A runaround or a Bongo Friendee?

Who invents car names? How do they get it so wrong?
THE FAR Eastern Prisoners Of War Association is absolutely right: naming a car - a Japanese car, no less - after the Mitsubishi Zero fighter that attacked Pearl Harbor is, at best, insensitive. Just 20 examples of the rally car-derived Mitsubishi Lancer GSR Evolution VI Zero Fighter will be exported to Britain, subtly rebadged as the Zero. As if that makes a difference.

Then again, America's Dodge is presumably thankful it failed to include Yugoslavia among export destinations for its Stealth sportscar. Stealth was actually manufactured by Mitsubishi, a company which, even before Zero Fighter, displayed a relentless propensity for wilfully odd model names.

It seems that Mitsubishi's chunky Starion coupe was so christened as the result of a misheard conversation `twixt occident and orient. American marketeers wanted a car called "Stallion" as a rival for Ford's Mustang: Japanese phonetics did the rest.

Combine Japan's faddish car market and the country's enduring expertise for radically mangling English - current exemplars include a videogame entitled Soul Reaver, Tokyo boutique Real Mad Hectic and top guitar band Thee Michelle Gun Elephant - and weird car labelling becomes the norm.

Back in the Seventies, British drivers loved both Datsun Cherry and Sunny, two impeccably-executed if technically mediocre runabouts. Today, what Europe reveres as the butch Nissan 300ZX two-seater has a staunch following at home, where it is demurely lauded as the Fairlady. For decades, the top-of-the-range Nissan was branded Cedric, apparently in an attempt to add a certain European distinction. Discerning Japanese car buyers might opt for Daihatsu's Opti Aerodown Beex, or Subaru's Sambar Dias II Picnic- Car Astonish!!, surely the only car in the world littering its tailgate with five nouns, two exclamation marks and one number. Toyota offers a roster of tongue-twisting people-movers: how to choose between Hiace Regius or Vista Ardeo? Honda's CR-V 4x4 is a global success. CR-V? Compact Recreational Vehicle, claim the company's Western spin meisters; Comfortable Runabout Vehicle, says the home-market brochure. Honda even has a model, StepWGN, that completely eschews conventional spelling: yes, it is pronounced "stepwagon".

Toyota's new supermini is Yaris across Europe, and Vitz in Toyota City, while Mazda's MX-5 is Miata in the US and, unfathomably, Eunos Roadster in Japan. Most serious car-makers reassure themselves with coolly descriptive alphanumeric appellations: after all, BMW 328i is much easier to advertise across cultural boundaries than Mazda Bongo Friendee Auto Free Top or Isuzu Bighorn.

Yet, with the apparently innocuous MR2 nameplate, Toyota came unstuck in France, where "m-r-deux" is aurally indistinguishable from "merde". Scatology has long been a worry: Rolls Royce's original choice of name for Silver Shadow was Silver Mist, which, if being very polite, translates as "organic fertiliser" in German. Ford sticks an "Si" suffix on mainstream performance models, a hitherto innocuous sub-brand which made the notion of a sportier Ka a delight to a generation weaned on Carry On films.

To a keen student of the subject, there was an inevitability about the introduction of the Mitsubishi Zero Fighter. After all, seven years ago Billy Bragg crooned - at the close of "Sexuality" - "I look like Robert de Niro/ I drive a Mitsubishi Zero", a prediction he surely did not expect to come true. But times change. Were there, 30 years ago, any complaints when Triumph exported its Spitfire soft-top to Germany?

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