The other day, my dad and I were waiting at a restaurant for our food, and started talking trucks. He was telling me a friend of his really likes the new Cherokee. My response? "But there isn't a new Cherokee; it was replaced by the Liberty in 2002." Turns out, two different things happened here. He knew he was referring to the Grand Cherokee and wasn't confusing it with the Cherokee, and he was specifying "Cherokee" instead of "Grand Cherokee" because his friend was curious about the V-6 Pentastar engine, not the V-8.
As we continued talking, we discussed how the names of Jeeps have changed over the years, and I used my smartphone to do some quick research. The first time Jeep used the Cherokee name was in 1974. It was a full-size, body-on-frame, two-door sport/utility, with the same basic dimensions as the four-door Wagoneer. It was added to the line the year after the Commando was discontinued. The Cherokee was offered only with an inline-six; those who wanted a V-8 would have to get the Wagoneer instead.
There was actually a four-door Cherokee starting in 1977, and it was available with a V-8. In addition, just before Wagoneer was discontinued, its name had been changed to Grand Wagoneer, and the "Grand" Wagoneer was available only with a V-8, even though the regular Wagoneer came with a choice of engines. Dad thought that tradition had continued over time, but it hadn't. He was trying to apply logic to an illogical, inconsistent industry.
Seven years after that, the smaller Cherokee (XJ) was introduced, with two or four doors, unibody, and four- or six-cylinder engines. The Wagoneer name was still used on a version of the XJ with woodgrain side panels and four headlights instead of two. The vehicle was sold alongside the Grand Wagoneer.
So when the Grand Cherokee was introduced in 1993, it muddled the issue even more. It was a totally different vehicle from the Cherokee. And for one year, there was a Grand Wagoneer special-edition version of the Grand Cherokee.
This isn't the sole case of confusing model names. Chevrolet (and sometimes GMC) has used the Suburban name since 1935. Plymouth, Dodge, Nash, and Studebaker also had Suburbans, and those were station wagons.
On the truck side, what about the Ram? Today, it's a separate division under the Chrysler umbrella, and encompasses all the trucks. (Depending on where you look, this includes the Dakota -- the Ram Dakota?) As long as it's been around, though, the Ram name has been synonymous with full-size pickups and vans. But in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a compact Ram truck -- the Ram D50, built by Mitsubishi. That partnership created other nomenclature problems, as Marc Cook points out in this issue's "Pre-Owned": in the 1980s, Dodge sold the Pajero/Montero as the Raider, a name that returned in the 2000s as Mitsubishi's version of the Dakota.
Which brings us to the present day. There are rumors the Dakota will be replaced by a unibody truck, similar to the Honda Ridgeline. Would that be called the Rampage -- the same name as the concept vehicle Dodge showed a few years ago and also the same name as a compact Dodge production unibody pickup from the 1980s -- the Ram Dakota, or the Dodge Dakota? Keep in mind that when the Ram Truck brand was established, the Durango took a year off and returned as a unibody Dodge. We never had to debate whether the Durango should've been called a Ram Durango because of its body-on-frame underpinnings.
If someone mentions the Explorer, are they referring to the Explorer (four-door), Explorer Sport (two-door), or Explorer Sport Trac (SUT)? And these days, do they mean the body-on-frame Explorer or the new-for-2011 unibody model? It was confusing enough before!
I realize a name doesn't necessarily define what a vehicle is -- a manufacturer does. But I do wonder if, when a manufacturer radically changes a vehicle -- such as the Explorer, Durango, or Dakota -- it should change the name as well. Putting a well-known name on an unrelated vehicle redefines what the name means. These names represented body-on-frame vehicles that have genuine off-road capability and are built for hard work. And not changing these names dilutes what the vehicles are known for, what they used to be all about.
I know it's a lot easier and less expensive to stick with a name everyone knows. I just wish there were a better way to do it.