Thoughts on Audi's new naming system

From the Audi press release:

"The reference value for the new model designations is the power output of the individual model in kilowatts (kW). Audi is thus subclassifying its model range into different performance levels – each identified by a two-numeral combination. For example, the numeral combination “30” will appear on the rear of all models with power output between 81 and 96 kW. And “45” stands for power output between 169 and 185 kW. The top of the Audi model range is the performance class above 400 kW, which is identifiable by the number combination “70”. In each case the numerals appear along with the engine technology – TFSI, TDI, g-tron or e-tron.

The changes will kick off with the new Audi A8 generation in the fall of 2017. First among the two six-cylinder engines to be redesignated will be the 3.0 TDI with 210 kW – as the Audi A8 50 TDI, and the 3.0 TFSI with 250 kW – as the Audi A8 55 TFSI."

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Above: Audi's new naming system on the A8

On the face of it, this new numbering system aligns Audi with Mercedes and BMW, who also use a series of numbers to denote the relative power outputs of their model variants.

Historically, the model designations for Mercedes and BMW would be based on engine displacement. The underlying logic behind this was the assumption that the larger the engine, the more power it produced. Thus, 'E300' would would mean an E-Class with a 3.0L engine and '320i' would be equivalent to a 3-Series with a 2.0L engine. Although this is no longer the case (for example, the new E300 uses a higher-powered 2.0L engine) the long-running use of this type of nomenclature by both brands means that customers are still familiar with the underlying logic behind the system. A customer who walks into a Mercedes dealership may not know the size of the engine in the E300, but they will understand that it's a more powerful car than the E200. A decades long history of using the same basic system develops a contextual familiarity for the customer.

Audi's new two digit numbering system is a stark departure from the previous system where the engine displacement was directly labelled. Without the historical precedent that Mercedes and BMW share, the Audi customer cannot be expected to understand what numbers such as '30', '55' and '70' mean. Moreover, with the industry focusing on electric vehicle development, other characteristics such as range (i.e. the distance the car can travel between charges) also become important, which is a metric that is not described by the new numbering system. 

Overall, I feel that this new 2 digit numbering system is too little, too late. The system is too simplistic to cover characteristics that will be important in the future, such as vehicle range. Without historical precedent, it is likewise confusing for future prospective Audi customers.

With cars having a number of important performance characteristics such as power, torque, acceleration and range, it is difficult to concisely and clearly express all of these into a single alpha-numeric combination.

Perhaps a better option would be to scrap this model designation system entirely and instead follow the Ferrari route. Focus on marketing (and badging) the model only, e.g. Audi A4/A6/A8 and tabulate all performance characteristics on a hidden plaque or badge inside the car, together with any customer ordered options and other specification such as paint colour and wheel design. This way, all performance characteristics can be clearly displayed and understood. Additionally, this system would be beneficial come resale time, as all customer ordered options and preferences would be evident (with personalisation being key at the premium end of the market).

Alfa Romeo: Branding and Badging

Coinciding with the launch of the new Giulia, Alfa Romeo has undertaken a company wide rebranding initiative. This initiative has not only involved subtle changes in the firm's badge, but also the addition of a new company tagline, "La meccanica delle emozioni."

Above left and right: The old (1972-2015) and new (2015-present) Alfa Romeo logo.

In English, "La meccanica delle emozioni" translates to "The mechanics of emotion." 

On its face, this is a broad and vague slogan. As no-one wishes to drive what they perceive as a dull car, such a catchphrase could be applied to almost any automotive brand in the world. Manufacturers may market their vehicles as affordable, or safe, or reliable and durable, but none of those virtues are traded with emotion. A vehicle may have emotion omitted from its marketing, but it is highly unusual for it to be explicitly sold as dull. In this sense, a catchphrase such as "The mechanics of emotion" could be construed as subject to many interpretations and universally applicable, rather than something exclusive to Alfa Romeo.

In an automotive sense, emotion can include both the practical experience of actually owning and driving a car, as well as feelings generated by the marque's designs and historical successes and failures. This article will focus on how Alfa Romeo's history of car design, and branding, have made the phrase "La meccanica delle emozioni" apt for it to use.

Heritage        

Alfa Romeo's heritage is littered with depressing lows and soaring highs. Vehicles such as the Alfa Romeo Montreal and the Giulietta Sprint were striking designs that stirred emotions, despite their contrasting approaches to styling.

Top: 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint. Below: 1970 Alfa Romeo Montreal.

The Giulietta Sprint pictured above is a design that is timeless because it achieves elegance through its proportions and uncluttered styling, free from superfluous details, such as fins, that were popular in American vehicles at the time. In contrast, the Montreal is notable for its more flamboyant details such as the fake horizontal vents behind each door and the slotted grille above the headlamps. Regardless of their differing approaches to exterior styling, both vehicles presented memorable designs that arguably represented zeniths for the company.

Above: 1983 Alfa Romeo Arna.

Perhaps the most obvious example that helped stereotype Alfa Romeo's reputation as a maker of unreliable vehicles was the Alfa Romeo Arna. Borne out of a partnership between Alfa Romeo and Nissan, the Arna unfortunately combined the negative aspects of both companies, with Nissan's unremarkable styling and Alfa Romeo's poorly made engine, transmission and front suspension. With Alfa Romeo at the time being state owned, the Italian government directed that the vehicle be built in the poorer southern region of Italy in order to reduce unemployment and economically rejuvenate the area.

Whilst the economy of southern Italy may have benefitted from this decision, by employing workers unqualified and unskilled in automobile manufacturing, the durability of the Arna itself suffered heavily, with shoddy build quality and reliability. With prior models such as the Alfasud suffering from rust even on the production line, the Arna only served to exacerbate Alfa Romeo's newfound reputation of building beautiful pieces of junk.

In this sense, "La meccanica delle emozioni" is an appropriate catchphrase for the brand, as, when looked at holistically, it captures the experiences associated with these design successes and failures for Alfa Romeo.

Badging

Badging is another way through which Alfa Romeo attempts to be perceived as emotional. For Alfa Romeo, it also serves to create a key a point of difference from its German counterparts.

Fundamentally, this point of difference manifests itself in the dichotomy in naming models based upon body style and specification versus intention, history and emotion. Typically, German manufacturers such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have followed the former philosophy, whilst Alfa Romeo has pursued the latter.

In the numerical BMW range, models based on odd numbers, such as the 1, 3, 5 and 7 Series are traditional sedans (or hatchbacks in the case of the 1 Series), while models based on even numbers, such as the 2, 4 and 6-Series are coupé derivations of these odd-numbered models. The two following numbers usually denote either engine size or specification level. For example, a 320d is a compact, smaller engine/lower specification sedan, while a 420d is a coupé version of the same vehicle.

Above: BMW 3 Series sedan (left) and 4 Series coupé (right).

Above: Examples of the various badges that BMW has used. Notice that they all largely follow an identical naming structure.

Whilst a numbering scheme such as BMW's quickly conveys to the consumer the body style, size and specification of the vehicle, it sheds little light on the intention behind it. A 320d is a compact sedan with a 2.0 litre diesel engine, but is it a sporting vehicle or a luxury vehicle, or both? What were the emotions and thoughts of the designers and engineers who developed the car? A logical model designation system gives no insight into these questions.  

Alfa Romeo in contrast personifies its cars through names. A name can be divisive and stir passions, but most importantly, it can signify intention in a way that a numerical designation cannot. 

A recent example of this is the newly launched Alfa Romeo Stelvio, named after the Passo dello Stelvio, or Stelvio Pass.

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Top: 2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Bottom: The Stelvio's namesake, the Stelvio Pass in Italy. Image credit Wikimedia.

The Stelvio Pass is renowned for being one of the finest driving roads in Europe. A mountain pass in northern Italy near the Swiss border, its numerous hairpin turns and stunning scenery make it a challenging yet rewarding test of the driver's skill and the vehicle's handling ability.

By using the Stelvio Pass as the namesake for its new SUV, Alfa Romeo reinforces the sporting intention of its new vehicle in an immediately obvious way. Stelvio is a famous, emotional and powerful name that boldly demonstrates Alfa Romeo's intention to make its new SUV outhandle and outperform anything else in its class.

On the flipside, personifying vehicles through names clearly obfuscates characteristics such as engine size and body style. If model names such as "Alfa Romeo Stelvio" and "Alfa Romeo Giulia" are listed on the printed page without any surrounding context such as a picture, the customer obtains little pragmatically useful information. For all they know, the Stelvio could be a sporty little convertible and the Giulia the brand's SUV.

Realistically, however, this is an implausible scenario. Customers research cars in many different ways, but they are all primarily visual, whether it be observing it in person, watching videos or looking at pictures of the prospective vehicle. Consequently, aspects such as the size and shape of the vehicle don't need to be explicitly mentioned in the model designation, as they are already immediately apparent to the customer. What may not be so obvious are the the thoughts, intentions and emotions behind the car, and thus a model designation should focus primarily upon clarifying these aspects of a vehicle.

Alfa Romeo does this best by using names that personify their vehicles, and thus truly highlighting the emotion of mechanics, or "La meccanica del emozioni", that is central to their cars.