here’s a list of common designations, so you can find out where your car (likely) stands:

  • SS – SuperSport
  • GL – Base model symbol in most cases
  • RL – Road Luxury
  • TL – Touring Luxury
  • MDX – Medium crossover vehicle
  • RDX – Compact crossover vehicle
  • R/T – Road and Track
  • SL – Sport Light
  • ST – Sport Touring
  • LE or LTD – Limited Edition
  • LS – Limited Series, Luxury Sport, or Luxury Sedan
  • GT – Gran Turismo (Italian for grand touring)
  • CE – Compact Edition
  • CL – Comfort Luxe
  • C – Convertible, Coupe, or Compact
  • SE – Keep reading; I’m not giving that one away yet!

Related: Your Dream Car: Is It a Good Match?

Car Names

Cracking the code on the Infiniti QX50: knowing that Q refers to the years in which the model was made, X means crossover and 50 is its place in the lineup explains a lot. Photo: Scotty Reiss

What’s in a Name?

Everyone forms a picture of luxury in their mind when they hear the word “Lexus.” But does everyone instantly know the manufacturer behind a Fusion, Veloster, or Challenger? Maybe not. That’s why makers of luxury vehicles, such as Audi, Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, Acura, Mercedes, and Jaguar, use alphanumeric names. They want to keep the focus on the brand, not the model.

The alphanumeric designations help buyers and sellers identify luxury vehicle classifications. For example, Mercedes-Benz uses the “G” classification for its family of sport utility vehicles and crossovers. The “G” stands for Gelaendewagen, a German word that translates loosely to “all-terrain vehicle,” and doesn’t really trip off the tongue.

Cadillac is one brand that is changing its naming structure in favor of alphanumerics. According to Stephen Martin, Product and Technology Communications, “The changes to our product naming structure reflect the expansion and elevation of our product portfolio.

“The model name CT6 was derived from Cadillac’s use of CTS for its centerpiece carline,” says Martin. “Under this strategy, familiar lettering like ‘CT’ will be used for car models, with the number indicating the relative size and position of the cars in the hierarchy of Cadillac models. The all-new Cadillac XT5 crossover follows the same strategy. Instead of’ CT,’ all crossovers will use ‘XT.’

“This new naming structure allows any consumer around the world to instantly know the size and position of the vehicles compared to the other vehicles” under the Cadillac brand, says Martin.

Car Names

The iconic Mustang Shelby. Photo: Courtesy of Ford

Harder than Thinking Up a Name for the Baby?

It’s also difficult to come up with word names for cars. Did you and your partner agree, immediately, on a name for your baby or cat? No manufacturer wants to use a common word (would you drive a Honda Sizzle?), and names need to resonate worldwide without any unintentional global meaning. That’s why Toyota has used names like Camry, Corolla, and Tercel. These words don’t really mean anything, so Toyota can build an image independently.

Related: The Future of Volkswagen is Called ID. This is the VW ID.4 All Electric SUV

Car Names

Some car manufacturers name their cars with words that have emotional appeal, like Mitsubushi’s Outlander. Photo by Shannon Entin for AGirlsGuidetoCars.

The Icons Still Survive

And what about those Mustangs, Corvettes, and Camaros? Will Ford and Chevy move to alphanumerics? Not likely for such iconic sports cars, though there are cases when these manufacturers use both a name and a number. There’s the Mustang GT or Gran Turismo. A vehicle given the GT designation is typically high performance and, unlike a race car, features an interior built for comfort.

According to Jim Morrison, Head of Ram Truck Brand, North America, “It’s important that the name appeals to the target customer, reflects the brand’s core values and describes what the vehicle delivers. The Ram Big Horn borrows its name from a stout and durable animal that roams mountains. In the case of our Ram ProMaster van line, we speak directly to the professional tradesman who often uses the van as a billboard. The Ram Rebel name is a great way to connect to customers with bold design, backed by solid off-road capability.”

The numbers, though, are sometimes arbitrary and sometimes a remnant of the past. For example, Ram’s model numbers — 1500, 2500, and 3500 — originally referred to their payload capacity: 1500 for the half-ton; 2500 for the three-quarter-ton; and 3500 for one ton. Over time, payload capacities for most pickup trucks have increased, but the names remained the same for consistency.

Related: What on Earth Is Stellantis? Your Guide to the Wild World of Automotive Brands and the Corporations That Own Them

Numbers = Engine Size. Usually.

Numbers that follow the above designations often refer to engine size. For example, the Lexus LS 430 is a luxury sedan with a 4.3-liter engine. Bottom line? Car names typically follow this formula: brand, type of vehicle, engine size. But there are exceptions and the designations are constantly evolving, like the Infiniti QX50, in which the 50 stands for the car’s place in the lineup between the QX30 and the QX60.

Oh, and my old Hyundai SE? The SE stood for Special Edition, not Shannon Entin.

Do You Know Where Car Names Come From? What'S The Difference Between A Ct And A Ctx, Or A 1500, 2500, And 3500? We'Ve Got Answers.


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Feeling most at home when on the road, Shannon Entin grew up under the impression that the highest form... More about Shannon Entin