Automakers have long known that cars aren't just a man's game. More than two-thirds of the new cars sold each year are bought by women; 8 out of 10 purchasing decisions are heavily and directly influenced by women.
But while that influence is old news, the way automakers are responding to it is in flux.
"The factors that divide men and women buyers have really grown together," says Margaret Brooks, a Chevrolet marketing manager. "If I went back 10 years ago, you would see much more of a difference in reasons for selecting a vehicle between men and women. Today they're really very similar in terms of what they're looking for."
What do women want? Above all, a car they can trust.
"It's having a vehicle that they can depend on — that has the kind of style statement they want to make and very importantly is affordable to buy, is affordable to operate," Brooks says. "It has to be something that represents great value."
Vehicles like the Acura TL and the Volvo C70 aren't marketed solely to women, of course, but they join the other vehicles on this list whose design, performance and marketing may align precisely with the priorities of many female buyers.
We compiled our list of cars women will love based on input from automakers about which of their vehicles sell strongest in the female marketplace. We also asked for nominations from Christine Overstreet, the executive director of Heels and Wheels, a group that promotes women's interests in the auto market.
Some of our top 10, like the Hyundai Tucson and the GMC Acadia, will be featured at a Heels and Wheels women-only test-drive event in California next month.
Our list is diverse, including everything from the $18,425 Chevrolet Cruze Eco to the $38,525 Saab 9-5. A seemingly disparate group, but they all have characteristics that appeal to female buyers.
Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insights at TrueCar.com, puts it succinctly: "Women car buyers are more cost-conscious and purchase fuel-efficient vehicles."
Sales data seems to support that idea. According to Truecar research, the top 10 models with greater than 50 percent retail sales to females and at least 1,000 annual retail sales in 2010 included the Volkswagen New Beetle, Kia Spectra, Nissan Rogue, Volkswagen Eos, Hyundai Entourage, Volvo S40, Jeep Compass, Honda CR-V, Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Tucson.
By comparison, the cars with the greatest percentage of male buyers were the Porsche 911, GMC Sierra, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-Series, BMW M3, Ford Ranger, Toyota Tundra, Dodge Ram and Audi S5.
Lexus, a brand with predominantly male fans, has one car that skews toward women: The Lexus RX crossover, whose buyers were 60 percent female.
"When I look at midsize SUVs, I think, 'Oh that's kind of nice,' but then I think, 'Ugh, I want to get more than 20 miles per gallon!' " Overstreet says. "And that's where the CUVs are good."
Overstreet says her work puts her in contact with two types of women: singles who like small, efficient cars, and mothers who need something large to transport children. But members of both groups are drawn to the same things, she says.
"Everybody is still looking for style and everybody is looking for safety," she says. "There are also many times when women are as interested about the inside of the vehicle as they are about the outside, and I don't think before that was the case."
For instance, the ability to pair a phone with an iPod in something like the Kia Optima Hybrid does much to attract the younger set, she says.
Automakers have made a number of tries to design cars specifically for women. In the 1950s Dodge made a pink and lavender coupe called La Femme. Among other girlish accessories, it came with a pink leather handbag and matching compact with rain cape and umbrella.
The truth is that La Femme was mostly for show — Dodge produced just 3,000 units over two years. Women and their husbands would visit showrooms to see it up close but then buy something more practical.
More recently in 2004, Volvo made a concept called the YCC (Your Concept Car), which was engineered by a team of women for women.
It featured auto-opening gull-wing doors, easy-clean paint, run-flat tires, an exterior washer-fluid filling point, computerized parking assistance, automatic diagnostics and notification of needed service, among other stereotype-based "female driver" amenities.
It was never made.
© 2012 Forbes.com