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Does Your Car's Name Mean Something? How to Decode Import Car Model Names

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By Ryan Lee Price

Would you drive a Ford Pastelogram? How about a Mongoose Civique or a Utopian Turtletop? These were suggestions from modernist poet Marianne Moore, solicited by Ford’s David Wallace, manager of marketing research for Ford’s proposed “E-car project” in 1955. Wallace’s rationale in choosing Moore to help name the new line of cars was, “who better to understand the nature of words than a poet?” In the end, Edsel was chosen, and that’s the end of that chapter.

Though the traditional methods of car naming are still prevalent in today’s cars (thanks mostly to domestic manufacturers), it seems that more and more imports are resorting to alphanumeric combinations to identify the latest models. Even though it may look like someone merely chucked a handful of chromed numbers and letters on the trunk lid, for some, there is a method to the madness. The rules below aren’t necessarily hard and fast, as exceptions are just as common.


Acura switched from names to letters in the mid 1990s, and all but one of its models’ monikers are meaningless. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

The two- and three-letter combinations are completely made up with one exception. The NSX was in development in the 1980s, while Acura was still using names in its line; it stands for New Sports eXperimental.MDX and RDX each contain an X which is now ubiquitous for an SUV.


This 3-series BMW has a 3.0L engine and is fuel injected, with the “i” being more of a tradition than a selling point. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

The first number is used to describe the size and cost of its models, while the following two digits indicate engine size. The BMW 325i has a 2.5L engine, while the 330i has a 3.0L engine, etc. The “i” at the end indicates that it is fuel injected, and diesel-fueled models in Europe have a “d” instead. Two letters sometimes appear after the number, as in the 325Ci and 325Xi. The first letter indicates a variant, such as a two-door 325Ci coupe or the all-wheel drive 325Xi. However, not all numbers necessarily reflect the displacement size. For instance, the 335i sedan uses a 3.0L engine and the 550i is equipped with a 4.8L.


The CR-V is one of only two current models in the Honda stable that has a meaning behind the letters, though Honda is ambiguous about just what CR-V actually stands for. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

Overall, Honda lacks a system-wide naming convention. The CR-V is somewhat of an enigma, however: Though Honda sales literature in Europe and Australia makes references to “Compact Recreational Vehicle,” other Honda advertising cite “Civic - Recreational Vehicle,” alluding to the CR-V’s origins in the Civic. The S2000 was an anniversary sports car with a 2000cc engine. The S stands for sport and it was introduced as a 2000 model year.


Low in the alphabet, the G35 is an entry-level Infiniti equipped with a 3.5L engine. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

Infiniti employs the straightforward method of basing the prestige of the vehicle on its placement in the alphabet, with the G and E representing entry-level vehicles and the M and Q as full-size luxury sedans. QX is used for its SUV model. The second and third numbers generally relate to the engine size, with the G35 having a 3.5L engine and the QX56 a 5.6L engine. An exception is the QX4 which has a 3.5L engine.


One of the few model names that didn’t fit the mold at Jaguar, the S-Type was discontinued in 2008 to be replaced by a more form-fitting XF.  (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

Jaguar’s early successes, the D-Type (XKSS) and the E-Type (XK-E) followed an alphabetical arrangement that halted when the XJS replaced the E-Type in 1976. The Jaguar model line is based on the letter X, which has no discernable meaning, although the higher in the alphabet of the second letter, the more luxurious the car (X-Type, XF, XJ, XK). Sometimes, the engine displacement data or number of cylinders follows the model designation, for example, the X-Type 2.5 or the XJ8; however, the addition of the letter R, as in XJR or XKR, signifies increased performance, but the letter R has no official meaning.


For Lexus, the GS 350 is an entry-level sedan (that’s what the S stands for) with a 3.5L engine. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

The second letter in a Lexus model indicates body style, S for sedan, X for SUV and a C for convertible, while the first letter is the relative size and cost of the car; the higher the letter, the more luxurious the car. The exception is the R-class SUV, which is the least expensive. The numbers designate engine size: The IS300 is a lower-cost sedan with a 3.0L engine and the GS350 has 3.5L engine, for example. The exception to the rule is with the RX400h and 600h, hybrids with a 3.3L and 5.5L engines, respectively.


The MPV is the only model in Mazda’s line which has an acronym that means something, in this case, Multi-Person Vehicle. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

Despite the multiples of three (616, 323, 626), Mazda lacks an overall naming convention, but several of their models do have a method. The B-Series pickups are named in relation to their engine size, such as the B2300, B4000, etc., have 2.4L and 4.0L engines, while its MPV means Multi-Person Vehicle.  It was suggested that the RX-7’s name came from the seventh version of the Rotary engine eXperiment. Wankel’s rotary engine was built into the RX-series predecessor, the R100, where R stood for rotary and the 100 was its displacement. The X perhaps comes from Mazda’s project number: In the case of the RX-7, it was X605.


One of the most common Mercedes is the middle-of-the-road E-class sedan. This particular one has a 3.5L engine under the hood. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

The single letter in front of Mercedes car names, such as the E in E320, indicate the class. Sedans are C, for the least expensive, while E or S are the most expensive. SUVs use M for the entry level or G for the more exclusive. The three numbers indicate engine size, with some exceptions; a CL600 has a 5.5 liter engine, for example. Other models, in order of luxury are SLK, CLK and SL have long-standing German definitions:

  • SLK: Sportlich (sport), Leicht (light) and Kurz (short)
  • CLK: Coupe, Leicht (light) and Kurz (short)
  • SL: Sportlich (sport), Leicht (light)


Using the Number 9 has been a long-standing tradition at Saab, and from 2007 on, the 9-3 is Saab’s entry-level model in North America, displacing the Subaru-based Saab 9-2x. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

Saab originally stood for Swedish Aircraft, AB (the Swedish equivalent of Inc.), and it used 9 as a moniker for all of its non-military models (e.g. 99, 900, 9000 and 9-3), the 92 being the first civilian car in 1949. The second number in the current line indicates the relative size and price of the vehicle, the 9-3 being less expensive and smaller than the 9-5. If it’s followed by an x, as with the 9-2x, that means it has all-wheel drive. The exception to the “9” naming rule is the Saab 600, which was a rebadged a Lancia Delta in 1980.


The Recreational Activity Vehicle, 4-wheel drive is somewhat of a misnomer, as not all RAV4s come equipped with four-wheel drive. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

Toyota frequently uses the letter C, perhaps because there is no hard-C sound in Japanese, and it looks and sounds soft and classy. So names like Camry, Corolla, Corona, Celica, Cressida, Century, and Cresta, have been used over the last 50 years. Though there is no alphanumeric naming convention, the Camry comes from the word “Kammuri,” which means crown. Prius is Latin for “before” or “first,” and Yaris is a strange combination of the Greek goddess Charis and the German expression of agreement, ya. RAV4’s name stands for Recreational Activity Vehicle, 4-wheel drive, although not all models have four-wheel drive.


Gone is the intricate classification of models for Volvo and what’s left is a simple system based on type of model and series, in this case an 80-series sedan. (Photo by Ryan Lee Price)

Starting with the 140 series in 1968, Volvo used a three-number system for its cars. The first number was the series; the second number indicated the number of cylinders and the third digit the number of doors; so a Volvo 164 had a six-cylinder engine and four doors. There were exceptions:  the 760 often was equipped with a turbocharged inline-four engine and the Volvo 360 only had four cylinders.

Today, the company uses a system of letters denoting body style followed by the series number. Although not official, it is fairly accepted that S stands for sedan, C stands for coupe or convertible and V stands for versatile, used strictly for the station wagon line. XC stands for cross country, originally added to the V70 model to become the XC70, sister to the XC90.


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Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPro and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.


  • Looking for the location of the starter relay on a 2007 Honda Civic Coupe

  • Hi Richard, thanks for reaching out.

    You will find it in online at with a subscription to the information for the 2007 Honda Civic.

    Look in the wiring diagrams, the starter cut off relay is located in the under dash fuse/relay box.