Electric car names: Why an Ampera or a Leaf?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Image caption,
There is a multitude of new electric cars

The UK government has announced the electric cars that will be eligible for a subsidy, and similar programmes operate in the US. But what's behind the exotic names these futuristic vehicles have?

Would you drive a Nissan Leaf? Would a Vauxhall Ampera tempt you to part with your hard earned cash?

There is a perception on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Asia, that electric cars are at a watershed - that one big push is all it would take to build up the momentum to persuade the world's motorists to start switching away from petrol in significant numbers.

The argument behind electric cars is simple. Countries want to control carbon emissions and if they increase renewable energy generation, electric cars will become an increasingly ecological proposition.

Politicians also have an interest in making electric cars work as they try and make sure their areas manufacture both the vehicles and the lithium-ion batteries that are typically their heart.

Electric car enthusiasts have often implied dark forces at work in the failure of previous models, but it seems now the mood is somehow different.

And you can tell a lot from the names of cars.

A slew of the new electric cars have names that sound, well, electric. There's the Chevrolet Volt and its sister vehicle the Vauxhall Ampera.

The Nissan Leaf makes a direct tilt at making the driver feel good about buying into something environmentally-friendly. The Citroen C-Zero goes the same way, taking zero carbon and putting it right into the model name.

And why do the names matter? Because the task for the motor manufacturers is not just selling their own car, but tacitly selling the whole concept to a so-far ambivalent public.

At the moment, many of us are sceptical, notes electric car evangelist Michael Boxwell, author of the Electric Car Guide 2011, as well as a book on the Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

"People always ask 'how far does it go' and 'what happens if it runs out of charge'."

Image caption,
The government is subsidising several vehicles

But when he puts someone in an electric car they soon change their mind.

"When they go into the car and ride in it they are always impressed," says Boxwell. "You have got a car with a huge amount of torque - it is quicker than the petrol equivalent. It is very easy to drive, you have got no gears to worry about and you don't have the noise and vibration of a petrol car."

One of the jobs of the car's name is to be part of a branding that will encourage the ambivalent to go to a showroom and sit in a car.

Normally when car manufacturers want to choose a name they will use an array of focus group tests and other market research to make sure they're picking something safe.

The story of the [Chevrolet or Vauxhall] Nova not being sold in Spanish-speaking countries because it sounded like "no va" or "doesn't go" is apocryphal. There may be something more in the suggestion that the Alfa Romeo 164 was rebadged 168 in Hong Kong because of 8's association with wealth and 4's with death.

But what is clear is that no car maker wants to start a marketing drive with an iffy name.

"It's always difficult for a car manufacturer to choose the right name. It can't have been used before and it mustn't mean something rude in another language," says Steve Fowler editor-in-chief of What Car? magazine.

They can be abstract, they can be innocuous real words, and they can carry subtle meanings. The Nissan Qashqai refers to a once-nomadic Turkic tribe now settled in Iran, while the Murano is named after the island off Venice that historically housed glassmakers.

The Renault Megane's translation into Japanese as "spectacles/glasses" seems accidental, while the Toyota Rav4 has the feeling of an acronym, supposedly standing for "Recreational Active Vehicle four-wheel drive".

The Renault Clio is named after one of the Greek Muses.

Sometimes firms will go to branding experts like Chris Davenport, head of verbal identity at Interbrand. They use a network of offices around the world to check the word isn't a clanger in any major market. Then they try and gauge the name's potential effectiveness.

But many of the electric car names seem something of a departure from the norm.

Image caption,
Despite being an expensive sports car, the Tesla has proved significant

"Some of these names are pretty abstract," says Davenport. "Probably there will be a story behind it. It is very difficult to sell a name without a story behind it.

"[Maker of the Leaf] Nissan have got other brands like the Cube - they have used real English words before and that has been reasonably successful."

The Leaf and the C-Zero are ostentatiously green.

"Leaf is going to make you think of the environment," says Fowler.

Then you have the Volt and the Ampera that hammer home the electric-ness of the cars.

"It's a route one approach - they could have been slightly more imaginative," says Fowler.

In fact, think about it in the context of how cars are usually branded and having something electric-sounding as the main model name seems more than a little odd.

Can you imagine purchasing a Honda Petrolia or a Mercedes Dieselium?

"Do you see any other car out there or truck that has a gas [petrol] driven name?" says Seth Leitman, author of Build Your Own Electric Vehicle.

He doesn't believe most car manufacturers have really got to grips with how to sell an electric car. Waiting lists for new models are soon oversubscribed but they are in the thousands, and maker must think in the millions.

"They are in a situation of not knowing how to market a car," says Leitman. "They should create cars that people want. They need to be calling them sexy things and doing the things they do with a regular car."

The Smart fortwo ed and the Tata Indica Vista EV are two examples where the electric-ness is a mere extension of wider brand.

It represents the likely path for the manufacturers, thinks Davenport.

"You will get to the point where all cars are electric and you don't have to talk about it any more. Some of the names might have to be retired."

For Boxwell, the manufacturers need to look at the purchasing patterns for current electric cars, like the G-Wiz, and understand who they are selling to.

"They are all assuming people who are going to buy these things are greenies - the reality is it's just people who are interested in technology.

Image caption,
Electric cars have some big-name backers

"Talking to G-Wiz owners, for most of them, the environment isn't their number one interest. It's being seen to have something different and the latest thing. It's for gadget people. The most likely other car they are going to have is a four wheel drive.

"The benefit is once you get these people buying electric cars, innovators inspire other people, their friends and their colleagues."

The Peugeot iOn, with the gadgety feel of the name, is along the right lines, thinks Boxwell.

Once all electric cars have names with no indication of electric-ness in them, the evangelists will claim victory.

"Some people like pick-ups, some like SUVs, once they start to become more integrated into the brands, once Ford and Toyota make a hybrid version of every car, more and more society will transition away from oil and toward electric," says Leitman.

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