Are automotive desires really gender specific? And can a male-dominated motor industry satisfy them? Angie Voluti examines car culture from a feminine perspective.
“The stop-start system won’t work when the steering wheel is angled at more than 45 degrees, so I can turn out of junctions without the engine switching off.”
Yet women have always driven cars: we simply avoided big, brutish engines (executive BMWs) and impractical, extremely expensive sports cars (quite apart from playing havoc with family values, they are hairy in the wet and impossible to park without sticking your head out of the prison-like window and standing your firstborn on the pavement to measure how far your alloys are from the kerb).
When the Alfa 147, a so-called C-segment (i.e. middle class, middle size and middle fun) model was launched in 1998, the engineer in charge said they had set up the car to understeer – in other words, behave safely when cornering – because the company had female buyers in its sights.
A trend was born: the current Alfa MiTo is a cute and cheeky-looking B-segment (i.e. smaller) car, and almost half its buyers are women.
Fiat, which has always had the city-car idea well sussed, is similarly popular among women buyers: its retro-styled 500 is petite enough to fit the meanest car parking space, deeply fashionable, cheap to run and comfortable: it ticks all the ‘female’ boxes, and 60 per cent of its drivers are women.
What are those female boxes, though?
Men beat their panting Neanderthal chests and look for their next chick-magnet, which, marketed as such, makes us the ultimate recipients anyway.
In truth, despite women’s usually idealistic nature, we are driven (pun intended) by practical issues as well as style. We just don’t converse with the front suspension.
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Car makers still target their advertising and sales efforts towards the gender of the buyer signing the sales invoice – but this can often be a mistake. You see, whilst men may be the predominant buyers, particularly with regard to sports and luxury models, women are often the key influencers of such a decision, the silent partner whose acquiescence is essential to the continued harmony of their relationship.
This represents a significant marketing challenge – how to reach an audience who lack a strong affiliation with a particular brand and yet who will most likely influence the final buying decision? Women are far less likely to read car magazines, visit traditional automotive websites or participate in enthusiast forums (< 2%), and yet they're the commercial equivalent of a swing vote in an election.
During recent years we’ve found video to be the most effective medium for connecting with female buyers, something that will only increase as we move towards more hybrid models.
BMW-owned MINI strongly believes that a ‘post-modern’ car manufacturer doesn’t cater specifically for men or women, but for ‘family’ needs, as couples generally buy a car together. Yet if that were the case, MINI would surely have called its Countryman and Clubman models ‘HealthFarm and ‘DiscoTeen’. They know we girls prefer fun, entry-level Coopers.
We don’t want butch looks and four-wheel drive, although there is one exception to that rule. Say hello to one of our favourite means of transport: the Range Rover.
Whether new or second-hand, within a month or so it will bear more battle scars than a 4×4 driven up and down the Alps: city traffic and children attack the vehicle from both the outside and the inside. Yet there is something so eternally appealing about the rogue looks, comfortable space and robust nature that the Range Rover competes with Peter Andre for rough charm and cuddly power.
It’s to add a certain je ne sais quoi that Land Rover is launching next year’s Evoque coupe: smaller yet smarter, linear yet curvier, it will appeal to women like Louboutin wellies. If that’s not a car designed for size-five boots, I’ll eat my Burberry trench coat.
How does one attract women’s attention, if one cannot talk about carbon brakes, sequential shifts and electromagnetic dampers?
Even more than Land Rover, Jaguar cultivates a glossy-lifestyle-magazine image, targeting and catering for the beauty lover: she who may never put her sports car through its paces at the Nürburgring race circuit but who drives an XK because it’s got an evocative, emotional badge on it and, frankly, it looks dead cool.
Marketing both feeds and creates desires: with so much to choose from and a wealth of information, women no longer ask the dealer for “a pretty car in pink, please”. In fact, when I ordered my new Alfa MiTo, the dealer and I discussed the merits of the latest Multiair engine for half an hour and were just about to end the conversation when he said, “Ah … almost forgot … What colour do you want?”
“You choose,” I said. “Make it funky.” I may be an enthusiast, but I still want a trendy colour for my Alfa. I’d like to see it in ‘Luci del Bosco Metallizzato’ (Lights of the Metallic Forest). That was one of the colours available for the Alfa Montreal some 40 years ago, and I reckon it sounds just perfect for a romantic girl.
Credit: Reproduced courtesy of The AA Magazine. Visit www.theAA.com for information, advice, offers and iPhone apps