Between language differences and customer perceptions, naming a new vehicle requires a surprising amount of effort — which is in part why so many automakers now prefer letter and number (alphanumeric) combinations rather than actual words.
The name of Volkswagen’s new family SUV comes as the first new model name in the U.S. lineup since 2008, when the Routan was unveiled (a combination of “route” and the “-an” suffix used on all VW vans in Europe.) VW has been known for offbeat car names since the Beetle, and no other automaker has ever been bold enough to simply call a model “The Thing,” as American VW executives did back in the ‘70s for the Type 181.
Here’s a rundown of how today’s VW models, and some of their classic ancestors, got their names:
Not long after it first appeared on German roads, the Volkswagen Type 1 was dubbed the Käfer – or Beetle. That name survived the translation into English and dozens of other languages, and became the model’s official moniker by the late 1940s. (Other nicknames: “the bubble” in Denmark, “coccinelle,” or ladybug, in France, and “turtle car” in Thailand)
Originally known as the Passat CC, which has been taken to mean “comfort coupe.” Although coupes are generally two-door cars, among modern designers the word “coupe” can also describe cars with the sloping roofline of a coupe, regardless of how many doors they have.
Derived from the Spanish verb “correr,” meaning to run or to sprint. (Prototypes had a different, wind-related name that was nixed during development.)
Eos is the Greek goddess of the dawn, an obvious reference for a hardtop convertible.
Several VW models take their names from winds, a pattern that’s more of a historical accident than a planned strategy, and many think that trend continued with Golf. But “Golf” isn’t a type of wind – it’s the German word for the Gulf Stream ocean current. It also happened to be the name of a key manager’s horse, which appears to be the real inspiration.
Originally inspired by the Italian designation for high-performance luxury cars with fuel injected engines: “gran turismo iniezione.”
A proper example of the wind motif on Volkswagen models, the word Jetta comes from the German name for jet stream.
Launched in 1973, the Passat was the first modern-era Volkswagen, and took its name from the German word “passatwinde,” or trade winds.
Another in the Greek mythology series, Phaeton was a god who almost lost control of the chariot that pulled the sun across the sky. In the 19th century, a phaeton was a specific type of carriage, one with large wheels and an open body designed for speed. In the early days of the auto industry, the name was sometimes applied to open-topped, powerful vehicles – and while the Phaeton has never been built as a convertible, the powerful sense of the name made it a natural for a luxury sedan and wagon.
The VW sports coupe took its name from the “sirocco,” a hot, powerful wind from the Sahara that blows northeast across the Mediterranean Sea.
Ahead of its launch in 2009, Volkswagen teamed with a German automotive magazine to poll readers about what the new compact SUV should be named. The choices included Namib, Rockton, Samun, Nanuk and Tiguan – a portmanteau of the German words for tiger and iguana. It’s also the latest in a series of animal-inspired names, along with Rabbit and Fox.
The most challenging name in the lineup was inspired by the Tuareg people, known mostly as a tribe of Berber nomads who live in the northern Sahara Desert.
The city car sold in Europe has had the punctuation mark included with its proper name, much as #PinkBeetle serves double duty as a social-media hashtag. “up!” also happens to be the middle two letters in “Lupo,” one of the vehicle’s predecessors. (“Lupo” is Latin for wolf, while “Amarok” means a similar animal in Inuit – both nods to VW’s hometown of Wolfsburg, Germany.)
Technically the third VW named after a Greek titan; in ancient myth, Atlas held up the sky – appropriate for the first VW seven-passenger SUV.