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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT : When it comes to merchandising automobiles, today's woman is a power to be reckoned with. What does she look for? What does she buys? And what do car manufacturers and dealers do to attract her?

March 12, 1989|KATHY HAMILTON | Hamilton is an editor of Automotive News in Detroit.

The hour of revenge could be at hand.

Revenge for the pain inflicted on auto-show models by thousands of hours in high heels.

Revenge for the sisters still missing from the executive suites and plants of America, Europe and Japan.

Revenge for every woman who has been propositioned or told to come back with her husband when she enters an auto showroom ready to seriously shop.

Revenge for the underpowered but pretty-looking cars that men have built and advertised over the years for the "women's market." Today they quietly call their pseudo sports machines "secretaries' cars;" in the '50s they brazenly marketed powder-blue sedans to housewives.

Revenge for--let's really hold a grudge here--the 25 years it took the auto industry to get rid of the hand-cranking engines that required the 19th century equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The means for economic vengeance is now available: Today, women buy 45% of all new cars sold--a $50 billion shopping expense this year alone--and they participate in 80% of all new-car purchases. They buy up to 17% of the nation's light trucks. And they are responsible for 28% of the spending to service vehicles--another $12 billion in 1988, according to a study by the marketing research firm J. D. Power & Associates of Agoura Hills for Family Circle magazine.

In 1970, women were buying only 23% of new cars; as recently as 1984, they were responsible for only 19% of the nation's spending on vehicle maintenance. Despite the growth in their automotive clout since then, the women's market hasn't yet reached its peak.

Low-priced cars from Third World nations are tempting women--whose typical overriding concern is to avoid mechanical breakdowns on the highway-- to purchase these cars with their warranties rather than used cars of similar price. Other factors that are likely to keep the women's market growing include the growth of the truck market, which remains predominantly male, the number of women who choose to live on their own and therefore make their own car-buying decisions, and working women's collectively increasing income.

That kind of spending power surely is enough to raise a revolution in the auto industry.

Unfortunately for the would-be rabble rouser, change seems to be coming with little drama. However, for those who simply like to drive cars--exciting cars, safe cars, fun cars--this evolution within the industry spells good news.

Today there are nearly 600 models built by 39 different car makers or divisions--each with a self-starter--from which to choose. And women are choosing them all. That means that any design revolution is far more likely to be demanded by the large group of 6-foot-plus-tall men who can't fit into expensive Italian sports cars than by women, with their diffuse demands.

Take struggling cartoonist Carole Sobocinski: She swears she hasn't owned a car as wonderful as her faded blue 1978 Dodge Aspen since she purchased one of the first Mustangs built. It's mechanically reliable but has other important features: "In Chicago, with its bad drivers and car thieves, it's perfect. It already came smashed--not smashed enough to affect driving, just a little smashed--so other drivers think I drive like that and they get out of my way. It's boring and the radio has already been torn out, so thieves don't want it. It's calm blue and boxy, so it doesn't arouse feelings of anger. It has really good power steering so I can park in amazingly small spaces."

Once Sobocinski gets syndicated with big merchandising rights, she plans to drive an Alfa Romeo Spider. (Convertibles are the car of choice for a surprising number of women, considering their usual concern over security that they express in surveys. The Volkswagen Cabriolet led J. D. Powers' latest list of cars most purchased by women and the Suzuki Samurai--touted as America's least-expensive "convertible"--was the "truck" with the highest proportion of female buyers in 1987; last year its popularity dipped, however, in the wake of the Consumer Reports test that rated the vehicles "unacceptable" because of an alleged propensity to roll over.

Across the Rockies, Toyota's top saleswoman is driving a Cressida for very different reasons. "It's a heavy car--I have an infant--and is safe," says Barbara Cadkin, Toyota of Marina del Rey. She adds low maintenance costs and room for passenger clients to her list of car needs.

Patty Moise races Buicks on the NASCAR circuit and Buick provides street cars for her. One of her favorites is the Buick Grand National with a turbocharged, intercooled V-6 engine--it brought out the hot rodder in her. "It's killer-fast in a straight line," she says. "I got kind of wild with that one."

Get this group together to form the basis of a New Women's Revolutionary Party? Hardly. The result would be automotive anarchy. Indeed, surveys of the women's market repeatedly demonstrate that women want the same things from their automobiles that men do, only in slightly different orders and degrees.

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