Noise, Vibration, Harshness: What’s in a Name?

One of the strangest things about today’s twenty-four-hour news cycle of cable television and nonstop Internet blather is how it’s made possible a veritable explosion of improbable, sometimes amusing, often absurd nonfacts, misnomers, and false narratives—e.g., President Obama is a Muslim from Kenya, Lady Gaga is a man, Larry King is leaving CNN to spend more time with his family.

This generally pernicious and counterintuitive trend (facts are more easily accessed than ever) arrives just in time to offer comfort to those responsible for another irritating affront to the public’s intelligence, one that’s been creeping up in the world of cars for decades but which seems to have finally fully flowered—the willingness of carmakers to abandon the actual facts in favor of pseudofacts when naming their models.

I’m not talking about the automobile industry’s legendary non-truth-in-advertising department, the one that’s seen weak-kneed barges named Touring Sedans, called garish pimpmobiles Stealth, and hopefully christened vulgar Lincolns Continental. What drives me nuts is the meaning-devaluation that comes with getting the numbers wrong.

I ask you, given BMW’s history of signaling its models’ engine displacements in its numeric monikers, why is it that the new 740i actually sports a 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder? Sure, there are histo

rical antecedents—the 325e of the 1980s was powered by a 2.7-liter six. Thing was, that vehicle—along with the old 4.4-liter 40i cars—understated matters, while now overstatement appears to be the name of the game. Even worse, lately the conversion to misleading designations coming from BMW’s North American headquarters has been almost wholesale. Did you know, for instance, that all six-cylinder BMWs nowadays are 3.0 liters in capacity, whether they’re badged 28i, 30i, 35i, 40i, or 35d? Or that the company’s 50i cars boast 4.4- or 4.8-liter engines now?

The irony is that the people who care about engine displacement tend to be the only ones who understood the naming systems in the first place. While I suppose BMW fetishists and the train-spotting, bird-watching types among us now have something new and obscure to think about, I find myself shutting down the BMW memory lobes in self-defense.

And whither Mercedes-Benz fans, among whom only the true-bluest will know that the S65 AMG features a 6.0-liter engine these days, while the soon-to-arrive S63/CL63 will deploy neither the 6.3 liters promised, nor the 6.2 liters that 63s currently deliver, but 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8s? Speaking of 5.5-liters, don’t look for them in the next S550/CL550, which will have 4.7-liter twin-turbos.

Next to the order-fixated German engineers, I always thought that nobody was more likely to follow the rules than the buttoned-down Japanese technocrats. But what’s this? The Lexus LS600hL packs a 5.0-liter V-8? Cripes. Blame turbochargers—our engine feels bigger than it is!—and hybridism—how dare you care about displacement, you planet defiler?!—but, frankly, if you can’t trust your carmaker to tell you how big your engine is, when should you believe them? And don’t get me started on four-doors called coupes, like the BMW X6 Sports Activity Coupe, which isn’t a coupe, isn’t sporting, and is good at few activities besides looking stupid and wasting fuel.

Back when automakers only made up horsepower figures and safety claims, Oldsmobile’s 442 designation meant a four-speed manual, a four-barrel carb, and dual exhausts. Over the years, automatics and three-speeds were offered, and some 442s had one tailpipe. For the 1985–87 version, Olds cited its four-speed automatic as justification. A similar allegiance to facts—even lame ones—saw the 442 for 1990–91 touting its four cylinders, four valves per cylinder, and two camshafts.

Well, look where honesty got Oldsmobile. There’s clearly no reward for telling it like it is and no penalty for failing to speak plainly. Which has apparently emboldened Mercedes to commit what is the greatest affront of them all—calling the new C-class coupe and convertible (the old CLK) an E-class. For me, this crosses the line and then doubles back over it before crossing it again, then spray-painting it tarmac black. I mean, why not just call it an S-class? Or the Graf Zeppelin?

Written by Jamie Kitman, illustration by Tim Marrs