Women drive today’s car industry

It is mostly male creators who craft a car's 'sexy body,' but it's women who dictates what sells


There’s a common misconception that cars only interest men — and that the secret to success in the automotive industry is therefore to find new and better ways to build vehicles that appeal to them.

But it’s time to leave such outdated notions in the rear-view mirror. According to recent surveys by Nissan Motor Company, women directly make or influence two-thirds of car purchases in Japan. This means that, apart from the cars they buy directly for themselves, women and their tastes are driving many of the choices that men make when they buy a vehicle.

These findings should also spark a rethink in the automotive industry itself — an industry that is still definitely a male domain. Most exterior designers are men, and the few women designers to be found are mostly in “color and trim.”

The car industry is so dominated by men, in fact, that the very language used to describe a vehicle corresponds to the way in which men might discuss a woman. For example, a car has a “beautiful waistline,” or “shoulders.” The car body and interior are discussed in terms of “skin.” A car must have the finish of “well-toned muscle,” with “tension” in its angles and “curves.” A sports car may be referred to as having a “nice ass,” and a design brief for a new vehicle may demand that a car has a “sexy body.”

The Renault Megane, for example, was launched in the United Kingdom with the tag line “Shape your Booty!”

But involving more women in the manufacture of cars would not take the sex out of the industry. While today’s sexy cars are largely an expression of masculine thoughts and desires — frankly a man’s projection of what he would like to take to bed, an object of temptation, or an automotive Eve — both men and women admire a beautiful car.

When a buyer chooses a vehicle, regardless of their gender, they want it to feel good; they want it to be beautiful. Women love beauty as much as men — one look at the cover of any women’s magazine will tell you that. (It might be argued that women have higher standards than men about what is beautiful and what is not.)

Yet women do see a car differently than men.

When designing car interiors for the female market, experience shows that concepts such as comfort, convenience, beauty and attention to detail hold meanings quite different for women than when the same ideas are applied to a male market. In trying to appeal to the female market, a designer might think about details such as high heels and long fingernails, short skirts and mirrors. And not only in a textural sense: Women place more value on small compartments for easy access to handbags, beautiful colors, textures and fabrics.

On a practical level, today’s independent women don’t want too many complications. They don’t want their car to be too heavy; they want it to meet their lifestyle needs. They may place more value than men on the need to transport a child or a dog. This is, in part, why women rate safety so highly in surveys about their priorities in a vehicle.

J.D. Power & Associates’ Power Information Network recently ran a survey to find out which luxury car had the highest percentage of female ownership. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a sports car in the top 10. Instead, and despite all those jokes about women drivers, there were sensible, entry-level cars and small SUVs that emphasized safety, quality, reliability and value.

The car with the highest female ownership was the Volvo S40. The S40 has a sticker price of around $24,000 (¥2,590,000). It would appear not to matter to women how fast it can go from 0-100 kph. What does matter is that it aced the United States’ Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal crash test. Men, in contrast, preferred the high-performance Audi RS4, which costs $66,900 (¥7,200,000) and zooms from 0-100 in 4.8 seconds.

Aaron Gold, an automotive journalist with J.D. Power & Associates, nominated the following as the top 10 picks for women: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Honda Fit, Mazda 3, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mercedes E-class, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Forester, Toyota Camry and VW Jetta.

As a designer, when I think about women and cars, although practicality, safety, value for money and independence are all key words, what is all-important to me is to approach the vehicle as a fashion accessory.

While it may appear that women buy cars with their heads and men buy them with their hearts, I believe women, more than men, see themselves inside the car as part of a complete picture. And women want that picture to be appealing to men. Most women seem to prefer their cars small, cute and fun. They don’t want exactly the same car as their best girlfriend, either. Like men, they want to project an image of themselves. Is it too powerful, too big a risk? Not feminine enough? Obviously that depends on the type of woman and possibly also the type of man they want to appeal to.

Now picture for a moment a woman revving her V8 at a set of lights. This kind of behavior is usually associated with men and their machines. Our imagined woman has little in common with those in evening dresses or miniskirts employed as accessories to the latest, greatest creation at international car shows.

Which one do you desire? Which one do you desire to be? This kind of objectification may annoy some female readers in particular, but gender stereotyping is, and always has been, a driving force in car design. And the vehicles that we create, and the cultures that we construct around them, help reinforce the stereotypes.

This power that car manufacturers hold to direct messages at consumers won’t change. But the attitudes and values those messages contain might — if women are given greater involvement in the industry.

If that were to happen, what kind of cars would women design? And how would men feel about women steering much more of the car industry? More to the point, given the extent of feminine influence over car purchases, how would women feel about it?

Serge Mouangue is an industrial designer and interior architect from Renault who is working in Japan with Nissan Motor Co.