What’s in a name? From Zen to Baleno to Safari here’s why car nomenclature matters

Tata Motors has decided to name its upcoming 7-seat SUV as the Tata Safari, a vehicle earlier codenamed Gravitas.

By:Updated: Jan 06, 2021 5:41 PM

Cars have personalities attached to them. The names that they carry signify a certain kind of character. For instance, when you hear the name Toyota Land Cruiser, you think of a large, butch SUV. Or when you think of a Mini Cooper, you conjure up images of a cute hatchback (which has incidentally grown significantly in size over the years). And a Volkswagen Beetle is such a classic design, that the name would do injustice on any other shape of car.

Also Read Is Tata Safari’s rebirth its end?

The badges that automobiles carry create certain imagery around them, that it’s hard to imagine that badge on another kind of vehicle. Or perhaps not.

Over the years, carmakers have experimented with sticking popular name badges on products that aren’t quite like the original car that sported the name in the hopes of cashing in on the brand recall.

Reincarnated Maruti Suzuki Zen Estilo
Image: Autos.maxabout

Take the case of the Maruti Zen, for instance. When the original Maruti Zen, with its sleek “jellybean” design was introduced in 1993, it had a certain sporty character that appealed to young, upwardly mobile buyers. The car did reasonably well in sales but was discontinued in 2006. In its place, Maruti introduced a hatchback with a tallboy design (based on the MR Wagon from Japan) and called it the Zen Estilo (Spanish for style). The successor to the original Zen didn’t do well in sales and the company finally pulled the plug on it in 2013.

The reason it didn’t do well was because Maruti tried to appeal to the same audience – the sporty, young Zen buyer with the Estilo, throwing in elements of a bit more power, more space and giving it a family appeal. The buyers weren’t interested, because in their minds the Zen Estilo just didn’t have the same ring to it like the original Zen. It was also very similar to its sibling, the popular Maruti Wagon-R.

However, it’s not always true that the same name on a different car won’t work. Again, another example from Maruti. It introduced a mid-size sedan in the year 1999 called the Maruti Baleno. This sedan was quite underrated, never really topping the sales charts until it was discontinued in 2007. Cut to eight years later, in 2015, when a premium hatchback was introduced with the same name. The new Maruti Baleno has gone on to top its segment in sales numbers.

New Maruti Baleno

Why did the Baleno manage to succeed while the Zen (Estilo) didn’t? It’s probably because there was an eight-year gap before reintroduction of the brand and also because the hatchback version offered far better value for money in terms of features, styling and space. And it’s also because the original Baleno didn’t really have a strong “personality” associated with its name.

Now take the case of the Land Rover Defender. Jaguar Land Rover has taken a huge gamble with the launch of the all-new Land Rover Defender this year (originally codenamed DC 100). It has a pretty strong history to live up to because the original Defender evoked imagery of trans-continental trips over all kinds of hostile terrain. So, when the new Defender (with a monocoque body) had to replace the old one, Land Rover had to keep the design cues very similar and give it the same go-anywhere capability, with all the modern conveniences. Thankfully, initial reports have shown buyers are finding it a worthy successor to the Defender badge.

It’s tough to mess with some iconic designs when you have to live up to a name as is the case with the Jeep Wrangler, the Mercedes G63 or Mini Cooper.

Now, come to the upcoming Tata Safari nee Gravitas. It is built on the same platform as the Tata Harrier and is, in fact, a seven-seat stretched version of the same, with the rear portion being suitably altered. The design from the front looks almost identical to the Harrier. Tata had showcased this as the Gravitas at the Auto Expo in 2020 and which was scheduled to be launched later this month. To suddenly tell the public that the Gravitas is now the Tata Safari, although a completely different vehicle is a big gamble.

The Tata Safari Storme had the same silhouette as the first-gen SUV with the same name. 
The new Tata Safari nee Gravitas

The Tata Safari had a certain character and a loyal fan following. When the Tata Safari Storme was launched, the basic character stayed, because the body shell was identical – the same body on frame construction, that had a commanding personality. It evoked feelings of power, of domination, and “live large” attitude. The ads for the Tata Safari with the tagline “reclaim your life” were iconic. Can the Tata Gravitas, with the Tata Safari name, match that kind of personality? It’s a big ask.

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