Oops! Kia Car Name Stirs Controversy in Northern Ireland

Kia Provo concept automobile, produced by Kia Motors.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Kia Provo concept automobile, produced by Kia Motors.

Korean carmaker Kia has touched off an unanticipated firestorm with the debut of its Provo concept vehicle at this year's Geneva Motor Show.

Finding a suitable name for a vehicle is never easy, usually because the best choices are already taken, but occasionally because they might carry some inadvertently negative meaning.

In the case of the Provo, a British lawmaker has gotten fired up because Provo was the street name for the Provisional IRA, the violent arm of the Irish Republican Army blamed for nearly 2,000 deaths during the period referred to as The Troubles, the 1970 to 1997 campaign of violence meant to win independence for the region from Britain.

It didn't help that Kia—whose name can be seen as shorthand for "Killed in Action"—promoted the design concept vehicle as a "radical super-mini coupe which aims to set the streets alight."

That led Gregory Campbell, a member of Parliament from Northern Ireland's Derry, to introduce a bill asking Kia to make sure it didn't actually sell a car with the Provo name. His goal, MP Campbell said, according to RTE News, was to "reinforce with Kia the seriousness of the issue and the need to deal with their customers in a sensitive manner."

The red-faced automaker quickly made a U-turn. Though it was too late to re-badge the Kia Provo concept vehicle, it now promises it will not use the name on a production vehicle—certainly not when for sale on the British Isles.

The lawmaker said he is pleased Kia "acted quickly," adding the maker's "decisive action will be welcomed by many people, in Northern Ireland and beyond, whose lives have been affected by the murderous actions of the Provisional IRA.

Along with actions in Northern Ireland, the "provos" were blamed for numerous bombings and murders in England.

The unexpected flap underscores the challenges carmakers face when they try to come up with new names. Perhaps the most famous example was General Motors errant decision to market its Chevrolet Nova small car in Latin American markets, unaware the name also could mean, "doesn't go." As The Associated Press noted, the Mazda LaPuta could be translated into "the whore," while the Honda Fitta was interpreted by some Scandinavians to refer to a woman's genitalia.

A whole industry has grown up around finding available and safe names, though Toyota ran into a snag when it launched its luxury brand Lexus in 1989. It was sued by Mead Data Central, the parent company of LexisNexis, the legal and news service, but after initially agreeing to a pay-off, Toyota let the case go to court where the car company won on appeal.

However, Toyota backed down when Ford threatened to sue over the planned name for a new full-size pickup. Ford claimed Toyota's T-150 was too close to the Ford F-150, long the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. The Japanese maker ultimately decided to name its truck the Tundra.