There was a time when most of us could figure out the engine capacity of a car simply by reading the badge affixed to its rear end. Today, when you’re considering the purchase of a new vehicle, the seemingly random number that is emblazoned on its boot lid or tailgate trivialises the entire buying – if not ownership – experience...
Is car ownership still the ultimate form of self-expression? Is it an extension of your personality/identity and a celebration of your financial freedom?
What does it say about you? Well, it should say something and it did... once upon a time. But today, car shopping has been reduced to a joyless slog in which your choices are either limited, puzzling or contrived by manufacturers through their prioritisation of production efficiencies, profit maximisation and a complete denial of their roots.
Much of the motoring industry’s present ills are rooted in the psychology of eco-correct box-ticking, semantics and pseudo-futuristic, millennial marketing vape and an utter desperation to sound hip. Cars have ceased to exist – they are now “mobility solutions.”
In the era of the E36-generation 3 Series, a 328i badge designated that a BMW was powered by a 2.8-litre engine.
And engines? Never heard of them. Instead, slide a sleeve-tattooed fist bump over towards “power units”. Car companies? What's a car company? Say hello to “lifestyle brands” with a R50 cup of artisanally crafted coffee while pensively stroking that hipster beard. The industry’s collective amnesia is shocking: does anybody still remember in how many ways the internal combustion engine defined the 20th century?
The way in which cars are engineered and built has changed, too – in the same ways that smartphones are made today: more or less generic with the same hardware and just one or two distinguishing features. What has this done to the tyre-kicking process?
It’s confuddled the crap out of everyone, that’s what. For a list of the top offenders, look no further than the premium German brands, which offer droves of derivative clones that necessitates the phenomenon of creative name-giving. What they come up with is often indecipherable.
If you haven't got your head around Audi's new derivative-naming convention, it's tricky to tell derivatives apart from one another.
In 2017, Audi added double-digit numeral prefixes to their derivative names. The official reasoning, at the time, was that as ever-advancing technologies continue to drive combustion efficiencies, engine capacities will decrease to become increasingly irrelevant and power outputs will correspondingly rise: a necessary stance if you were caught and shamed in Dieselgate, for sure, but not a very practical one. Because it’s safe to assume that even if you hate cars, you’re far more likely to be aware of your own car’s engine capacity than how many kilowatts it develops.
So now, in increments of five, Audi derivatives’ prefixes range from 30 to 50, followed by 60 and 70 (55 and 65 are omitted most likely because they’re owned by Mercedes-AMG, which is awkwardly self-conscious. Why not just start at 10 and end at 50?). The idea behind these random numbers is to denote certain brackets of power-output regardless of engine capacity, given the voluminous degree of engines shared with Volkswagen – in various states of tune. However; the non-Audi driver is still no less uninformed as to what he’s just made way for in the fast lane, if not more confused than ever, other than being able to reasonably deduce that 30 means you can’t afford to go fast and on other the scale, at 70, well, you can. Which means that until you’ve figured out the numbers, Audi's naming convention remains somewhat of an inside joke.
In the old days, a few anomalies aside, BMW was a model citizen of badging simplicity. What was under the bonnet was exactly what was promised on the boot lid. Later, this changed for a couple of reasons: turbocharging and engine sharing.
Turbocharging has confused matters...
The 3.0-litre (then) twin-turbo 335i (released in 2007) was the first BMW to have a model designation reflective of neither engine capacity nor induction type, but when BMW started putting the same turbocharged engine into several products (some of which had different, model-specific outputs), "borderline confusing" turned "full ridiculous". A 30i is equipped with a 2.0-litre engine; while the 30d, 40d and 50d derivatives are all powered by a 3.0-litre turbodiesel. But 50i petrols have 4.4-litre engines. And the unloved 740e hybrid has – wait for it – a 2.0-litre petrol engine.
Surely that means that BMW salespeople have to be the smartest people on the planet. Or not, but that’s only because they’ve been spared having to learn the "Mercedes-Benz encyclopaedia".
A Mercedes-AMG with a derivative name in the 50s used to suggest it was powered by a V8, but the E53 has a 3.0-litre straight 6.
Deep breath: A200s and B200s are powered by a 1.3-litre engine, but the C200 is powered by a 1.5-litre engine. Oh, and the C220D? That has a 2.0-litre “power unit”. 250d? Two-point-two-litres. C300? Two litres. AMGs? A colony of rabbits cannot keep up with the Affalterbach’s multiplication rate; and none of the AMG 35, 43, 45, 63 or 65 designations accurately describe engine capacity. And just to put an extra spin on things, in the case of the 63 models, the swept capacity is 4.0 litres, but wait, unless you're talking about the GLE or GLS or SL versions, where it’s 5.5 litres.
You can’t make this stuff up – because you can’t keep up. Imagine the debauched intoxication that would ensue if this were a drinking game.
Looking to the future, manufacturers’ new-found, hypocritical hatred for petrol engines is going to become a major headache for the creatives tasked with christening model derivatives. How, for example, will a range of EVs, or hydrogen fuel-cell cars from the same manufacturer be distinguished from one another apart from anything other than random, nonsensical digits? Tesla has models S, 3, X and Y (see what the spotty 17-year-old who came up with that did there?), but there’s nothing in there that subtly informs onlookers which side of the railroad tracks you live on.
A car's badge defines its owner's status
And that’s a problem that’s only going to get worse because no other accessory so overtly advertises – and is required to – one’s position on the social ladder than the cars we drive.
In Paul Verhoeven's classic sci-fi film, RoboCop, a tarted-up 1977 Pontiac Cutlass Supreme is parodied in a fake TV ad and marketed as the “6000 SUX”. The exact time of when the movie is set is undetermined, but it could not be far from 2019. It was released in 1987, when the Pretoria-born creator of Tesla, Elon Musk was – wait for it – 16 years old.
How apocalyptic. And how frightfully prescient.
Some of you may remember that the subtheme of the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show was a somewhat introspective one: "Will we remember vroom?" Today, the answer seems no. Instead, it’s click. And ka-ching. And repeat.