MARKETRENDS;LIVING UP TO THEIR NAMES;FROM IMPALA TO CATERA TO SLX, CAR MONIKERS STILL CRUCIAL

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Monte Carlo and Impala are already back. Next year, Malibu will also be reincarnated in the car lineup at General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet.

Meanwhile, Chrysler Corp. is jettisoning old names like the New Yorker, gone after 56 years. The oldest car model name at Dodge is the Viper, with a heritage going way back to 1992.

Ask auto marketers about car model names, and they will tell you that the right one can play an important part in building awareness and image.

But that's just about the only thing they agree on.

"The right name depends on a company's particular situation," said Jim Wangers, senior analyst at Automotive Marketing Consultants, Warren, Mich. "If a company has built image around a name and that name hasn't been tarnished, then it doesn't make sense to make a change."

In the name game, it's not just an argument of old vs. new. Another factor is whether to use a real word or a meaningless one, such as the Catera name that will appear on the small Cadillac luxury sedan debuting in the 1997 model year.

Most luxury import brands prefer not to use words at all. American Honda Motor Co.'s Acura is switching to "alphanumeric" names, with the TL sedan introduced this spring and the SLX sport-utility vehicle arriving in December.

Tim Hart, exec VP-chief operating officer at Acura agency Ketchum Advertising, Los Angeles, said the alphanumeric designations will enable the auto marketer to emphasize the Acura brand.

"We want Acura to have the equity, not the Legend and Integra names," Mr. Hart said. The Legend and Integra monikers will be dropped for alphanumeric names when the models are redesigned.

After more than a year's research, Ketchum determined that consumers associated alphanumeric names with import luxury brands, Mr. Hart said.

Cadillac settled on Catera after 18 months of research. The last names tested were Genisis, LSE and Catera. Catera best evoked the hoped-for image of a car that is "sporty, sleek, agile and spirited," said John Grettenberger, Cadillac general manager.

Those are attributes not usually associated with Cadillac, which hopes the Catera makes inroads with baby boomers.

At Chevrolet, the high cost of introducing an all-new name is one factor in resurrecting names, said Jeff Hurlbert, general marketing manager.

The names also fit with the "Genuine Chevrolet" ad positioning developed by Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., meant to reclaim Chevy's historic emotional bond with Americans.

"There is tremendous equity in Impala and Monte Carlo," Mr. Hurlbert said. "Our research validates that those names conjure up strong, positive images."

In contrast, Dodge doesn't see much glory in reclaiming its past. "The new Dodge" is the theme of advertising by BBDO Worldwide, Southfield.

"In the near term, our biggest marketing challenge is to enable the reality of our cars and trucks to overcome the perception of Dodge as an older brand," said Marty Levine, Dodge general manager.

Sometimes happenstance plays a role. Ford Taurus had its genesis when two key members of the advanced vehicle department discovered that their wives shared that astrological sign. Team Taurus became a working name for the development group. Taurus stuck when the name tested well.

In the past, choosing a car's name was often a right reserved for the chief executive. The classic flop was the Edsel, named for Henry Ford II's father when Henry was head of Ford.

Mr. Hart said there's now too much at stake to rely on the predilections of executives.

"The wrong name carries a lot of baggage that the car has to overcome," he said.

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