12 Car Names And What They Actually Mean

Car Culture / 29 Comments

What's an Impala anyway?

You can't beat an actual name for a car rather than the alphanumeric soup some automakers (looking at you BMW) create. A name is evocative and much easier to remember than a jumble of numbers and letters. Some names of cars have been with us for decades, which means we are more and more likely to take them for granted. Many are obvious, whether it's Viper or Charger, Outback, Defender, Titan, Journey, etc. Then there's a lot of place names like Silverado, Tucson, Malibu, Pacifica, etc. However, many aren't so obvious. For example, you've likely seen thousands of Corollas on the road over the past couple of years, but in our heads the name means "cheap reliable car" rather than "the ring of petals around the central part of a flower." That got us wondering about other car names we take for granted.


1. Chevrolet Impala

Chevrolet's Impala name has been around (until last year) since 1958 and has consistently been one of America's better-selling sedans. When we last had one for review, we named it Vlad, but in reality, an Impala is a species of antelope. More specifically, a graceful medium-sized antelope found in eastern and Southern Africa. The animal became the logo for the car, although, over the decades and rebirths, it became less and less prominent.

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2. Toyota Camry

Toyota's Camry name originally appeared as the Celica Camry in 1979 but became an independent model in 1982. Since then, the Camry has become ubiquitous on the road around the world and, in the US, has been its best-selling passenger car since 1997. Few of the millions of Camry owners know that the name derives from the Japanese word "kanmuri," which translates as "crown." Toyota has a history of using Crown and crown-related names for its main models. Our favorite is the Atara trim level for the Camry in Australia and also means "crown," but in Hebrew.

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3. Volkswagen Golf

Curiously, neither the Volkswagen Golf nor the Polo is named after the sports. Despite the spelling and GTI model's golf ball shift knobs, like many Volkswagen cars, the hatchback is named after geographic winds. The Golf is named for the Gulf Stream, while Jetta is German for "jet stream," Passat means "trade wind," Polo references Polar winds and the Scirocco is named after Sirocco, a Mediterranean wind. The association with the game of golf comes purely from Gunhild Liljequist, a member of Volkswagen's design team in charge of fabrics and colors. She is also responsible for the Golf GTI's iconic tartan fabric and says "I just expressed my sporting and golf associations out loud: 'how about a golf ball as the gear knob?'"


4. Chevrolet Camaro

When the Camaro was launched, GM managers told reporters that a Camaro was "a small animal that eats Mustangs." Later, it was reported that the name was pulled from Heath's French and English Dictionary as a term that translated to "friend" or "comrade." The closest word is camarade, which became comrade at the end of the 16th century in both French and English. Our assumption at this point is that GM was full of nonsense and came up with a word product planners thought sounded cool, which is no mean feat in itself.

2017-2022 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Coupe Front Angle View Chevrolet
2017-2022 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Coupe Side View Chevrolet
2017-2022 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Coupe Rear Angle View Chevrolet
2017-2022 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Coupe Steering Wheel Chevrolet

5. Cadillac Escalade

Escalade is a grand-sounding name that has been with us since 1998. The actual meaning of the word Cadillac picked up on is as aggressive as it is grand, though. It goes back to medieval warfare and names the "act of scaling defensive walls or ramparts with the aid of ladders." It was the most direct and dangerous way of ending a siege, and it's the only vehicle left, at the time of writing, in Cadillac's lineup that doesn't have an alphanumeric name.

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6. Subaru Impreza

The word Impreza is, supposedly, a coined word - as in minted by Subaru. According to lore, it's derived from the Italian word impresa, meaning a motto or a badge, or a maxim or a crest, depending on your dictionary. However, Impreza is a word in Polish and, in its own, means 'party.' The sport-driven WRX stands for World Rally eXperimental, although the X could stand-in for the word cross. The STI acronym is more interesting, as it's a trim level, but it stands for Subaru Tecnica International (STI), the Subaru Corporation division that specializes in motorsport.

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7. Mazda Miata

The MX-5 had three names for a long time, depending on geography. In Japan, it was the Mazda Roadster or Eunos Roadster. In Europe, it was the MX-5 as Mazda believed the continent was more used to alphanumeric names, and it was the MX-5 Miata in North America because Mazda believed Americans prefer an actual name. The name Miata comes from an old High German (spoken in central and southern Germany in the mountainous and Alpine areas) word meaning "reward."

2017-2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Front Angle View CarBuzz
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8. Nissan Sentra

Sentra is a coined name, and it was created by a San Fransisco-based company called NameLab. The company provides business and product naming services for organizations and came up with Sentra for Nissan. Ira Bachrach of NameLab explained that "Nissan wanted consumers to understand that it was quite safe even though it was small. The word Sentra sounds like central as well as sentry, which evokes images of safety."

Nissan's midsized and full-size sedans carry on the Latin-sounding name convention. Altima is derived from the Latin word "altus" to suggest "a higher order." Maxima is actually a Latin word meaning "greatest" and is still in dictionaries as the plural of "maximum."

2020-2021 Nissan Sentra Front Angle View CarBuzz
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2020-2021 Nissan Sentra Front Angle View CarBuzz
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9. Toyota Supra

The Supra name is a simple one and is from the Latin prefix meaning "above," "to surpass," or "go beyond." Similarly, the related Celica of old comes directly from Spanish and means "celestial." Also related to the Toyota Supra was the third generation, and more extravagant, Toyota Soarer, which featured a winged lion emblem that tells us the name is self-explanatory.


10. Porsche Cayman

It's fairly well known that the Porsche Boxster name is made up as a portmanteau of boxer, for the engine type, and roadster, for the body style. However, Porsche went for a snappier name for the coupe version of the little mid-engined sports car. The Boxster's stablemate's name of Cayman comes from the variant spelling of 'caiman." A caiman is a smaller but particularly aggressive crocodile found across Mexico, Central America, and the northern part of South America.

2020-2021 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Forward Vision Porsche
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11. Alfa Romeo Giulia

The origin of the Giulia name is that Alfa Romeo produced the Giulietta in the 1950s, and those first models were smaller vehicles. Alfa Romeo doesn't have an official explanation for the reasoning behind the name Giulietta, though. It's likely lost to the mists of time, but there are three possibilities. The most boring one is that Giorgia De Cousandier, wife of the "engineer poet," Leonardo Sinisgalli, chose it for no recorded reason. His link to Alfa Romeo is that Alfa organized a competition for naming the 1600 Spyder in the 1960s, and he was a judge.

Another story is that it's named for Giulietta Masina, wife of Italian movie director Federico Fellini. But most likely, it's a Romeo And Juliet reference, so the third is the one we choose to believe.

Legend has it that, in 1950, some of the top men from Alfa Romeo were in a nightclub in Paris, and a Russian prince joked that "You are eight Romeos, without even one Giulietta?" We suspect that, if the source of inspiration is true, he said Juliet rather than Giulietta for the joke to work. However, Alfa Romeo calling a car the Juliet was probably a little too on the nose, and Giulietta and Giulia are variations on the Juliet name. All of which means "youthful."

2017-2022 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Burnout Alfa Romeo
2017-2022 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Front Side in Mption Alfa Romeo
2017-2022 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Rear View Driving Alfa Romeo
2017-2022 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Rear View Alfa Romeo

12. Hyundai Veloster

Hyundai doesn't tend to be too mysterious with its names, but the Veloster is a touch confusing. It's a portmanteau of "velocity" and "roadster," and the eagle-eyed amongst you would have noticed the Veloster is a hatchback, not a roadster. We gather the idea of the name isn't to be literal, like the Porsche Boxster, but to convey the idea of quickness and speed. Our fantasy is that Hyundai will put its race-car-derived mid-engined take on the Veloster into production and call it the Velociraptor.

2019-2021 Hyundai Veloster Hatchback Front Angle View Hyundai
2019-2021 Hyundai Veloster Hatchback Rear View Driving Hyundai
2019-2021 Hyundai Veloster N Dashboard Hyundai

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