Women drove this new car design

A majority of car buyers are women, and at least one manufacturer is asking what they want

Mel Gibson couldn't figure it out, but apparently a team of Swedish designers can: What women want is a car that has self-cleaning paint and an electronic system to help them parallel park.

Volvo's "Your Concept Car," or YCC, made its first US appearance at the New York International Auto Show, which kicked off last week. Full of features aimed at women, it is provoking discussion about what women car buyers are looking for and how much attention is paid to them by the primarily male-dominated auto industry.

The car is sleek, with gull-wing doors (for ease of entrance and so people won't get dirty when entering and exiting) and a front end that can't be opened without a the equivalent of a pit crew (an electronic system notifies a Volvo shop if there's a problem with the engine, so why bother including a hood?)

The historic, female-led team that designed the car did so now because they say women represent the fastest-growing segment of the auto industry - to ignore them is "stupid," says one. The way Volvo sees it, you can't go wrong designing for women because you'll woo men, too. "The thesis we have is if you meet the expectations of women, you actually exceed the expectations of men," says Camilla Palmertz, a project manager for YCC.

Taking a more palatable tack than when Chrysler introduced the Dodge La Femme in the 1950s - it included an umbrella and lipstick - the Volvo team aimed to address three things they say women are interested in: better ergonomics and vision, more convenience, and greater storage options.

For "ergovision" as they call it, they've added a system that scans your body, adjusts your seat, and then encodes that position into your key, for example.

Where's the windshield-washer fluid?

Convenience includes leaving that pesky hood in place and moving the opening to fill the window-washer fluid container to next to the opening for gas. And as for storage, they've moved the parking brake to the steering wheel, added compartments for purses and laptops between the two front seats, and provided theater-style seats in the back that fold up to provide more floor space.

Experiments like this one are good for the industry, say some who track it, because all consumers benefit from including viewpoints from both genders.

"If you put four guys ... in a room and said, 'Come up with a vehicle,' this is not the vehicle they would have come up with," says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. "And from that standpoint, I think it was a very interesting exercise, regardless of what came out of it."

Volvo's concept car arrives at a time when automakers, particularly those in the US, are including women more in design decisions - from focus groups to manufacturing.

For example, in the past five years, features that largely benefit women - such as adjustable pedals - have come on the market. Other features women favor are bench seats - so they can put items they need to reach right next to them - cars with four doors, and greater cargo capacity, according Mr. Spinella's research.

YCC first appeared last month at an auto show in Geneva, and is not without its skeptics. Some don't like what it implies about women drivers - that they need more help parallel parking, or that they care more about accommodating a ponytail (YCC has a grooved headrest for that purpose) than they do about being able to lift the hood to check the oil on their own. Some industry watchers aren't surprised that it has raised a few eyebrows.

"One of the things we know for certain is that women want to be treated with respect," says Courtney Caldwell, founder and editor in chief of American Woman Road & Travel magazine. "They don't want pink marketing, they don't want a 'chic car' if you will.... Most of the women we've spoken to don't want something that makes them stand out."

Women account for 52 percent, on average, of the $85 billion market, and influence 80 percent of new car purchases, according to Ms. Caldwell. Their No. 1 concern in a car is safety - along with being treated respectfully at dealerships.

The car guides your parallel parking

Volvo responds to critics by pointing out that many of the issues they address apply to both men and women. Women admit more often than men that they have trouble parallel parking, for example, but Volvo found when they tested the genders, 50 percent of both groups have trouble with the actual maneuver.

Volvo's YCC answer: a sensing system that judges whether your car will fit, then discreetly guides your car into the space with minimal maneuvering from you.

While some of the YCC features may eventually end up in Volvos, few industry observers expect the car to ever roll off a production line. Among other things, a show car like this one is typically meant to test ideas, they say. "What the intention always is, is to show as many different alternatives and gimmicks and see if anybody responds to any of them," says Spinella.

Volvo's plan is to collect all the correspondence they get from people and all that's written about YCC and assess which features might make it into the fleet, but even those additions would probably be three or more years off.

"This is a think tank of good ideas," says Palmertz, who believes that what the public asks for is likely to be included in cars of the future. "We're just going to collect everything and see what comes out, what is the most asked-for item."

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