DETROIT — A MEDIA sales representative at a top-rated local radio station, Christine Anderson was used to closing major deals, so buying a new car wasn't anything special. But as Mrs. Anderson sat in the cramped little office, every time she tried to raise a question, the dealer would ignore her, turning instead to her husband, who was sitting in a corner quietly reading a magazine.
``I got so angry, I walked out of the place and bought that car somewhere else,'' even though the first dealer was offering the better price, Anderson recalls.
Women have become a big force in the new car market. But many in the auto industry still haven't figured out how to deal with that fact.
``Women are an increasingly important part of the car market,'' acknowledges Ford Motor Co. vice-president Robert Rewey.
As recently as 1980, women buyers accounted for just 36 percent of total passenger car sales, or about 3.3 million vehicles. By 1988, that soared to 47 percent of the market, or 4.9 million cars.
When it comes to what women want in a car and what they actually buy, there are some significant differences from men.
According to a report by the market research firm, J.D. Power & Associates, ``Women are the principal drivers (and buyers) of more lower priced vehicles,'' such as the subcompact Ford Escort. Women buy nearly eight out of 10 Nissan Pulsar NXs. Toyota officials note that 56 percent of their total sales are to women.
When asked to rank the features or characteristics they hope to find on a new car, men and women will typically list many of the same things, but in a different order.
Men go for performance, styling, and handling. At the top of most women's list are dependability and reliability, says Cathy Reps of Family Circle magazine. They are more concerned ``with the benefits for them and their family, rather than whether or not the car is turbocharged.''
About 37 percent of all women buyers fall into categories described as ``value seekers'' and ``budget minded.''
But as women become more affluent and increasingly comfortable with the idea of unfettered self-expression, more and more are choosing the sporty muscle cars that used to be the bastion of macho males. About one in five female drivers can be described as ``driving enthusiasts.''
Still, women account for only about 11 percent of those buying the Porsche 911, and 19 percent of all Corvette purchasers.
One of the fastest-growing niches among female buyers is the light-truck market. That's largely fueled by the surge in minivan sales, which will total roughly a million vehicles this year. But many women are also trading in their sedans and wagons for Broncos and Jeep sport-utility vehicles.
In 1974, women accounted for barely 6 percent of all Jeep sales. This year it will come close to 20 percent, according to Terri Hauptman, Jeep's merchandising manager for special programs.
``Today,'' Ms. Hauptman says, ``women aren't intimidated by what were once male bastions: going off-road, backpacking, white-water rafting, towing a boat.''
Despite the increasing importance of women in the market, the new car market is still a male-dominated bastion.
Some of the worst complaints center around the retail side of the business. Far too many dealers still tell potential female customers to go home and bring back their husbands. ``Neanderthal'' is how Kate Rand Lloyd, editor of Working Woman magazine, describes the attitude of most male car salesmen when dealing with women buyers.
Women are made to feel especially uncomfortable at the ``back end'' of the dealership, the service department. Yet women are more likely to take their cars in for preventive maintenance, and that is a potentially lucrative source of revenue for dealers who do the work properly and don't make women customers feel out of place, Mr. Rewey stresses.
``Women are very interested in knowing that the dealership can be counted on for a good service department,'' he says.
Meanwhile, Chevrolet recently spent $100,000 on surveys to identify ``Ms. American Car Buyer,'' a project that has influenced both design and marketing programs.
And speaking to a group of women magazine officials last year, Chrysler Motors Chairman Gerald Greenwald noted that ``only the company who wins the confidence of the woman car buyer will be a survivor in the fiercely competitive car wars.''