In the past, when it came to large purchases such as new cars, men were the main breadwinners and decision makers. Times have changed, and women are better paid, better educated, and a more essential part of new-car purchases than ever before. Studies show women have 80 percent of purchase power and make up about half of the car-buying market. Because of this shift, automakers pay a lot more attention to the woman's perspective, and cars -- and car sales -- are benefiting.

At Heels and Wheels, an event where female journalists have the opportunity to speak with female engineers, executives and representatives, we looked into how automakers learn about what women want in cars. Getting it right can have a huge upside; getting it wrong can make an automaker seem patronizing and can lead to embarrassing sales failures. But makers also have to be careful to make cars that appeal to women without alienating men.

Starting the Conversation

Not every company treats women's interests the same way, but there are consistent themes. Automakers use several approaches to find out what women are looking for, often speaking with current owners or potential buyers. Even this is tricky: just looking at the number of cars registered to men versus women can be deceiving. There are often cases where women are the ones who drive cars on a regular basis that are registered to men, and it's the daily driver that has more useful feedback.

Research can include product clinics -- before, during and after a car has been designed and put on the market -- focus groups, and ethnographic studies. With ethnographic studies, once an attendee at a focus group agrees to it, researchers go to their house and get a better feel for what they are looking for in a car. It's a more relaxed environment and is often a fruitful way to get information.

Automakers also display their vehicles at big events. For example, Chevrolet has a big display at the CMA Fest every year, as well as at similar non-car-focused events where a high percentage of attendees are women. Others take a different tack, creating smaller functions for specific current owners and would-be buyers. Cadillac has an event called Road to Table, where attendees can drive Cadillacs to an exclusive dinner prepared by well-known chefs. This serves as an informal, low-pressure way to get input on the cars.

Also: The Class of 2016 -- New Cars Ready to Roll

How Are Women Different From Men?

Kelley Blue Book has done its own surveys, looking at what are mentioned as being high priorities for women versus men. According to the results, women do more research and take longer to buy a car than men do. Women responded that they are more likely to prefer non-luxury sedans and SUVs. While durability and reliability are important to men and women, safety ranked higher with women than it did with men. Women prioritized value, practicality and reliability higher than men did as well. In our discussions with automakers, we discovered their internal research results fell in line with KBB's. Women are interested in form and function. Safety is extremely important. Rational needs should be addressed before emotional needs are.

In some cases, companies' internal research showed that there weren't all that many differences between what men and women are looking for in their vehicles. As Teresa Spafford, Design Manager and Advanced Design Planning at Mazda explained, a successful design, one that's well balanced, tasteful and well executed, will appeal to both genders. And for those that still think muscle cars and trucks are "guy cars" that only men design, the chief engineer for the Dodge Charger is a woman, as is the chief engineer for the next-generation Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.

At the Dealership

Another main issue is the dealership environment. Automakers understand it is crucially important to make dealerships more welcoming to women. That means treating potential customers with respect, in an environment with easy access to information. Women are looking for detailed information that isn't just a lot of specifications. As Allyson Witherspoon, Marketing Director at Infiniti explained, that automaker promotes the idea of plain-spoken genius: explaining something complicated in a way that's easy to understand. That's an idea that helps every car buyer.

Lexus has a pilot program called Lexus Difference, which will expand throughout the dealer network. It aims to make dealerships more appealing to women. Lexus is looking at everything from how dealers interact with female customers, to serving healthier snacks in the showroom, and looking into offering yoga and spa treatments at some dealerships.

Not only is the dealership environment starting to change, but the results of automakers' research have led directly to improvements in the vehicles themselves. General Motors' Human Factors group does events like Take Your Child to Work Day, where they can do research that focuses on the needs of moms, dads and kids. This helped in the design of the Buick Enclave's rear DVD entertainment system, ensuring that the screen would be in a spot where motion sickness was reduced. Kids there also answered questions about the seat-belt buckles in the third row.

Because of input from female dealer representatives and from what they heard in the field, Mitsubishi will be adding a second interior color option for the next Outlander Sport, a lighter color that wouldn't be as hot as the current black interior in the summer. Chevrolet's Equinox uses a child door lock that's located on the center stack, likely a nod to customer research. Volkswagen's research shows women are very interested in connectivity, and women's input helped shape the company's next infotainment system. With its SUVs, Nissan focused on safety and versatility. The new Murano has a lower step-in height, making it easier to get a child out of the child seat. The Rogue's liftgate is lower, a nod to customers who aren't as tall.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2015

Giving Feedback

It's clear that one of the most noticeable ways to offer suggestions to a car company is by being part of a focus group or marketing clinic. However, there are options out there for those who aren't part of those studies. Several manufacturers encourage owners to take the social media route. Car companies have people dedicated to monitoring their Facebook and Twitter accounts. They're reading what you have to say. Another idea was to speak with your dealer about concerns and ideas. There are also customer call centers where owners can make suggestions. One manufacturer representative we spoke with had a great out-of-the-box idea: if you are a woman with a design or engineering background, you can look into working for the car company, and initiate changes directly.

Automakers understand how critical it is to speak to a female audience without talking down to them. By opening up the lines of communication, they make their cars appeal to a wider audience both here and around the world. They can also pinpoint specific improvements, and that attention to detail could be the determining factor in making a sale.

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