What do women want? A hot sports car will do

The cliché that women favor reliable and practical cars like minivans is becoming something of an anachronism. Increasingly they are going against the grain to buy sports cars, trucks and SUVs.

Women car shoppers prefer the smooth curves found in models like the Mercedes-Benz SLK luxury roadster.

Male drivers take note: Most sports cars are sexy, but a new survey shows some are better than others at arousing the passions of female car buyers.

Road & Travel Magazine, which targets upscale professional women, has released its 10th annual “Sexy Car Buyer’s Guide,” which aims to identify the “sexiest, hottest, wildest wheels” on the road. The final cut includes cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang, BMW Z4, Mercedes-Benz SLK and a newcomer to the list — the newly released Pontiac Solstice.

Eligibility and criteria for the guide are simple: pure sex appeal. But if you think that by buying one of these cars you’ll turn yourself into a chick magnet, think again.  Increasingly, women are buying sports cars, and in doing so they are making a strong statement about their independence, says editor in chief Courtney Caldwell.

“Years ago, the sports car was something that was way out of the reach of most women, but now those cars have become more affordable, and these days more women are college-educated, and they are earning larger salaries. So, we are seeing more of them purchase sports cars instead of simply admiring them from afar,” Caldwell said.

It’s an age-old question: What do women want? The problem has puzzled marketers for decades, and Detroit has yet to answer it.

The Dodge ‘La Femme,’ released in the mid-1950s, was pink and designed to gain a foothold in the women’s automobile market. Its marketing material proudly proclaimed that the car was made for “Her Majesty, the American Woman.” But the Dodge La Femme idea was shelved after just a few years.

Times have changed. These days, the cliché that women only buy reliable and practical cars like minivans is becoming something of an anachronism, as many are going against the grain and buying sports cars, trucks and SUVs.

Some 25 percent of Corvettes are bought by women — a high number for a car that carries a sticker price of $44,000 to $65,000 in the USA, says Caldwell. And retro-styled cars are popular with older empty nesters.

“New cars like Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, the Chevrolet HHR and the Dodge Caliber, for example, are drawing more women,” said Caldwell. “They grew up in the 1960s and 1950s when the retro styling of these cars were in fashion, and they were not allowed to drive them. But now their kids are in college they are finding them very affordable. The irony is all these car models were originally targeting the young male consumer.”

There are a number of factors driving the change. As women achieve greater equality in the workplace, earn larger salaries and move up into executive positions they are looking for status symbols on the road just like men, Caldwell said.

“We are seeing this more with boomer women,” she said. “And these days, younger women don’t think they need to get married straight away, and so they are staying single longer. And older women getting divorced are able to buy more expensive vehicles.”

Women haven’t abandoned their eye for value and reliability, says Joanne Helperin, editor of Edmunds.com’s Women’s Car Guide. Helperin notes that female executives, generally in their early 40s and earning at least $100,000, seek luxury cars that offer value and reliability as well as style and status.

“Generally, men and women have similar priorities when it comes to buying a car, but they put them in a different order,” said Helperin. Women place safety and practicality high on their list of priorities, while men place more emphasis on horsepower and engine size. And women are more concerned than men with whether a car has enough room for passengers and cargo, Helperin added.

When it comes to luxury cars or sportier models, you’re more likely to see a woman opt for the smoother curves of a Mercedes-Benz SLK luxury roadster or BMW Z4, she said, while men tend to prefer the harder edges you would see in a Cadillac XLR. Women also gravitate toward sporty convertibles, like the Mazda Miata, and, surprisingly, they are the fastest-growing segment of truck and SUV buyers, Helperin noted.

“Twenty years ago, a woman would have looked weird driving a truck if they weren’t on a farm, but these days women are unafraid to be seen in them,” Helperin said.

Helperin cites data from research firm RL Polk that show that during the first 11 months of 2004, American women bought as many full-size pickups as they did minivans — more than 250,000, according to the data. And women buy 45 percent of all SUVs, including 40 percent of full-size SUVs, like the Toyota Sequoia and Chevrolet Suburban.

“Women are very practical shoppers, and trucks and SUVs are very practical people- and goods-haulers,” Helperin said. Modern trucks are more maneuverable than they used to be and built with a ‘unibody’ framework, which makes them lighter, she added. The increasing number of women buying pickups isn’t lost on Detroit or Japan, she said — every major auto brand now has women contributing to the design and engineering of its pickups.

More female-friendly features are being incorporated into pickups, Helperin adds, including adjustable brake and gas pedals, greater storage and passenger capacity and more carlike rides. Ford says that women buy between 15 and 20 percent of its trucks, with more of them buying compact pickups like the Ford Ranger, Helperin notes. The average age of Ford’s female pickup buyer is about 42 or 43, Helperin added.

“The trend here is women are buying more of the cars they want to buy, and it has to do with income and self-image,” said Road & Travel Magazine’s Caldwell. “They want to take responsibility for their family, yes, but they also want to go out and buy the cars they have always wanted.”

The women of the boomer generation — the revolution generation — they are the ones buying Harley-Davidson motorcycles and sports cars and pursuing active lifestyles, Caldwell said. “They are not slowing down, and sports cars are helping them keep up to speed.”

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