GTR, GTI: Model names that mean nothing can say it all


It is a mysterious subject because there are no fixed rules nor common formulae for naming car models.

Photo credit: Fotosearch

Could you please demystify the “letter” badges on the back or wings of vehicles such as GTR, GTI, GSR, GTV, SE, SL, SEL, SSS, TX, TDI, TR, TSI, XJK, JX, L, LX, RS, VRS, GTE, GL, CRV and so on.

Sammy N.

Short answer: Their only essential job is to distinguish between one model variant and another. That is all you “need” to know. Even those that are acronyms representing actual words offer only an impression of only one aspect of the vehicle, while not telling you hundreds of other – and perhaps more important - things about it. A Car? Yes. Which car? A Toyota. Which Toyota? A Corolla. Which Corolla? The XYZ. So now you know…almost nothing. There are more than 600 options in the listings of car brand names (only). They certainly average more than 10 models each (over time). And these days each model has, say, 10 variants.

Grand total for the suffix letters: 60,000 possibilities. What the letters actually mean is not their purpose. What matters is how they make you feel. Their only consistent message is that “this vehicle is a bit special”. The owner already knows that, and has all the car’s specifications in a handbook in the glovebox. The badge put on the boot must be for others… to admire?

Longer answer: As you are reading this somewhere between a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, here’s a light-hearted look at the overall subject of names of car models and variants: It is a mysterious subject because there are no fixed rules nor common formulae for naming car models - some get their names by chance, or tradition, or word-sound, or looks, or technical logic, or…by mistake. In the factory, they have a simple and usually dull code number - rather like a filing reference.

For example, S-195. Tells insiders everything and outsiders nothing. And you will never see it on a badge. By the time the car reaches the showroom, the marketing team has tampered with it to create an "image" or to convey information the public will relate to. S-195 becomes a Celica Twincam Turbo 4WD. Tells you lots, about the drive configuration, the induction system, the engine design (all with high performance and sporty connotations) and even the abstract word - Celica - suggests the car is a Toyota because the model name begins with C or seems to have something to do with astronomy. Corolla, Corona…

Serial success

Once you've started with a name that succeeds, it makes sense to stick with the theme - to establish a family linkage between models of the same make and to increase recognition.

So once you've got Corolla and Corona, whether you go the intergalactic route or just stick with the C, there's a linkage to the Celica, the Camry, the Carina, the Starlet and even (if you speak enough French to know what Parisians call the star nearest earth) the Soleil. It doesn't seem to matter that the word Celica can't be found in the star-gazers’ handbook (not in English, anyway), nor that a Carina is actually a bird's breastbone or a boat's keel beam. They have a sufficiently celestial ring to them. On a similar basis, Ford named most of their European-based cars on a swashbuckling, seafaring, sailing ships theme. Cortina, Corsair, Capri (a maritime island) Escort, and Zephyr (a sea breeze).

Their American customers relate better to cowboy horses - the Mustang (a powerful sports saloon) the Bronco (a rough road utility) and the Pinto (for an agile town runabout). The image of each breed of horse matches the desired image of the model ...until you boast in a bar in Brazil that you've got a Pinto. Down Rio de Janeiro way, Pinto doesn't mean a brightly coloured pony. It is slang for "tiny male genitals". It was renamed the Ford Corcel (horse) in that market. Likewise, when Chev realised that Nova was Spanish for “No Go", they renamed that model the Caribe. There wasn’t much they could do about their full brand name, Chevrolet, which to a Frenchman means “goat in milk”.

Car makers aren't the only ones plagued with language problems. A famed American brand of chicken had a campaign that summed up its management and worker discipline with "it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken". By the time that was translated onto giant billboards in Mexico, it meant "it takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused”.

"Foreign languages mistakes aren't always a bad thing. The Big John food brand called itself Gros Jos in France and sales boomed (understandably, if you speak enough French to know what Parisians call large breasts).The sound and appearance of a name is often as important as the meaning. Citroen's Xsara. Ford's Ka. And that is also the principle that guides model variant suffixes. Subaru have offered us some of the oddest options, perhaps topped by the Tribeca (which stands for “Triangle Below Canal Street” – a part of New York famed for its potholes! It gets odder, but life (and this page) are too short.


Some names are not decided by the manufacturer at all.

Classic examples are Ford's Model T ("Tin Lizzy") and VW's KD ("Beetle"), nicknames invented by the public, not complimentary in a literal sense but spoken with such endearment and so obviously right that they overwhelmed the model's official name for all time. In Kenya, the Nissan B120 Half-Ton1200 pick-up is and ever will be the "Datsun Debe"; the Renault 4L (Quatre L) was dubbed the “Roho”; the Isuzu “Uhuru” wasn’t vox pop – it was vox ad agency.

But while Honda speak of peaceful harmony and social responsibility (Accord, Civic, Acclaim), Volkswagen play sport (Golf, Polo), Nissan do things in meadows (Sunny, Cherry, Bluebird), Bentley have roots in motor-racing history (Mulsanne, Brooklands), Rolls Royce rely on intangible values (Spirit, Phantom, Ghost), other makes seek safety in...numbers. Mercedes, Peugeot, Saab and Volvo, BMW and Mazda avoided words altogether. Fiat, Renault and Citroen have tried both emotive and numeric IDs.

The meaningfulness of numbers as names (and alphanumerics) varies. Mercedes 180, 200, 220, 280, 300 perhaps used to relate quite exactly to engine size (add a 0 to get the cc), with sometimes an added letter like S meaning top level trim, or D meaning diesel engine, or T meaning station wagon, or C meaning bog-standard, or A meaning small. Things have become more complex and flexible, but the basic principle still holds true, and Merc have yet to give us anything more emotive that might be interpreted or misinterpreted by the imagination.

The Mercedes Paka Mnono, suffix MDOS? Peugeot have been quite consistent with three numbers, the first denoting general body size/class, the second being always a 0 (a je ne sais quoi denoting country of manufacture?) and the third denoting progressive development.

104, 105 for the tiny, 203, 204, 205, 206 for the small, 304, 305, 306, 307 for the medium, up to 604, 605 and beyond for the large. They, too, are getting complicated with spacewagons, little bodies with huge engines, and anyway the problem that arose after they reached 9. Insert another je ne sais quoi …3004?) Saab, Volvo (and previously Mazda) have also run progressively higher numbers that don't say much more than " bigger”.

BMW have been far more specific with a first digit that bespeaks body, and two more digits that tell engine size. 318 equals a three-series body with a 1.8 litre engine. 520 equals a five series body with a 2.0 litre engine, sometimes with variations of pedigree suffixes, Renault and Fiat got over their Gordini, Dauphine and Abarth phase and used numbers only (first just the cc, then 12, 16; 126, 127, 128 (124?) 131, 132) but subsequently went all wordy again with the Espace, Twingo, Clio, Megane, Uno and Punto.

Alfa Romeo have gone the other way, from Giulia's and Giuliettas (would a car by any other name smell as sweet?) to wingless rockets like the 146.

It all started with GT and DL

Then, and increasingly, there are all those letters. Their origins go back to the once universal terms Grand Touring, Deluxe, Grande Luxe and Sports/Special (all high-sounding but non-specific) since abbreviated to GT, DL, GL, GLX, GLS, SS and so on. These letters and combinations of them (plus prestigious engine configurations like V6 and V8) have since acquired character connotations in their own right and are used quite randomly (especially the letters R, S and X) to merely convey an emotional impression while coping with a (now cornucopian) proliferation of variants.

They have also been augmented by more recent categories like RS for Rally Special, and modern technology such as E for electronic ignition, I for fuel injection, T for Turbo, and various additional numbers and a V for multi-valve engines. Still just the one real message: “this vehicle is a bit special.” So the answer to the basic question is: If it is obvious what a model name or number means, then that is what it means.

If it is not obvious, then it probably doesn't mean anything at all, and is pure marketing hype. When people drive a Chrysler Voyager in New York, a Land-Rover Discovery in London and a Honda Tornado in Kawangware, it's time to smile. The car is fact.

Its name is fiction.

Tailgate twaddle

That still leaves us with the puzzle as to why manufacturers paste all this blarney so prominently on the bodywork. When a woman buys a dress or a bra, she needs to know what size it is, what material it is made of and how to wash it. But she doesn’t stroll about the streets with “36DD no-spin non-iron underwired super-cleaver” written across her bottom. These characteristics are on a discreet label on the inside; the information is comprehensive, intelligible, and absolutely standardised whatever the brand. Branding logos or badges are understandably universal. They promote.

And on some things, certain model information is essentially conspicuous (e.g. on a computer printer so you can order the correct ink refills. But that’s all you have to know). So on a car the brand name and badge is understandable, and perhaps some simple (standardised) model distinction.

Of course, there’s a chance that some owners with the top-of-the-range model would like the world to know that their particular unit is the Brand + Model + “EFI Turbocharged Intercooled 3.0 litre Limited 24V Super Duper Deluxe 4WD” version, but isn’t that the equivalent of embroidering the front of your trousers with “25 cms – see inside for further details”?

And if all that tailgate twaddle publicly ennobles the top-of-the-range owner, then surely the base-model mumbojumbo just as publicly demeans the owners of those versions. Like slapping the word “Pinto” on the front of a pair of Brazilian Y-fronts.