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What women want

November 22, 2010
Female car buyers look for features that fit their lives

Draped in plush leather, deluxe acoustic systems and elegant wood trim, the $150,000 Bentley Continental GT is the kind of vehicle designed to satisfy a driver's every desire. Except for one detail. "There's still no place for your purse," said Denesha Evans, an account executive in Michigan, as she sat in the driver's seat looking for a place to stash her handbag. Based on a survey released this month by the Women's Economic Club and past market research, female consumers generally want more storage, better safety features and more room in their vehicles-extras that don't rank high in importance among men. But despite research that shows women purchase 50 percent of new cars and influence 80 percent of car-buying decisions, their preferences in vehicle design often have been overlooked by the auto industry. Looking at the amped-up stereos, menacing front grilles and other macho attributes of autos past and present, it's apparent why Detroit became home of the adage that "you can sell a guy's car to women, but you can't sell a woman's car to a guy." In recent years, responding to growing power among female consumers and industry executives, automakers have toned down the testosterone to a certain extent, tacking on safety features by the score and revamping interiors to handle loose change and a super-sized soda from the drive-through. The Volkswagen Beetle even features a built-in bud vase, complete with a fake daisy, to soften the interior atmosphere. But there still is room for improvement, according to the Women's Economic Club survey. Women asked for better windshield wipers, adjustable pedals that can be operated in high heels and computer chargers or ports. According to past research, males tend to prefer appearance and performance attributes above practical ones. Even the seemingly innocuous bench seat is a heated battleground between the genders, said Art Spinella, an auto industry analyst at CNW Marketing in Bandon, Ore. On a scale of 1 to 10, Spinella said, surveys have shown women on average rate the bench seat an 8, because it enables them to place items conveniently within reach of the driver. Men, meanwhile, tend to think the bench seat is lame, rating it a 2.2. Males prefer the appearance of bucket seats, giving them a 6.3, while women rate separated seats at a 3.4. "Women tend to be more practical as consumers, rating things such as safety as very important. Men tend to be more concerned with appearance and rating the stereo system as very important," Spinella said. "It's something that is even apparent in children (who are surveyed)." Not everyone agrees the differences between "men's" cars and "women's" cars are all that striking. John and Susan Kibele said they had very similar reactions when car shopping, chalking up any differences to personal preference, not gender. "I don't think it has a whole lot to do with gender," Susan Kibele said. "My daughter drives a truck. I don't think women want much different than men generally." Whether or not the difference in preferences between genders is as big as the industry thinks, they'll likely keep cranking out cars aimed mostly at men, Spinella said. "Up to this point, they'll just use what they think men want and figure women will just buy it anyway," he said. "That's why you see so many bucket seats as standard equipment."