Four features that drive women's car choices

Car manufacturers market heavily to men, but the truth is, women are the primary influencers when it comes to buying a new car. A study by automotive industry analyst Polk found that 39 percent of all new vehicles are registered to women. Women buy 52 percent of all new cars (whether for solo or family driving) and influence 85 percent of all car-purchasing decisions, according to Woman Motorist, an online magazine.

So, when it comes to buying cars, what are women looking for? Here are four traits that women seek when shopping for new wheels.

1. Good value. “Women are looking for value,” says Kristin Anderson, an analyst at automotive research website TrueCar.com. “They tend to choose affordable, fuel-efficient cars.” In a study of more than 8 million car purchases throughout 2010, TrueCar analyzed differences in purchasing trends based on gender. The company found that while men often chose brawny trucks or high-priced sports cars, women leaned toward smaller vehicles such as sedans and crossover SUVs. “All but one of the 10 most popular vehicles is under the $30,000 price point,” Anderson says.

car shopping women

2. Four doors. Recently, Porsche has made major inroads among women car buyers, expanding its market share from 19 percent to 23 percent. Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell attributes this change entirely to Porsche’s new product lines, such as the Porsche Panamera, a four-door coupe available in both hybrid and diesel versions. Porsche still lags in being one of the most popular brands among women, but its new, more practical models are likely to hold appeal to both affluent single women and those with families.

3. Safety features. According to a recent survey from CNW Research, safety features are a top priority when it comes to women’s car purchases. Four of the top five most important attributes were safety-related: rear visibility, front visibility, remote outside mirrors and side air bags. By contrast, only one safety feature (front visibility) made male buyers’ lists; concerns such as styling, horsepower and engine design took top honors among the guys.

4. Positive reviews. Women are likely to do substantial advance research when planning a car purchase. A BlogHer survey found that in addition to visits to dealerships, women also rely on referrals from friends and family (56 percent), car review websites (53 percent), car manufacturers’ websites (43 percent) and blogs (31 percent). In terms of influence, the manufacturers’ sites ranked last; women are much more likely to trust advice from experts and people within their own communities.

The most popular cars for women

So, which car manufacturers do the best job of meeting these needs?

According to Edmunds’ recent study, domestic automakers such as Dodge, Buick and Chevrolet have gained traction among women in the past year. “Ever since GM’s bankruptcy, there’s been a lot of criticism about gas-guzzlers, so domestic automakers have changed a lot of their products,” Caldwell says. “There’s a wider spectrum of smaller vehicles, which helps attract more women.”

However, companies with the largest percentage of female buyers tend to be foreign makers of cars in the low to middle price range. German manufacturer Mini topped TrueCar’s list with a 48 percent female market share, followed by automakers such as Kia, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Hyundai and Mazda. “These brands are attainable and affordable,” Caldwell says.

In terms of specific models, the Volkswagen New Beetle was overwhelmingly female-friendly, with 60 percent of buyers being women. Women made up more than half of the market for more than 20 models, such as the Nissan Rogue, Volkswagen Eos, Volvo S40, Jeep Compass and Honda CRV.

Men go for power and speed

The cars most popular among men, on the other hand, are far sportier and came with much higher price tags. The Porsche 911 -- a sports car with a list price starting at $78,000 -- topped the list with an 88 percent market share for men; other popular models included sports cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette and BMW M3, as well as large trucks including the GMC Sierra, Chevrolet Silverado and Ford F-Series. In contrast to women’s top choices, the models selected by men are expensive, not fuel-efficient and often impractical.

Cost differences

While men’s car choices often come with much higher price tags than women’s do, women often pay a higher percentage of the car’s suggested purchase price, according to a study by researchers from the University of California's Haas School of Business, the Yale University School of Management and J.D. Power and Associates. According to the data, women typically pay 0.20 percent more of the list price than men do when buying the same car at a dealership.

However, the study also determined that that price gap disappeared when women researched and negotiated prices in advance on the Internet. Sites like CarWoo.com can collect competing bids from local dealerships for a $19 fee.

As far as auto insurance costs are concerned, women’s more practical and economical choices mean that they’re likely to pay lower premiums. “The most popular vehicles chosen by women are not as flashy, so insurance rates would be favorable for them,” Caldwell says.

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