Image: Volvo S40
Volvo
The Volvo S40 has the third-highest percentage of primary female drivers when looking only at premium vehicles.
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updated 5/14/2008 12:59:07 PM ET 2008-05-14T16:59:07

When General Motors was planning its latest full-size SUVs, vehicle line director Mary Sipes had men on the development team dress in drag for a day.

They put on high heels, press-on nails and skirts made from garbage bags in an effort to determine how some women might feel getting into and driving a huge SUV.

The exercise helped expose issues with ingress and egress, as well as how to position and shape controls on the center console. But it was only one aspect of a larger process for understanding what motivates female buyers.

“Women are more complicated than skirts, purses and nails,” says Brigid O’Kane, a design professor and coordinator of the Transportation Design Track program at the University of Cincinnati. Even so, ease of entry and useful interior storage, including space for a purse, are elements that make vehicles especially attractive to women, she says.

To find out which vehicles women prefer, we compiled two lists. One looks at luxury vehicles most driven by women, and the other ranks the overall top 10 vehicles most driven by women, regardless of whether they are luxury or non-luxury.

Women generally demand more from their vehicles than men do and are more particular about a broader range of criteria. “There is a significant amount of overlap between what women and men want in car design,” says Tim Greig, interior design manager for General Motors Global Design. “What I've noticed in our market research, however, is that women tend to not only see the big picture but pay close attention to the details as well."

That’s why companies are starting to use “transparent” marketing as a way to attract women buyers without alienating men. This approach is based on the premise that women tend to have a longer list of shopping criteria than men, even though they might share some top priorities. Therefore, companies can attract both male and female buyers by focusing on the priorities of most women.

For example, if a man and woman each have a list of five desired attributes they consider when shopping for a car, the woman may have five additional desires that are lower in priority but still important.

“If you can understand numbers six through 10, then you can attract women and over-deliver to men,” says Lisa Johnson, president of marketing firm ReachWomen and author of the book “Don’t Think Pink.”

Safety, comfort, practicality and value are top priorities for women car buyers, experts say. Styling, design and performance are also important, but not necessarily more so than practicality.

Our all-inclusive list of vehicles with the highest percentage of female primary drivers includes some of the smallest, least expensive cars available, such as the Honda Fit, Kia Spectra and Toyota Yaris. The Fit tops our list encompassing both luxury and non-luxury vehicles, with 80.46 percent driven primarily by women. Go to the “slide show” link below to see the full list.

In general, women tend to be more open-minded toward smaller vehicles than men. Many mothers on a tight budget will choose a smaller or more basic vehicle if it means having more money to send kids to college, O'Kane says.

To put into perspective women’s focus on finding the best value, consider that three models on our list that includes luxury and non-luxury vehicles with the highest percentage of female primary drivers are among the least expensive to own. The fifth-ranked Nissan Versa (60.58 percent of which have primarily female drivers), the fourth-ranked Toyota Yaris (61.86 percent), and the top-ranked Honda Fit (80.46 percent) all made our separate ranking of the Top 10 Least Expensive Vehicles to Own.

Women might be more inclined than men to buy smaller vehicles, but many prefer large models. Three sport utility vehicles made our list that takes into account both luxury and non-luxury vehicles: The Honda Pilot in seventh place (with 60.28 percent female primary drivers), the Mazda’s CX-7 in eighth (60.19 percent), and the wagon-like Chrysler Pacifica in 10th (59.81 percent).

“Women are looking for practicality and versatility,” says Alexander Edwards, automotive division president at consulting firm Strategic Vision.

In a recent survey by the San Diego-based research firm, 40 percent of women respondents said they prefer vehicles that provide the most comfortable ride, compared to 25 percent of men. “Most women look for comfort, but after that they look for something that is either capable, fun or both,” Edwards says.

Our other list of only luxury vehicles includes two SUVs: The Acura MDX in eighth place, with 51.23 percent driven primarily by women, and the Cadillac SRX in 10th place with 51.18 percent.

The SUVs with highest percentage of female primary drivers include convenience features that affect seating for children and occupant safety, which O’Kane says are top priorities for most women.

When looking only at luxury vehicles, it’s clear that even wealthy women focus on price more than do affluent men. Many of the luxury vehicles with the highest percentage of female primary drivers are among the most affordable premium models on the market.

Among the most affordable models on our second list, which is limited to luxury or premium models, are the second-place $25,930 Audi A3, with 54.85 percent female primary drivers, and the third-ranked $24,365 Volvo S40 with 53.69 percent.

By contrast, the luxury vehicles with the highest percentage of male drivers are among the priciest, fastest and flashiest around. Marketers predict that in coming years, male Baby Boomers will snap up ultra-luxury vehicles and sports cars in record numbers.

But their female counterparts won’t, necessarily. Even though female Boomers, like the men in their generation, seek ways to invest in themselves “to put an exclamation point on their life,” says ReachWomen’s Johnson, that doesn’t always mean spending a lot on a lavish or attention-getting vehicle.

Women aren’t immune to the idea of regarding their vehicle as a status symbol, sources say. They just typically aren’t as overt as men about expressing their status when it comes to the vehicle they drive.

“When you’re purchasing a car, you’re often purchasing an identity … so sometimes there are women who want the attention, but it’s more subtle,” O’Kane says. “Women want the experience in the vehicle” more than they want its projected image, while for men it’s often the opposite, she says.

Despite being more value-oriented than men, the amount of money women spend on new cars has risen at twice the national average this decade, says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, the source for the data used in our rankings. “More women in two- and three-car households are driving a luxury brand.”

The BMW Z4 is the only model to make both of our lists of vehicles with the highest percentage of female primary drivers. With 60.31 percent driven primarily by women, BMW’s sleek Z4 two-seater sports car tops our luxury-only list and ranks sixth on the all-encompassing list.

It has the kind of styling women gravitate toward, says Imre Molnar, dean of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, home to one of the country’s top automotive design programs. The BMW Z4 has a “complex and sophisticated compound form that’s very feminine,” he says, adding that some women are attracted to so-called "masculine" designs, but most gravitate toward vehicles with softer curves.

Cars from Asian automakers tend to have styling that’s “much gentler, less aggressive,” Molnar says. Eight of the 10 models on our all-encompassing list of vehicles driven primarily by women are from Asian manufacturers.

Our lists include the top 10 vehicles with the highest percentage of female primary drivers based on CNW Marketing Research survey data. The lists do not account for yearly vehicle sales volumes. Rather, they measure which vehicles have the highest percentage of female drivers based on the number of survey respondents who said they were the primary driver of a particular model. The surveys were conducted in 2007. We excluded models that have been discontinued for 2008.

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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