Image: 2008 Honda Element
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Fifty-seven percent of Honda Element owners are female. It was designed to compete with compact SUVs like the Ford Escape and tall hatchbacks like the Chrysler PT Cruiser.
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updated 11/9/2007 11:13:26 PM ET 2007-11-10T04:13:26

To buy the Chevy Silverado heavy-duty pickup, some might argue that in addition to the $22,225 sticker price, you also need a Y chromosome. That's because 93 percent of the truck's buyers are men. In fact, males own about nine out of 10 heavy-duty pickup trucks on the road, according to findings by AutoPacific, a market research firm focused on the auto industry.

Womens' tastes run a little more refined. AutoPacific found that female buyers most often choose models by Saturn, Honda and Volkswagen.

What gives? Though car companies typically avoid making gender-specific vehicles, says Jim Hossick, vice president and senior consultant at AutoPacific, "some cars are more masculine or feminine by nature."

The market's male-friendly cars include the Ford F-350 and the Dodge Ram, of which men own 93 percent and 89 percent, respectively. Chrysler spokesperson Dan Bodene says it is a combination of marketing and design that has created such disproportionate numbers.

The "Built Ford Tough" tag line, for example, can be heard during commercial breaks in NFL games, and other ads for the beefy F-Series feature burly men in cowboy hats.

"It depends on the model, but the Ram tends to be used by guys who need the capability, either as heads of households hauling a lot of stuff, or on job sites in male-dominated professions," says Bodene. Consequently, door handles need to be large enough for a man's gloved hand, and seats need to be able to move far enough away from the steering wheel to accommodate larger bodies — the average American man is five and half inches taller and 27 pounds heavier than the average woman.

But it's an equal-opportunity marketplace, and carmakers try to design vehicles — even heavy-duty pickups — that won't discourage any potential buyers. Tailgates must be light enough for all types of people to lift, and seatbelts must be comfortable for male and female body types.

While AutoPacific's data shows brands such as Hummer, Dodge, Porsche and GMC are most popular among men, models produced by Saturn, Honda, Volkswagen and Hyundai are the biggest hits with female drivers.

An estimated 65 percent of Volkswagen Beetle Convertible buyers are female. The New Beetle, with a 5-cylinder engine, is nearing a decade of production; the soft-top model came on the market in 2003.

VW spokesperson Keith Price acknowledges the New Beetle is purchased and driven more by females, but says it was not a result of designers trying to make a women's car.

"It happened more organically," says Price, explaining that the car was initially launched to have dual appeal. After the New Beetle had been out for a few years, and sales data started piling up, VW marketers then found ways to benefit from its popularity among women — stylish designs cues and more feminine colors such as "gecko green" and "sunflower yellow."

"The female appeal of the car is one of the things that has sustained it over the years without a great deal of aesthetic change," says Price, "but VW does absolutely not consider it 'a woman's car.'"

In fact, the notion of a "female" automobile has become long outdated.

"People who have tried to make a vehicle that is female-centric have failed," says Hossick. "Women might buy a 'man's' vehicle, but men won't buy a 'women's' car."

The most famous attempt was the Dodge LaFemme, dreamt up by marketers trying to capitalize on the growing interest in automobile ownership among women in the early 1950s. The car sported pink upholstery patterned with rosebuds and came with a matching purse, raincoat and umbrella. It was outfitted with lipstick holders and painted a new shade, dubbed Heather Rose.

Dodge gave it a 218-Hp V8 engine — a lot more muscle than today's top sellers among women, like the 140-Hp Hyundai Tucson — but the LaFemme only made it through two years of production, with sales estimated around 2,500.

"Women were generally offended by it, and men wouldn't touch it with a stick," says Hossick. "If you can't sell a car to boys and you can't sell it to girls, then the market is going to be pretty small."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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