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Search for the terse, perfect name

Welcome to the new automotive minimalism, where less is more. The Acura Integra is now a TSX, Ford has the Ka, and Infiniti, the M.

Welcome to the new automotive minimalism, where less is more.

Brevity is the trend du jour when it comes to naming cars. The Acura Integra is now a TSX, and the names of those fresh Saturn models (Vue, Ion and Sky) contain a lot fewer characters than that weird western bar in Star Wars.

But wait, it gets worse: A European offering called the Ford Ka has only two letters, and the new Infiniti M is down to one.

"You are seeing the names of existing cars condensed and new ones shortened," observes Michael Barr, president of NameLab, a San Francisco name-consulting firm that brought you Acura and Olive Garden. "We live in an over-communicated world, and in a crowded marketplace where product differentiation becomes more difficult. So, they are making car names shorter because that makes them more memorable."

Part and parcel to this quest for the succinct is the rise of alphanumeric designations - often at the expense of traditional, proprietary names.

The alphanumeric approach caught on first in Europe, and became well-known here largely through its use by two classy German marques, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Because of its economy and European cachet, it eventually migrated to Japan (Lexus LS460) and, in a popular, three-letter variation, to the United States (Cadillac CTS, Lincoln MKZ, Chevy HHR)

Besides being short and pregnant with EuroStatus, the alphanumeric names employed by Mercedes and Bimmer are at once informative and hierarchal. (Consider the BMW 325i. The 3 tells us this is BMW's entry-level 3-Series car. The 25 signifies a 2.5-liter engine, and the I indicates that engine is fuel-injected.)

"That name is also a philosophical statement," said NameLab founder Ira Bachrach. "It says the car is functional and efficient, rather than decorative. And it adds to the car's mystique: It sets the owner apart as someone belonging to that set that has enough special knowledge of cars to know the difference between the models."

While the new short kids in town are muscling their way onto America's marketing playground, traditional model names are not exactly facing extinction. Even if they are more than one syllable, nobody's about to deep-six the recognition factor of names like Camry and Accord, let alone iconic titles like Corvette and Mustang.

"For Americans, the word mustang now means car and, secondarily, horse," Bachrach said. "People see a lot more Mustang cars than mustang horses."

Indeed, the recognition factor in old names like Mustang is what causes automakers to keep them - and revive them. When Chevy resurrected the Impala and the Malibu, it not only gave the new model an injection of instant recognition from the old car names, it reinforced a sense of a long Chevy tradition.

In their search for the terse and perfect name, automakers either brainstorm their own creation or pay a naming consultant something in the vicinity of $100,000 to do it for them. The automakers scratching their heads at the conference table usually settle on real words from the real world. The consultants often rely on computers to generate names.

There are good reasons the domestics tend to coin their own names, while Asian automakers often resort to the consultants. The domestics sell most of their wares in this country and can afford to give them names that have significance to Americans, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango. The Asians' sales are more global, so they often want names that are readily pronounced and meaningful in many countries. And that is often a job for the linguists and computers at a place like NameLab.

Perhaps the classic case of the linguists' and computers' handiwork is NameLab's creation of a name for Honda's luxury line.

This process started with NameLab's determining the image or message the client wanted to convey with the new product. It then went to its list of morphemes - word fragments or roots like accurate and Acura - and selected all those that pertain to that image or idea. These English word roots, which typically have similar spellings and meanings in all principal Western languages, were then fed into a computer that put them together in all possible combinations.

The result of the process was Acura.

"The Honda people said they wanted to go into the luxury market with a car like the BMW," Bachrach recalled. "Asked what that meant, they said the BMW has a higher engineering content than most cars, that people get a machine that is more precise."

Consequently, NameLab settled on a word containing acu."

"Acu," Bachrach explained, "is a morpheme that means 'precisely' or 'carefully' in all Western languages except Basque, Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian."

Ah, yes. Naming a car. Serious business, but something that ought to be kept in perspective. As a Volkswagen executive once told me: "A good car was never hurt by a bad name, and, if it's a bad car, you can't help it with a good name."