Avoidable Contact: An Immodest Proposal to Solve the German Nomenclatural Nincompoopery.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
avoidable contact an immodest proposal to solve the german nomenclatural

Why, why, why the hell is the new BMW 328d called the 328d? It’s a 3-Series, so that part’s legitimate, even if today’s 3er dwarfs the old Bavaria. It’s also a diesel, so the “d” seems appropriate, even if the absence of a “t” rankles a bit among those of us who remember the 524td. Not that “t” always meant “turbo” in BMW-land; sometimes it meant “touring” like fast, sometimes it meant “touring” like station wagon.

The problem is this: the “28” in 328d suggests a 2.8-liter engine. Just like the 528e had. Well, actually, that was a 2.7-liter engine. The same engine appeared in the 325e, where it was also 2.7 liters. Still, those are relatively white decklid lies compared to the effrontery of putting a two-liter engine in a car and badging it as a 2.8, right? There has to be a rhyme and reason here somewhere, surely. And it there isn’t, then surely there’s a way to put some sense and sensibility back into the German-car game, right?

Good news: I, your humble author, have a solution.

Before I detail my easy-as-pie and completely reasonable idea, however, let’s consider just how BMW and Mercedes in particular got themselves into this mess. The idea of naming a car after its engine displacement isn’t a new one — in fact, it dates from very nearly the first automobiles — but since cars in Europe were often taxed on their displacement the importance of knowing said displacement right up front took on a rather outsized importance in that market. It never happened here, otherwise the fellow chasing the “hot rod Lincoln” would have bragged that “nothin’ will outrun my three-point-six-liter Ford.” Here in the United States, we named our cars after animals, cities, natural phenomena, and other fun stuff. Who would want a “Ford 4.7S” when you could have a Ford Mustang?

In the dour environment of postwar Germany, however, Mercedes-Benz chose to name their cars after their displacement, with only the addition of an “S” for “Super” executive sedans spoiling the purity of the naming scheme. Later on, more letters appeared after the numbers, but those numbers tended to be trustworthy. A “180” probably was 1.8 liters. The “300SLR” really was a three-liter engine. It mostly made sense.

The first real cracks in the scheme appeared when Mercedes-Benz decided to boost the available power in the S-Class sedans. When the 6.3-liter V-8 was dropped into the 300SEL, somebody realized that calling it the 630SEL might give it more decklid authority on the Autobahn than the “600” limo. (That should have been the “630”, come to think of it.) Something had to be done, and that something was to create a car called the “300SEL 6.3”. Other 300SELs arrived after that, including the 300SEL 3.5 and the 300SEL 4.5. The last one always amused me because presumably it was done to prevent the crass horror of calling a car the “450SEL”. Naturally, the next big Benz to appear was, in fact, called the 450SEL.

BMW had been struggling with a rather confusing displacement-based scheme of its own, where the 2002 was a two-door 2000 rather than a 2000 with two additional milliliters of bore. The sensible decision was made to create a universal naming scheme. To prevent the silliness of a 300SEL 4.5, the displacement was given second billing behind an arbitrary number meant to denote the size of sausage being sold. A 320i, therefore, was a 3-Series with a two-liter engine.

This scheme lasted all of ten minutes before BMW decided to fit a 1.8-liter engine into the US-market 320i without changing the badge. Presumably this was done because customers, who had already caught on to the general idea that a higher number was better, would balk at paying more for this year’s 318i then they had paid for the previous year’s 320i. The “318i” moniker didn’t appear until the E30 did. Note how quickly the number really started to matter. Fewer than five years after adopting a logical model designation system, BMW was already having to fudge it. Let’s not forget the 745i, of course, which was a turbocharged 730i. The “4.5” was meant to represent the, ah, equivalent power potential or something like that.

By 1990 or thereabouts, the German model schemes were being honored more in the breach than the observance. The small Mercedes was called the 190E 2.3, or the 190E 2.5, or the 190E 2.6. You could buy a 190E 2.6 or a 260E. They were very different cars. BMW was selling the same engine in the 325 and 528. Mercedes blinked and created the ridiculous notion of C, E, and S-Class cars. This should have made it possible to honestly state the displacement, since the letter was there to denote prestige. Naturally, the minute the C230K went from a 2.3-liter to a 1.8-liter supercharged four-cylinder, the scheme was broken and we then had a C230 1.8. BMW, meanwhile, was selling a 3.0-liter six-cylinder in a car and calling it the 328i. In the 3-Series, the turbocharged 3.0-liter was called a 335i, but that same engine in a 7-Series made it a 740Li. This was odd, because once upon a time a 740Li was a 4.4-liter V-8.

This brings us to the present day, which looks like so:

320i — 2.0L

328i — 2.0L (four-doors)

328i — 3.0L (two-doors)

328d — 2.0L

335i — 3.0L

This won’t do, will it? Only one of the five configurations is even close to being named after its actual displacement. You can’t even rely on the engines being smaller than their listed displacement; the old carry-over coupe has a larger engine than the decklid suggests.

I find the whole situation thrilling because it’s yet another case of people “misusing” a technology or a language or a tool. Engineers and designers and marketroids love to sit around and determine exactly how somebody will use or buy or regard a product, but those plans never survive the first contact with the enemy. In Africa, smartphones are bank accounts. The World Wide Web mostly transmits content types that weren’t even suggested when the first HTML pages were written. Somebody goes through the trouble of making a nice pre-surgery drug like Rohypnol and the next thing you know, ugly guys in New York with the ability to lift and carry 150 pounds are getting lucky like you wouldn’t believe.

Whatever ideas BMW might have had for its naming system in 1974, the market has its own ideas, and those ideas run something like this: a bigger number is better. Well, duh. The 328d has to be a 2.8 “marketing displacement” engine because the 328i is a 2.8, and that is a 2.8 because it’s meant to have equivalent power to the old 2.8, which was really a 3.0 but which was downgraded to create more marketing space between it and the significantly more expensive 335i. BMW could just reset everything to actual displacement but customers would expect the price to drop. How could a 320ti cost as much as the old 328i? How could a 320d cost more than a 328i?

Let’s not even get into the 7-Series, where the fine old name 735i can’t be used because it sounds cheap compared to 740i, and 730ti absolutely positively cannot be used under any circumstances. How about those Mercedes-Benz E63 AMGs which don’t displace 6.3 liters any more and in fact never actually did?

The pressure is on the manufacturers to offer more number for the buck. Pretty soon, the 328i will have to be a 330i, perhaps. It’s easy to imagine a situation where a high-efficiency 1.5-liter “330i” exists. Two marketing liters for every real one! Not to mention the fact that a two-liter turbo will eventually power US-market 7-Series sedans and no way in hell are they going to be called “720Li”. Meanwhile, Mercedes is selling a 1.8-liter C250 and a 3.5-liter C300. It’s all getting cray-cray up in here.

The proper solution to all of this is blinding in its simplicity. For the majority of consumers, the number on a BMW or Mercedes is only relevant insofar as it provides an approximate estimate of price. The numbers are also judged against the competition, a fact which caused Audi to rename its new “300” sedan to “Audi V-8” at the last minute lo these many years ago, since the Audi “300” would have cost a fair bit more than a Mercedes 300E and a hell of a lot more than a BMW 325. So why mess around with all this stupidity about equivalent turbocharged marketing displacement and whatnot?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the newest BMW: the BMW 32,250. Formerly known as the 320i, it’s now named directly after its price. If you put options on it, the number will go higher. Or, you could choose a full-sized sedan like the BMW 73,550, formerly the “740i”. All the mystery is gone. The price is on the trunk. Show it to your neighbors, who just took delivery of a Mercedes-Benz 51,500 instead of the E350 they’d had their eyes on a year or so ago. From now on, you’ll know what everybody around you paid for their car. No more obscurity. Sure, we won’t know what size the engines are, but we don’t know that now. You can find that boring crap out right here on TTAC, while your girlfriend looks at your mid-engined Audi 114,200 and calculates what her engagement ring should cost.

In a single unilateral move, I’ve destroyed all nomenclatural confusion for all time. Until, that is, BMW starts offering rebates. Pretty soon, the BMW 89,400 will go out the door for $60k or less. Leased examples won’t say BMW 339/month, but maybe they should? What about used cars? Will they have their logos jumbled the way second-rate bodyshops often create S450 Benzos with heavy orange peel? It’s all too much to think about. Maybe some legislation should be introduced to give every car a name — but what if that name is Cutlass Calais Brougham?

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  • PriusV16 PriusV16 on Aug 21, 2014

    We'll simply solve this problem in a typical German way. We'll form a commitee of 100 known experts from various fields of expertise (albeit not necessarily from the automotive world), give them a huge budget, and in 8 to 10 years, they'll come up with a totally un-viable compromise solution that will be worse than anything else imaginable. As an alternative, we could choose the Angela Merkel Way Of Solving Problems - acknowledge the existence of the problem, stress the importance of finding a lasting solution that will serve all interests, and beside that, just do nothing and hope the problem will go away all by itself. (;^)

  • DirtRoads DirtRoads on Sep 01, 2016

    Volvo did the weird numbering thing too, about number of doors and cylinders, or something like that. A Volvo maniac friend told me all about it years ago, when I was into Fiats. Always thought the MB 300SLR was a kind of camera. Go figure. *shrug*

  • MaintenanceCosts I don't see what niche it would fill that's not already filled by either the high trims of the 4Runner or the GX.
  • Alan Many of the comments reflect a poor attitude of who should be f@#ked over with little thought on why the fines are imposed. Humans have used a system of penalties/imprisonment for centuries and it doesn't work. What does work is limiting a persons freedoms. If their is a compliance issue, ie, VW with its Dieselgate and huge fines doesn't alter the way VW operate (I'd bet VAG is still finding ways to circumvent the system). This is human, if we know there is no or little chance of a genuine effort to conform things will stay the same, until electronic devices are used to regulate speed. Then we will here the whining about freedumbs. When your behaviour impacts anothers' freedom it isn't freedom anymore. Like guns as well, as well as white collar crime, etc. Controls and regulations tend to protect the rich, even driving regulations, so just remove the driving licences of serial offenders, their freedom. If they persevere imprison them.
  • MaintenanceCosts The Thunderbird SVE used a supercharged version of the 2-valve Mod, not the 4-valve one at issue here.There were nonstop rumors in the early 90s that the 4-valve engine would end up in the P71, making a true competitor to the LT1-powered bubble Caprice, but it never happened.
  • MaintenanceCosts Removing hardware that is already present in a physical machine you bought is theft. Someone affected should sue Tesla for conversion.It's just one more example of the sort of sharp business practices that you expect with Elmo at the helm..
  • Theflyersfan Needed an updated picture of Philadelphia to replace the rather nice ones above.