When its women customers speak, Detroit listens -- now

Detroit is raising its consciousness.

In 1911, Ford perceived the woman driver as someone who wanted the right vehicle to take a ''delightful afternoon's spin through the beautiful parks and boulevards of the city.''

In 1982, many car dealers still think the woman buyer's main interest is whether the car is pretty or not. And women often say they aren't taken seriously unless there's a man along.

A number of auto manufacturers, however, are straining to turn old attitudes around. The race is on to sell women shoppers - not just their husbands - a brand-new automobile.

The bottom line of this enlightened outlook is, of course, money. As Karen Gustafson, production coordinator for TV communications at Nissan Motors USA points out, ''There are hard times in the auto business and more women who need cars. So we've been looking around to see who we're missing.''

Women have become a group worth noticing. Four out of 10 car sales went to women last year, and the numbers are expected to climb. Too, women's attitudes toward the automobile have definitely changed.

According to a recent study done by J.D. Power and Associates, women's priorities for cars 10 years ago were color, style, and dependability. Now they value price, durability, and warranty. The message manufacturers are conveying to car dealers is that, however surprising it might seem to them, women want the same things as men in a car - fuel economy, good handling, and a strong quality record, to name a few.

Nissan, General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Division, and the Chrysler Corporation have all developed videocassettes for their dealers that detail the do's and don'ts of selling to women. Ford has developed successful pilot training programs for San Diego and Dallas dealers, and plans to expand the effort.

Advertising is changing as well and is finding its way into women's magazines. More car ads now put women behind the wheel and include technical information about the car.

Carmakers are not out to design a ''woman's car.'' As Marilyn J. King, Ford's manager for contemporary markets, points out, the distinction now is that designers are taking into account features of interest to women that also benefit men buyers.

To determine specific needs, Ford has set up a committee of 20 women, of all ages and car preferences, who meet once or twice a month to comment on current designs. Details they've marked for improvement include accelerator pedals, which are designed for a one-inch heel, not the two- or three-inch heels many women wear to work; car doors and hoods that are easier to open, and don't break long fingernails; and adjustable seatbelts that accommodate short women.

Another focal point is safety. Carrie Gray, Chrysler's manager for large car market planning and also head of the company's woman's car committee, says that Chrysler has added such options as road repair kits and a CB radio to their cars because of the group's advice. Also, the company's five-year, 50,000-mile warranty is a strong selling point.

While GM doesn't single out women in designing its car, ''We stress in our dealer training programs that women want to know about dependability, value - not just the frills on the car,'' says Harold Jackson, manager of general publicity.

Dealerships, however, remain a major hurdle in reaching the women's market effectively.

''Women don't want to be called 'honey' or 'dear,' and be told to bring their husband or boyfriend back,'' comments Dr. King, who adds that Ford is in the process of trying to ''fine tune'' the way many of its dealers do business.

Nissan's Karen Gustafson points out that women tend to do thorough homework before entering a dealership. Therefore, such things as directing the answer to a woman's question back to the man at her side are to be avoided. A conversation might better be started with points on warranty or fuel efficiency rather than color or how many shopping bags can fit in the trunk.

Chrysler's Mrs. Gray feels that men don't lose out with the new attention on women's interests.

''We contend that men gain,'' she says. ''Women just bring another perspective. Our feeling is that they help to make the product more attractive to a broader base of people.''

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