A rose by any other name is still a rose. So is a BMW 3 Series with a 3.0-liter inline-6 a 330i? Not quite. It seems that the once self-explanatory world of automotive naming conventions has become a convoluted landscape. Through the downsizing of engines, adherence to uniform branding, and the power of tradition, vehicle names—especially the alphanumerics—have become somewhat confusing. Thankfully, we’re here to make sense of it all.
There was a time when the letters and numbers on the back of a car were clear indicators of the equipment within. The first set of letters or numbers represented the model, while the following numbers represented the car’s displacement. A Mercedes-Benz C200 had a 2.0-liter inline-4, a Lexus ES 300 had a 3.0-liter inline-6, and a BMW 325i had a 2.5-liter inline-6. It was a pretty simple system, and there were modifier letters like X (for all-wheel-drive) or S (for sport), and everyone was happy.
Then something happened. Turbo-charging and hybrids forced automakers to tweak their vehicle names and numbers. In the E90 generation of the 3 Series (2005-2011), BMW had three different models, all with 3.0-liter engines. The 328 and 330 both had a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter i6, but the turbocharged version of that engine was called a 335i. Rather than a “turbo” label on the back or a “T” in the name, BMW added 5 to the name and called it a day.
Hybrids and alt-fuel vehicles further complicate the naming matter. Typically, an automaker wants to brag about its fuel-saving tech under the hood, so you will see plenty of “Hybrid” or “Diesel” badging, but what does the name tell us about the engine size, and does it even matter? In the case of the hybrid, the electric motors and battery packs change the whole relevance of naming. You can’t simply look at two hybrids side by side and determine which one has more power based on the names. Nor can you do this for diesel cars, where a vehicle like the E250 BlueTec has a 2.1-liter diesel engine.
This naming conundrum is the byproduct of progress; automakers are developing new, more efficient engines every year. Through direct injection, variable valve timing, turbo-charging, and other technologies, engines are able to do more with less. As such, engines are getting smaller, while retaining the same power and improving efficiency. This presents a problem for the marketers at luxury brands, who understand that these vehicles are purchased for status, and a smaller number simply will not do.
Automakers are dealing with this in a number of ways. Some are sticking with the names of their previous vehicles, regardless of the changes in engine size. Volvo, is taking a unique turn. Fans of the Scandinavian automaker will know that T5 and T6 typically represent five-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines. The T5 trim of the S60 is powered by a 250-horsepower inline-5. A T6 is powered by an inline 6 that generates between 300 and 346 horsepower, depending on model.
At the same time, Volvo is offering a T5 Drive-E and a T6 Drive-E that are both four-cylinders. Stay with us here. Volvo wants people to be comfortable with the notion of smaller engines that make similar power as the I5 and I6, so they are offering engines that make the same power, but are downsized, and run under the name Drive-E. The T5 Drive-E has a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, making 241 horsepower. The T6 Drive-E features a 2.0-liter I4 that is both turbocharged and supercharged—sometimes called “twin-charged”—and generates an impressive 302 horsepower. The T6 Drive-E is an excellent glimpse into the luxury set of the future, where small displacement will generate big power.
Another automaker that has chosen to detach its naming conventions from engine size is Infiniti. The Japanese premium automaker has long had names that incorporated letters and numbers to denote model and size. A G37 would be the executive sedan with the 3.7-liter V6. But Infiniti has overhauled its naming; now all coupes and sedans will have Q in the name while all crossovers and SUVs will have QX. The new Q50 luxury sedan has separate badging on the side that for engine size.
Automakers know how much the letters and numbers play into a game of “keeping up with the Joneses.” At some point, it will be easy for an owner of an Infiniti to point out that the BMW owners’ numbers on the trunk have little relevance to the actual powerplant under the hood. Automakers like Infiniti and Volvo have hedged their bets, opting to divorce naming from engine size, and allow credibility for their name to grow, while the size of their engines shrinks.