Back in the good old days (before Covid) when it was easier to travel internationally, it was a favourite game of mine to look at car body shapes and manufacturer badges I recognized when travelling overseas and see if the name was the same as what I was used to that car being called back home.
For example, in New Zealand we know the Mitsubishi GTO as one of the finest Japanese performance cars of the 1990s (check out our buyer’s guide & model history here). But in America this car was sold as the 3000GT.
In my local market, we have a lot of used Japanese imports on the road – basically second-hand JDM cars.
These used Japanese imports often have different names to the local/NZ new version. For example the Mazda 3, which is a popular small compact car, was sold as the Mazda Axela in Japan and you see a lot of Axela-badged imports on the road here,
Another example of cars being renamed is the Subaru Legacy, which was one of Subarus most iconic cars throughout the 90s and early 2000s (in fact, production of the Legacy ran from 1989-2020, with almost 4 million units produced and sold!).
The Legacy is called the Subaru Liberty in Australia, whereas every other market in the world called it the Legacy (apparently apart from Israel where it was sold as the Subaru B4).
Examples aside, this bears asking the question:
Why do cars have different names in different countries? Or at least why does this happen from time to time?
In today’s edition of Car Facts we are going to look at some of the reasons why cars are sold under different names in different countries.
Please note that this article isn’t about badge engineering (where one manufacturer sells another manufacturer’s car under their own badge/name). This article is specifically about when a company like Mazda sells the Mazda 3 in one country, and the Mazda Axela in another.
So what reasons are there for cars being called different names in different countries? Let’s take a look.
Language Barriers & Other Cultural Issues
Perhaps the most common reason why a manufacturer will call a car one name in one country, and then something else in another country is for language reasons. This is often to avoid causing offence or confusion or otherwise making a cultural faux pas.
For example, the Mitsubishi Pajero was called the Mitsubishi Montero in Spanish speaking countries. This is because Pajero is a Spanish slang word for “self-pleasure”, if you get what I mean. Nobody in their right mind would want to buy a car that infers that meaning and drive it around, hence the need to change the name.
Cars cost a lot to design, develop and build. The last thing a manufacturer wants to do is accidentally name its car an offensive term in a local market and then destroy the chance of making any sales.
Another example of this is the Honda Fit, which was originally meant to be called the Honda Fitta. However, Fitta is an offensive term in some Scandinavian countries (look it up) so the name ‘Jazz’ was chosen instead for the European market and some others like Australasia. In other markets the ‘a’ was dropped and the car named the Honda Fit. We aren’t too sure why the term ‘Jazz’ was used for the European name, but it has stuck ever since.
Renaming isn’t always due to pure profanity; sometimes there are other cultural sensitivities to consider.
For example, the Alfa Romeo 164 was sold in Hong Kong and Malaysia as the Alfa Romeo 168. This is because the number 164 has a Chinese homophone meaning of ‘all the way to death’ whereas 168 has the meaning of ‘all the way to prosperity’.
Of course sometimes a car’s name is fine, until it isn’t. The best example of this I can think of is the Toyota Isis, which is a Japanese Domestic Market economy family car (many of which have made their way onto the roads of New Zealand as affordable and reliable daily transport).
Why Is The Subaru Legacy Called The Subaru Liberty In Australia?
As a country, Australia has some unusual slang words and naming conventions. For example, Burger King is called “Hungry Jack’s” of all things (“it just tastes better with the Jack” doesn’t have quite the same cachet as “it just tastes better with the King”, at least in my opinion).
But why is the Subaru Legacy sold as the Subaru Liberty in Australia? This is a question we have seen asked a few times online, and the answer to this isn’t immediately obvious as the word ‘Legacy’ is not an offensive term in Australia.
However, Legacy does have a great deal of cultural/historical significance in Australia, which explains Subaru’s decision to name the car something else.
Following World War I (in which Australia sent many men to fight overseas in Europe and the Middle East) a charitable organisation called ‘Legacy’ was established to provide support to the widows and children of the soldiers who had died during the war. With the outbreak of World War 2, the growing organisation also started ‘Legacy Week’ to fundraise for families of those lost in war while serving Australia.
Legacy still exists to this day, supporting the families of Australian soldiers who have died in conflicts since World War 2. Their official website is here if you would like to learn more.
Out of respect for the Legacy name and story, Subaru rebadged their impending car as the Liberty for the Australian market.
If you have ever tried running a business, then you’ll know that legal issues are some of the most frustrating you can encounter.
This is no different in the car business, where legal headaches can derail a car’s development and release.
A manufacturer might need to rename a car because the original name is registered or trademarked to something else in the new market.
An example of this is the Suzuki Splash, which is a small economy car.
In India the car was sold as the Suzuki Ritz, because Ford had already registered the name ‘Splash’ in the Indian market.
Any manufacturer will have their legal team go through “due diligence” to ensure that the name the car is released under is unlikely to cause any legal issues in a given market.
Association With An Existing Name
Sometimes a manufacturer will pick a different name for a market, even if there isn’t really an issue using that name (which has already been used on other cars) from a legal perspective.
The Mitsubishi 3000GT is a great example of this.
In Japan, the car was sold as the Mitsubishi GTO. However, Mitsubishi was eager to avoid comparisons to the Pontiac GTO, as well as Ferrari’s 250 GTO (although one of my favourite descriptions of the 3000GT/GTO is that the car is a ‘Japanese computer programmer’s interpretation of what a Ferrari should be’)
Improving The Chance Of Sales Success
Ultimately, the decision to rename a car for sale in a different market is all about improving the chances of sales success.
Sometimes that is about avoiding offence with a name that might have an unintended meaning in a specific language or geography.
Other times it is all about making sure that the company doesn’t encounter any legal issues, e.g. using a name that has already been registered or trademarked.
But other times the manufacturer has simply done their research (or at least their marketing team claims to have done their research) that indicates using a different name will improve the likelihood of sales success and popularity in a given market. There are all manner of reasons why a particular name might sound better in one country than the regular name of a car, and it all works towards the goal of selling more units!
Conclusion – Why Are Cars Called Different Names In Different Countries?
There are a variety of reasons why the same car might be sold in one country with a different name to the next (remember, this is different to ‘badge engineering’ which is more about one manufacturer using another’s car to fill a gap in their lineup).
The most common reasons are language and cultural sensitivity issues. Nobody wants to sell a car that might cause offence in a local market, with the Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero being perhaps the best example of this.
Legal concern is another reason why a car might be sold under a different name in a different country. For example, Suzuki selling the Splash as the Ritz in India due to Ford having prior registration on the name.
When you break it down, the most fundamental reason why a car is called a different name in a different country is to improve the chances of sales success. Manufacturers invest massive amounts of time, effort and money into developing and releasing cars. The last thing they want is a flop, so if anything during the development process indicates that a name change is the best way to go to, then you had best believe that the manufacturer will look to use the name that is going to make the most sales possible.
What car renaming stories do you find interesting? Leave us a comment below – we would love to hear from you!