SS? Z71? LTZ? 2002? And throw in a Z/28 and a 4x4 while you're at it. The automotive world is kind of a dizzying array of acronyms made up of a lot of numbers and letters.
Of course, that's pretty much always been the way in the car industry. Ford's Model T – generally recognized as the first product to make automobile ownership accessible to a large number of people (at least in North America) – was designated T because it followed Model S. Makes sense, right?
But these days the model designators have a little less to do with sequential logic and a great deal more to do with sophisticated marketing. Everyone likes to feel special and that is nowhere more applicable in our lives than when we make purchases as consumers. We like nothing better than to pick our own colors and configure our own specs. We may not all have the chops of a serious modder or hot-rodder, but we still like to feel like our stuff is ours in as many ways as possible.
Automakers know that about us and over the years they've gotten better and better at figuring out how to tickle our instinct in that regard and to satisfy our desire to feel special as well. One way they do that is by applying unique model designations. But what, if anything, do all of those letters and numbers really mean?
Glad you asked. Let's take a look at a few...
Let's start with the greatest of all time, or, as the sports junkies amongst us like to say, "the goat." Among gearheads, of course, the goat does not refer to Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, nor even Muhammad Ali, but instead to the 1966 Pontiac GTO.
As an acronym, GTO, stands for "Gran Turismo Omologato." We'll get to the "Gran Turismo" part soon enough, but for now the "Omologato" bit is what's important. Homologation is an indicator that a certain model has met the relevant standard usually to be certified in a class of racing. Lots of words to mean, "It's hella fast!"
By the time the Pontiac "goat" came along, however, the GT and GTO designators had taken on a life their own apart from being acronyms. They were still associated with road racing and performance of course, but in many people's minds "GT" referred either to a famous Ferrari (see below), or to the just as famous "Ferrari beater" developed by Henry Ford II: the GT40.
The GTO was born as an option package offered on Pontiac's Tempest model. It was so popular that in 1966 it became a separate product. It ended its run 40 years later, in 2006, as GM began to withdraw the Pontiac marque entirely.
If you want to start an argument among aficionados of cars, just ask where/when the term "Gran Turismo" ("GT") was first used. Most people can agree that the term had its genesis as a way of describing powerful cars that could go fast and do so for a long time, usually on the twisting and turning roads that predate the super-expressways of Europe.
When you've had enough of that argument – say, four or five days later – just remember this important truth: sports cars are very different from race cars.
The 250 was the sportscar which turned Ferrari into the worldwide phenomenon that we all know and lust after today. It came in a lot of different configurations and designations. It was also associated with a lot of famous names from the history of Italian car making – like Pinin Farina – and it also set a lot of standards on its own – like defining the "Berlinetta" body type and initiating the Testa Rossa model line. GTO referred to the original, mainly racing versions of the 250; while "Gran Turismo" referred to the road-going types like the 1962 250 GT pictured above.
GT back then implied speed, endurance, and a level of luxury above that of a roadster or a pure sports car. Nowadays?... Here's the hammer, here's the jello. Now go nail it to the wall...
18 IS F
Lexus is Toyota's luxury brand. It was established as a separate marque starting in 1989. Almost immediately thereafter, the company realized that it would be competing not only on standards of interior comfort, but against brands that had spent decades developing capacities and reputations for performance.
It took the company a full decade and a half itself to turn that realization into a tangible group of product offerings. The "IS" is said to stand for "intelligent sport" and, as a line of models from Lexus, they debuted in 1999.
The "intelligent" part implied the application of a high level of technology to improving performance and driving experience. Ironically, there has since been a bit of a push-back against the introduction of a lot of computerized control and automated systems into the driving experience. In some ways, some purists prefer the simplicity of, say, the Corolla to the complexity of a 10-speed dual clutch rev limited turbocharged... well, you get the point.
The F line was introduced to address that in some ways. The F series was intended to be more in the line of pure sports cars. The "F" is said to indicate that heritage; it stands for (all or part of) Japan's Fuji Speedway where the cars are first tested.
If one "S" – as in IS F – stands for "sport," then two must mean something super, right? As it happens, that's exactly right.
Chevrolet's "Super Sport" designation is one of the most venerable from Detroit's auto manufacturing business. The SS, however, like others on this list started out as just a cosmetic package offered on certain models.
As time wore on, however, it came to indicate the highest level of performance on Chevy models like Camaro, Monte Carlo, and, perhaps most famously – at least it is so today thanks to Hollywood icons, like Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson – on the Chevelle.
In the 2000s, Chevrolet began rebadging GM stablemate Holden's performance sedan as, simply, "the SS." That brought the package SS's offered in other model lines to an end. The SS was an impressive product in its own right, yet, as a separate model, it too was discontinued just one year ago (MY 2017).
These days you can order a Camaro with an SS package. That car will have bigger numbers than the entry level, for sure, but those won't be the biggest numbers that the car could come with – as was the case with previous SS spec'ed cars – and for now it doesn't come with the SS badging either. Let's hope that changes sometime soon.
There was a time in the US when auto dealers in most urban areas tended to be "downtown" operations. That is, they often had a "Main Street" storefront location. They kind of looked like department stores, only the display windows were much, much larger.
Customers would go down to the dealer, drool over the latest showroom model and sit down with a sales rep to order something they hoped would look just like it. Then they would wait for the call to return and take delivery. The drive home was pretty thrilling stuff...
A lot has changed in the last 75 years, hasn't it?
But that process of ordering options and packages was the birthplace of more than one of the more common acronyms that are still around today. And also of the more celebrated ones too. Like the first Camaro Z/28.
In a 2008 article, the authors at Camaros.us detailed the history of that now-revered designator: “There wasn’t any suggestion of what we were going to call this car,” recalls [Chevy engineer, Vincent W. Piggins]. “When it came down to having to decide, somebody just said, `Hey, it’s option RPO Z28; let’s call it Z28!’ ... The car got its name from the actual option number.”
After the success of the Z/28, you might think that GM and Chevrolet would just keep slapping option package designators on everything they built... Well, they kinda did.
GM's LT, LTZ, and Z71 designators are like that. And very possibly you are starting to see a "theme" in their choices. Having established "Z" as something beyond the ordinary – albeit in terms of performance – it's hard to blame the company for running with it. Remember the Corvette Z06?
As of 2018, LTZ – also not an acronym for anything – is Chevrolet's name for the highest level of trim package it offers, particularly on trucks and SUVs. We're talking interior luxury here. So you'll get leather seats, a big touchscreen (for playing Angry Birds Evolution?), and electronically operated... well, pretty much everything.
Despite the casual attachment of the Z designation to that first Camaro Z/28, because that car was the street version of a Trans America racing car, Z(-ed) cars thereafter tended to follow that trend. So, when Datsun (Nissan's original name) began to design a street car forked from a racing line, they came up with the Fairlady Z, or, as in North America, the 240Z.
And to think, it all started in a storefront on Main Street...
One of the biggest innovations in the 21st Century for North American pickup truck enthusiasts has been the advent of NASCAR's Camping World series of races. And no US brand has embraced the chance to race its trucks more than Ford.
There's good reasons for that. While GM and Chevrolet have made contributions to the performance market over the years and Chrysler and its Dodge and Plymouth divisions have done even better in the world of stock car racing, none of the US makers has a deeper history in racing in general than does Ford.
Although Henry Ford himself pretty much turned his back on the competitive world of auto racing during the first few decades of his involvement in the then-developing car business, in the 1960's Henry Ford II – the founder's grandson – stepped into the racing world with both feet. The in-house design team that was formed by Ford then to build a "Ferrari beater" – that which became the GT40 (now, the GT) – would reemerge in the 1980s as Ford's Special Vehicle Operations, and later, the Special Vehicle Team.
Both were charged with tuning the company's products for performance. The 2001 F-150 SVT Lightning in the photo is one of the most storied examples of their work.
If you ever visit Japan or even check out a map of that archipelagic nation, you may be surprised to find that there is a place called, "Toyota." No kidding.
But even in the US auto industry marques were often named after the city in which their factory was located: e. g. Pontiac. Still, just to give you an idea of how influential and huge a company Toyota is, things worked the other way around in Toyota City. That is, the city was renamed for the company in the 1960s.
So, while Toyota has nearly always had a performance tuning arm – the predecessors to the current "Toyota Racing Development" (TRD) – there has been significant fracturing even within that part of the company. Especially in recent years, direct involvement in racing has shifted to a separate group now known as Toyota Motorsports.
Still, the TRD group was one of the first major manufacturer performance groups to think of tuning trucks. The Tacoma has been available in one or more TRD packages almost since its introduction (1994 MY). The latest of those is the TRD Pro version as pictured above. It is an even more enhanced off-road package – beefier shocks and increased ground clearance – but the TRD is also offered as a set of on-road high-performance options.
12 GT-R (Nismo)
If you are a serious fan of drift racing, or particularly fond of the JDM cars which are otherwise inaccessible to anyone outside of Japan, then you really should see the anime, "Initial D." I know, I know, it's a "cartoon." But, if you are a lover of drifting, then you've probably already got a manga and anime monkey on your back. Go with it.
"Initial D," featured a lot of the best JDMs of the last couple of decades of the 20th Century. Notably, Toyota's "hashi-roku" ("8-6"), and Nissan's Skyline GT-R. Both of those models are still being produced in Japan, but are now offered on a worldwide basis... let's all bow our heads and give thanks for the enlightened times in which we live... and, probably, for film franchises like "The Fast and the Furious" for popularizing such street racing classics.
"Gran Turismo-Racing" hails from a tradition that predates its incarnation as Nissan's "Godzilla," as we've seen, but at this moment in time, it is only one of a couple of production vehicles that deserves to wear that badge. "Racing," or even "RC", as a designator generally means that an otherwise luxury GT car has been configured more for track days than as a daily driver. "Nismo," like SVT and TRD, is Nissan's tuning division.
11 GT-R (AMG)
Mercedes-Benz also has a performance and tuning division which it operates under the AMG label. In some ways that's a bit of a misnomer as both M-B and AMG are part of Daimler now and the best parts of what most of us used to think of as "Mercedes" have been AMG for a while now.
The GT part of both this AMG demon and Nissan's Godzilla (above) refers to the world of GT racing. Formula 1, by contrast, represents the highest specification that the FIA (international governing body of auto racing) homologates (there's that word again). It's so specific, in fact, that the annual, tiny tweaks made to that spec prior to each F1 season are the stuff of worldwide headlines.
GT racing, on the other hand, is a bit more wide open because as a brilliant and authoritative automobile expert once wrote... oh, a few paragraphs earlier in this article: "sports cars are very different from race cars."
The AMG "Gran Turismo-Racing" – purportedly the most track-ready version of the GT– has only been available since MY 2016 and like all of the other GTs from AMG is a direct descendant of MB's signature GT, the 1955 gull-winged 300SL.
One of the earliest modding trends in automotive history is the "dune buggy" craze that took hold in – especially Southern – California in the 1950s and 60s. Dune buggies were basically hot rods married to beach culture.
It was the first notice to the auto industry that providing consumers with the means to drive off-road, purely as a form of recreation, might be commercially viable. But not everyone lives on a beach and so it wasn't long before auto manufacturers began to consider some different parts of the off-road segment.
Several companies had built 4x4 vehicles as military transports. Design for military vehicles was purely utilitarian in terms of being able to operate on any sort of terrain and under all manner of weather conditions. But beginning in 1960, International Harvester introduced the Scout model as a more suburban form of "jeep" and a few years later Ford took the lead in the US 4x4 industry with the Bronco.
In terms of driving in ideal conditions – on properly maintained, paved roadways – 4x4 is kind of a step backward and has some downsides. 4x4 means the vehicle has three differentials that can be locked by the driver. Even unlocked, however, all of those power transfers reduce the efficiency of the engine – so it has to be bigger – and they also mean more weight – so the engine needs to be bigger still.
If only there were some way to get the advantages without the disadvantages, hmmm...
Leave it to Mercedes-Benz to perfect what started out as a US market segment. One of the big selling points of the German maker's G-series SUVs – especially the G550 in all of its variants – is that it provides both 4x4 off-road capability and all-wheel drive, on-road agility. All-wheel drive (AWD) differs from 4x4 in that it does not require the driver to activate it – the system is always on and self-regulating – and, in its modern incarnations, can be mechanical, electronic, or a mix of the two. It also has limits on the amount of power that can be transmitted to each of the vehicle's four wheels; ideally, a 4x4 system could direct 100% power/torque to any one of the wheels.
In the 1980s a different German giant of the auto industry, Audi, introduced the Quattro. The first car called the Quattro was built as a rally racer. Rally racing is, in a lot of ways, a type of racing that involves taking road cars, off-road... not completely "off-road" mind you, but enough to make the advantages of a 4x4 system attractive.
As a result of their involvement with the first Quattro, Audi began to market its all-wheel drive consumer system by the same name. Audis were not the first AWD vehicles on the market, even in North America, but they did go a long way to popularizing AWD as a desirable quality for even commuter cars to have.
If decoding the acronyms of the auto industry is sometimes difficult, then decoding the segment strategies in that same business is often times darn near impossible.
One of the slipperiest segments is the "executive car." At least in the USA this term is kind of a hold-over from the 1950s. During the post-WWII boom, moving up the company ladder and becoming a business executive was a big part of the American Dream.
A lot of Detroit advertising was aimed at feeding into that dream. The idea was that if you drove a car which made you look like an executive to work everyday, then you might achieve that goal faster. Dress for success. Does it work?
Sorry, this is a car website, not your therapist's office; we don't have all the answers.
Since its release into the world, however, the Cadillac CTS has been so good as to have become something of a segment unto itself. Most sources agree that the TS in the name is an abbreviation for "Touring Sedan." The big argument is over what the 'C' stands for. Cadillac, perhaps; or maybe C-series? Or maybe Catera – which was the name of the model previous to the CTS that the marque offered in this segment... whichever one that was.
German maker Audi made a big splash last year (2017) when they announced a range-wide change in the naming convention of the company's cars. About which MotorTrend.com reported this:
“'As alternative drive technologies become increasingly relevant, engine displacement as a performance attribute is becoming less important to our customers,” said Dr. Dietmar Voggenreiter, Audi board of management member for sales and marketing, in a release. “The clarity and logic of structuring the designations according to power output makes it possible to distinguish between the various performance levels.'”
Okay, that's great... now explain the names that you already do have, bitte?
Audi's current model names range in terms of the chassis type, then a number indicating the relative size within that chassis type; the displacement is part of the exterior badging and it is what the company is now changing. So an A3 is the smallest chassis and a hatchback. An S3 is a similar sized model in a "sport" configuration. R is for "roadster", and "RS" is for "racing sport."
Confused? Here's all you need to remember: according to Automobile magazine, the R8 GT3 in the photo has a top speed of just under 200mph/325kph and retails for about US$500K.
In today's world, it's hard to imagine any manufactured thing becoming something that people love. In the modern world we throw stuff away... often. So it's probably hard for people who buy a new iPhone every 8 months to imagine that it was only 35 or so years ago when people paid a king's ransom to purchase the first Macintosh desktop computers and then decided they loved them and kept them for years after. Many of those original buyers probably still have those things.
That's how people used to feel about the 2002. This was the BMW model that defined the brand for a generation: it was THE BMW. It was the reason to buy a BMW, to drive one, and to keep it as long as you could.
The model was first exclusively a European 2-door model with a 1.6L four-banger making less than 90hp/70kw. It jumped up to a 2.0L almost immediately thereafter – in MY 1968 – and became the "2002": 2.oL engine + 02 doors.
The bucktoothed "Bimmer" looked nothing like most other coupes, but was more reminiscent of a flying saucer. George Jetson might've driven one. And he probably would've loved that thing too.
Back in those same prehistoric times, when the 2002 roamed the Earth, BMW used to give its engines "M" series designations. So the 2002 had an M10 series engine in it. Back then the M stood for the German word for engine which is motor. (Note that in English the word "motor" generally refers to the part inside the electric razor your wife gave you last Christmas that makes that annoying buzzing noise while you shave every morning.)
Nowadays BMW's M series automobiles are so named for the company's "Motorsport" division. "Motorsport" being German for... uh, for "motorsports."
BMWs have been known by their front grilles for about what is approaching one hundred years now. Aficionados still refer to those as, "kidney and grilles" for most of the models from the 20th Century. As the company's design ethic evolved, however, the kidney part out-grew the grilles. Then, the kidneys themselves were reduced in size to the present day when they seem to be on the verge of collapsing into what had been the old style grilles again.
On the other hand, the split quad pipes and full-time rear wing on the limited edition M4 GTS in the photo are always a classic look.
The pickup truck segment in the USA is pretty competitive as we noted way back near the top of this article. Most of that competition goes on between the big 3 Detroit makers.
The 1970s were kind of a low point for the US auto industry in general and there are many explanations for how that "lull" in the 20th Century history of the business came about. Regardless of which of those you might ascribe most closely to, the point is that it was that way for the truck segment as well.
The response from the big 3 US automakers was – for some unknown reason – to redesign their products as silly looking square bodies. That likely made them more appealing as "work trucks", but it was kinda bland.
Things finally started to percolate again in the truck segment around 1980. The downside of that was a growing number of small truck offerings in North America. Boo. On the plus side, however, GM began to more aggressively market its GMC line; including the C/K which would become Silverado and Sierra in the 21st Century. That prompted Dodge to try and offer something that could compete with the "commercial grade" GMCs.
Thus was born the Dodge Cummins RAM, denoted by a big 'C' on the front driver's side quarter-panel. Cummins is an industrial engine maker and still contributes its logo and 6.7L turbo-diesel engines to the (now-) Ram line.
Perhaps no part of the pickup segment has exploded more in the 21st Century than the off-road option packages. The latest wrinkle in that is to hybridize the off-road options with each maker's performance offerings as well. Probably the best-known representative of that breeding program is the Ford Raptor. It is a bit of a media star right now.
Naturally, success means that the competition will soon follow. So Ram has recently announced that it will begin to produce a new 1500 Rebel TRX edition. Like most of the other off-road groupings TRX indicates improved suspension and traction control, as well as special cladding and badging.
As announced however, the Rebel TRX will also bring a high-performance 6.2L Hemi engine that, Ram claims, will pull the thing along at over 100mph/160+kph. Of course, the performance and power numbers are all about on-road acceleration, not off-road.
Chevrolet, the third of the big 3, hasn't yet stepped into this hybrid off-road-on-road pickup segment as of yet. Historically, the company has designated special off-road packaging for SUVs and trucks with "Z71". As with Z/28, Z71 started out as an option group of suspension and other enhancements, only to be reduced (at times) to just a set of stickers. Still looks good on that Silverado though, doesn't it?
If you are a fan of auto industry history – and really, who isn't? – then you may already be familiar with the name of Lee Iacocca. There are few figures in US automotive business history who loom much larger than Iacocca. He is credited with much of the impetus for the development of the Mustang, having been part of Ford's GT40 team, and for bringing Chrysler back from bankruptcy. On the downside, he also gave the world minivans, K-Cars, and was fired by Henry Ford II. He's had an interesting life anyway.
One of the things he oversaw once he moved from Ford to Chrysler was the development of the Viper. The idea was for Dodge to come up with a "Corvette killer," or at the very least, to make a competing product. Most people would say that the Viper failed in that way. The Corvette still looks good and moves a lot of units; in contrast, the Viper's run is over.
Most importantly for our purposes here though is that the first step that Iacocca and Chrysler took towards building the Viper was to establish a special vehicle operation of their own. Eventually – even as the Viper was canceled for the first time – Chrysler changed the name of Dodge's performance and tuning division to "street and racing technology."
Not to be confused with Dodge's, "Road/Track" designator.
R/T was the name of the "old" performance and tuning division of Dodge. Chrysler replaced R/T with SRT during the Daimler years. Recall that the company has changed hands twice now since the turn of the century.
R/T is-, and always was- often likened to Chevrolet's SS designation. Different from GM's, however, the Dodge naming convention lingers on in the shadow of the new division's acronym, mainly as an indicator of handling and appearance enhancements.
The multiple changes at the corporate level already mentioned probably played at least some part in that; there is likely still a bit of confusion at what is now Fiat-Chrysler in terms of division of labor within the company. Since the merger with Fiat, Dodge RAM became Ram Trucks and SRT too was promoted to a status on an equal basis with the other Chrysler divisions. In that way, SRT took on a life of its own, like Mercedes-Benz and AMG.
For its last few MYs in fact, the Viper was no longer a Dodge, but an SRT product. The Viper then suffered a second death in 2015. Though the serpent's second rise from the underworld is in the wind...stay tuned Viper faithful!
Sources: camaros.us, motorsport.com, audiusa.com, cumminsengines.com, motortrend.com, automobilemag.com