Women have a `voice' in car design, but less clout at retail level

Buying a new car is like a trip to a candy store, says Lyn St. James, a professional race-car driver and consumer adviser to Ford Motor Company. There's just about everything out there that you can imagine. Driving into car lots that are full of these ``bonbons'' are women who buy 4 out of every 10 automobiles sold in the United States.

Women, in fact, have some $30 billion in savings and an annual disposable income of about $285 billion, and they spend an estimated $36 billion a year on new cars, according to Ford figures.

The manufacturers know all this and, indeed, give women a major ``voice'' in the design and engineering of a new car. But down at the retail level -- the automobile dealership -- many women discover they're not even seen, Ms. St. James explains.

A young couple, serious about buying a new car, went shopping in the Northeast. The salesman, however, spent all his time talking with the husband until finally the woman, livid at being ignored, stomped out and returned to their car.

``It was as if the salesman didn't even notice her departure as he continued to talk with the man,'' St. James says.

Finally, as the frustrated husband got up to leave, he told the salesman: ``No sale. The checkbook just went out the door.'' Despite their dollar-and-cents clout, women are often at a disadvantage when they go shopping for a car.

Dealing with ``the salesman'' is intimidating to most car buyers, men and women alike. ``It's a big unknown, a mystery, to most people,'' says St. James.

Women are usually perceived as being less knowledgeable about cars, ``and they probably have a lower interest level as well,'' she adds, although this is beginning to change.

The quality of the sales force is changing, too, she says, but adds, ``I believe they still have a long way to go.''

Suppose you're a woman -- or a man, for that matter -- and you're about to buy a new car. What should you watch out for in entering a dealership showroom?

Remind yourself that you're in a dealership to buy a car, not be sold a car, says St. James. The ball is in the individual buyer's court, not the other way around.

``What we often do is throw the ball into the salesman's court, and then if we're unhappy with the car, we blame the salesman.

``The salesman is not a long-lost friend; he's in the business to make money for himself, not for you,'' St. James continues.

``People too often look to the salesman to give them all the advice on what car to buy, and then turn around and give them the best deal,'' the top female car racer says. That's naive, she warns.

Rely on the salesman for product information, but at the same time seek out other information. Go to other dealers, for example, and see what kind of deal you can work out. ``Make the salesman work for you,'' St. James suggests.

Unfortunately, too many car salesman are not knowledgeable about the cars they sell. ``I bought a turbo coupe less than a year ago and said I wanted high-performance Goodyear Gatorback tires on the car. `What are those?' the puzzled salesman shot back.''

In checking out a car for quality, she advises looking at:

Evenness of the paint, particularly where there is any break in a door panel, side panel, etc.

Fit and finish, to see that everything matches up.

Exterior trim moldings, for proper fit and alignment.

Doors -- be sure they close soundly and properly and have a solid feel.

Seams in the upholstery.

Seats for adjustability and comfort.

Glove box, for rattles.

Door armrests, for comfort and size.

Carpet, for a snug and smooth fit.

Windows and the ease with which they roll up and down.

Car controls, including the pedals, for comfort and ease of operation.

Every woman should test-drive a car before buying it, St. James advises. That's very important! ``And when you test-drive a car,'' she urges, ``try the safety belts.'' Some belts are far more comfortable than other belts. It could make a difference and tip the scales to a specific car.

When driving, pay close attention to wind noise when the windows are all the way up. Ask yourself: How do I feel behind the wheel? Is the wheel position correct for me, or is it adjustable? Would I like to take a long-distance trip in the car?

Women usually take longer to buy a car than a man and will often come back to a dealership two or three times before making a decision.

Don't let anyone kid you. Buying a new car is tough, no matter who holds the wallet.

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