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Ford Tries Out the Car That Doubles as Baby-Sitter

March 08, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT

When the brains at Ford Motor Co. and IVillage.com decided to create the "ultimate women's vehicle," what they really came up with was the quintessential mom mobile.

This 2000 Mercury Villager Estate minivan--customized with a Nintendo system, VCR, flip-up screen, navigation system and more--is a traveling entertainment center equipped to soothe and amuse children.

The first time my kids scrambled into the minivan for a test drive, you'd think they had passed through the gates of heaven. They plugged in a video game, put on the headphones and grabbed the controls. By the time we reached our destination an hour later, they actually begged me to keep driving around so they could continue to play.

In fact, not once during the 2 1/2 weeks of test-driving this vehicle--including a long weekend trip from Orange County to Big Bear--did I hear my children, 12 and 13, or their friends utter the words, "Are we there yet?"

Customizing a vehicle to try to satisfy the needs of women is certainly timely, considering studies that show there are about 92 million female drivers in the United States and that women are involved in about 80% of all car-buying decisions.

"Finally, the automotive industry, the big guys, are finding out that women are really the ones who are making the decision as to what they want for the family car," said Pauline Stenberg of the Businesswomen's Network at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn.

SEMA, the Diamond Bar-based trade group for the $22-billion automotive aftermarket industry, helped develop the souped-up minivan, dubbed the Women's Lifestyle Vehicle.

"There's a lot of us driving. Many of us are mothers," said Stenberg, part-owner and vice president of Cone Engineering Inc. in Los Alamitos. "And I'm telling you, games and VCRs and all that stuff to keep [children] entertained in the car are wonderful."

Ford and its partners customized the vehicle after gathering suggestions in an online survey at IVillage.com, a leading women's Web site that deals with issues regarding careers, health, parenting and finances.

The Women's Lifestyle Vehicle was unveiled in November at SEMA's 1999 custom auto products show in Las Vegas. The vehicle, a prototype not destined for retail sale, included $14,000 of custom add-ons; the base Villager Estate has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $27,200.

Of course, all the on-board gadgets and accessories--from the global positioning system and VCR and pressure-monitoring system for the run-flat tires--are available in the aftermarket, and increasing numbers of owners are jazzing up their vehicles with such options. In fact, the Villager's twin, the Nissan Quest, offers similar features as optional equipment.

"There is a strong demand for entertainment systems for rear-seat passenger minivans," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., an industry consulting firm in Tustin.

We're generalizing, of course, but if you take the traditional mom-and-pop roles behind the wheel, differences do become clear, according to the buyer surveys conducted by AutoPacific and other analysts.

"It's for moms with the screaming kids in the back. She puts in a videotape and they get quiet," Peterson said of the growing use of VCRs and Nintendos in the family vehicle. "Dads, on the other hand, are much less open to this.

"Mom likes this because she's with the kids all week long and she wants to keep them quiet. Well, Dad never has a chance to see the kids except on weekends. . . . So he doesn't want them playing games. He wants to talk to them."

Among the other features are a portable cooler that plugs into a dashboard power port, a hands-free cellular phone, seat warmers, storage nets to secure groceries and other loose items, and a drawer under the front seat designed specifically to stow a purse.

In addition to those comfort and convenience features, the prototype vehicle was equipped with underbody security lighting, first-aid and survival kits, a security alarm and the capability to remotely operate home devices. The minivan was also outfitted for laptop computer usage and audio e-mail.

*

Certainly, the Women's Lifestyle Vehicle won't be everybody's ideal mode of transportation. But if car-pooling kids is your life, or you're stressed out over having to referee your youngsters' back-seat battles, its gadgets could help keep you sane.

By far the biggest hits with my family were the entertainment gear and the navigation system.

Although a voice-activated system would be preferable, the GPS was competent enough with its maps and route instructions to direct us from Orange County to Mountain High and on to Big Bear for a weekend of skiing.

The major drawback was that you had to program the system manually--not something I would recommend doing while you are driving.

"The key with navigation systems is voice-activation," analyst Peterson said. "You need to be able to talk to the thing, or else you are going to crash your car."

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