The carboxyl terminus of the G protein alpha subunit is a key determinant of the fidelity of receptor activation. We have previously shown that the Gq alpha subunit (alpha q) can be made to respond to alpha i-coupled receptors by replacing its carboxyl terminus with the corresponding alpha i2, alpha o, alpha z residues. We now extend these findings in three ways: 1) carboxyl-terminal mutations of alpha q/alpha i chimeras show that the critical amino acids are in the -3 and -4 positions, 2) exchange of carboxyl termini between alpha q and alpha z allows activation by receptors appropriate to the carboxyl-terminal residues, and 3) we identify receptors that either do or do not activate the expected carboxyl-terminal chimeras (alpha q/alpha i, alpha q/alpha s, alpha s/alpha q). Replacement of the five carboxyl-terminal amino acids of alpha q with the alpha s sequence permitted an alpha s-coupled receptor (the V2 vasopressin receptor but not the beta 2-adrenergic receptor) to stimulate phospholipase C. Replacement of the five carboxyl-terminal amino acids of alpha z with residues of alpha q permitted certain alpha q-coupled receptors (bombesin and V1a vasopressin receptors but not the oxytocin receptor) to stimulate adenylyl cyclase. Thus, the relative importance of the G alpha carboxyl terminus in permitting coupling to a new receptor depends on the receptor with which it is paired. These studies refine our understanding and provide new tools with which to study the fidelity of receptor/G alpha activation.