AFTER decades of being virtually ignored, women have finally gotten the attention of carmakers.
With women constituting nearly half of today's car buyers in the United States, and spending up to $65 billion annually on car purchases, car manufacturers are pulling out the stops to please women car buyers.
From adding special features, such as adjustable seat belts or lower door sills for easier entry and exit, to including more women in their ad campaigns and training dealers how to sell cars to female customers, car manufacturers agree that with the impact women have on the auto industry today, it makes sense to focus on them.
Women account for 46 percent of today's car sales, and they influence more than 80 percent of car purchases, according to J.D. Power and Associates, an automobile market-research company in Agoura Hills, Calif. By 2000, analysts predict that 60 percent of car buyers will be women.
Why have women moved from being a niche market to the mainstream? Chalk it up to the women's movement. Today, women have more disposable income, education, and independence, and work in more diverse fields, so they are buying more cars, says Gerry Myers, president of the Dallas-based Myers Group, a firm that specializes in marketing and selling to women.
Many features now widely available in cars are a result of women's demands and their rising market share:
r Lumbar support in seats developed to give pregnant women more back support.
r Shoulder belts that can be adjusted to a person's height.
r Running boards on large vehicles (mainly jeeps, trucks, and vans) to make it easier to climb aboard.
Car manufacturers did make earlier attempts to appeal to women, but their efforts were primarily cosmetic. In 1955, for example, Dodge introduced ''La Femme,'' the first ''women's car.'' It was pink with a floral interior and matching accessories: a pink leather handbag, umbrella, rain hat, rain cape, and boots. But women saw the car as patronizing, Ms. Myers explains, and it bombed. Fewer than 1,000 were sold.
Women want safety first
Women want the same things men want in a car, says Janice Leeming, president of About Women Inc., a Boston-based research and publishing firm. ''They want reliability, safety, and performance, but safety comes first,'' she says.
Volvo, for example, has generally had a strong female customer base due to its reputation for producing safe cars. Currently, 47 percent of Volvo owners are women, says Bob Austin, a spokesman for Volvo Cars of North America Inc. in Rockleigh, N.J. That compares with 42 percent in 1986.
''It was a big belief to a lot of the [US] manufacturers that performance sold and that safety did not sell,'' Myers says. ''But [safety] sold to women.''
Historically, Nissan was known for high-performance cars, says Jerry Florence, vice president of marketing at Nissan Motor Corporation USA. But in the last five years, it has redesigned its cars to offer more mainstream sedans with ''a broader appeal to adults,'' he says.
Besides refining the cars' traditional racing body, Nissan designed controls and switches to be fingernail-friendly. Today, women account for 53 percent of Nissan's car sales compared with about 40 percent five years ago, Mr. Florence says.
Carmakers create women's committees
Many car manufacturers, including Big Three automakers Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, have established women's advisory committees - groups of female employees who review products, services, marketing, and sales promotions and how they affect women car buyers.
Some product features Chrysler's Women's Advisory Committee has influenced include integrated child-safety seats in the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager; and longer seat tracks in the Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, and Eagle Vision that allow shorter drivers to move the seat closer to the controls.
''When we look at features, we don't specifically say: 'This is going to be nice in accommodating a woman,' '' says Kathleen Wideman, co-chair of Chrysler's committee.
Ms. Wideman stresses that there is not one segment of the car market that can be labeled ''a woman's car.'' Women account for 25 percent of pickup-truck buyers; 40 percent of minivan buyers; and 34 percent of those who drive sport-utility vehicles, says Tom Healey, a partner at J.D. Power.
Women also account for an increasing share of the luxury-car market, particularly as women's incomes move closer to that of men, Ms. Leeming says. Today, women buy 36 percent of luxury vehicles, according to J.D. Power, and in the next two years, that number will increase to 50 percent.
In marketing and promotion, carmakers are organizing special promotions for women. Lincoln-Mercury, which will introduce its ''Mystique'' Sept. 29, expects 55 percent of its buyers to be women because of the car's safety and comfort features. To introduce its core buyers to the car, Mercury-Lincoln is holding a two-day safe-driving event for women on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in six US cities.
The event is held in cooperation with the National Association of Female Executives, the American Association of Women Business Owners, and Professional Secretaries International.