The Luxury Cars Women Want

A study by J.D. Power identifies the cars and SUVs that were bought most by women in 2007. The most popular? Volvo

In the ongoing debate regarding the differences between the sexes, here is something to think about: The luxury car with the highest male ownership is the high-performance Audi RS4 (NSU). The car with the highest female ownership is the Volvo S40.

The RS4 has a starting price of $66,910 and can zoom from 0 to 62 mph (that's 100 kilometers per hour) in 4.8 seconds. The S40 has a sticker price of around $24,000. It doesn't really matter how fast it can go from 0 to 60. What does matter is that it aced the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal crash test.

It does not take a psychologist to conclude that men are more likely to buy cars with their heart and women with their head. At least that seems to be indicated by the results of J.D. Power & Associates' Power Information Network's most recent survey of the cars with the highest percentage of female ownership. Not surprisingly, there wasn't a sports car to be found in the top 10. Instead, there were sensible, entry-level cars and small SUVs that emphasized safety, quality, reliability, and value.

Of course, that is not to say there's aren't thousands of women don't enjoy driving fast or wouldn't choose a Maserati over a minivan given the choice—but these women would seem to be the exception. To arrive at its conclusions, PIN surveyed hundreds of dealerships around the U.S. through the end of August, 2007. The nationwide PIN sample includes about 24% of U.S. retail automotive sales, including both loans and leases, luxury and non-luxury brands, but excluding fleet sales. J.D. Power, like BusinessWeek, is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).

What Do Women Want? Volvo

Not only did the S40 nail the top spot; the Volvo brand dominated the top 10 with three winners, which, along with the S40, included the V50 wagon at No. 7 and the S60 sedan at No. 9. Volvo was also the No. 1 luxury brand for female ownership overall, at 42.5%, vs. a luxury-brand average of 35.8%.

So how does this popularity translate to sales? Year-to-date through August, women bought or leased more than half (53%) of the Volvo S40 sedans retailed in the PIN sample, which is fairly representative of the total market. However, that doesn't necessarily mean good news for the struggling Swedish automaker, which is a division of Ford Motor (F), because sales as a whole for the model are weak. As of August, North American sales of the S40 were 13,513, which was down about 17% year-to-date. Overall, Volvo's North American sales were off 9.4% to 72,476, according to Automotive News.

Men clearly still buy the majority of cars. For example, the racier and more expensive BMW 3 Series is the perennial sales leader in the entry-luxury sedan segment, and is increasing its domination. Through August, 3 Series sales were up about 25%, to 97,039, according to Automotive News. But it didn't even make it on to PIN's top 10 list of women's favorite luxury cars.

Across the industry, including non-luxury brands, women bought 37.3% of new vehicles in 2007 through August, based on the PIN sample data. Looking beyond luxury cars to include all price categories, the S40 was the fifth-most-popular model for female buyers. The most popular, according to J.D. Power, with 58.3% of all female buyers, was the Volkswagen (VOWG) New Beetle. Including non-luxury brands, Suzuki (SZKMF) was the No. 1 brand purchased by women this year, the data said.

Reinforcing the PIN data, a separate customer survey by another market research and consulting company, San Diego's Strategic Vision, showed many of the same Volvos at the top of a similar list for the previous model year (the most recent one available), including the S40 at No. 1.

Known Quantities

"We're known for one thing. We 'own' safety," said John Maloney, vice-president for marketing communications at Volvo Cars of North America in Irvine, Calif. "Safety is sort of a foundational value for everyone. But on a relative basis, it is more important to women," says Maloney.

Nevertheless, Volvo is trying to expand beyond its "safe" image. The company's new brand message continues to emphasize safety while still aiming to convince consumers that its cars are also rugged and fun to drive (BusinessWeek, 9/14/07).

"I can't tell you I have one single piece of Volvo research that says, 'Voila! Here's where women are more concerned about safety than men.' I don't," admits Maloney. But individual women will tell you so.

"Safety was the reason I got into it, that I got interested in Volvos," said Gretchen Adams of Afton, N.Y., a quilter who also happens to be a board member and vice-president/events director of the Volvo Club of America, which is also based in Afton, in central New York State. She said she and her husband both drive Volvos daily, and they have driven nothing but Volvos since about 1970, when they bought a two-tone, 1959 Volvo station wagon. They nicknamed it "the Pizza Wagon," for its red-and-cream paint job.

Some Like a Lexus

"It's kind of ingrained, I don't even look at other cars at this point, because I trust them [Volvos], and because I like to keep my vehicles for a while. I get tired of the throwaway mentality in the U.S. When I buy a product, I like to know I can hang on to it for a while," she said.

If Volvo is synonymous with safety, Toyota's (TM) Lexus Div. is synonymous with quality and reliability. (It has won the J.D. Power dependability survey 13 years in a row. See the full 2007 list of the most dependable cars (BusinessWeek, 8/9/07). Lexus had fewer Top 10 female-owned models than Volvo, but the Lexus was the No. 2 luxury brand overall, in terms of female ownership, at 41.2%, according to PIN data.

In liking Lexus, women are little different from men, since Lexus has been the No. 1-selling luxury brand in the U.S. since 2000. The biggest reason for the brand's high overall female ownership is the Lexus RX model, a car-based SUV typically purchased for family use. The RX is the single biggest-selling Lexus—at 67,686 units year to date—and ranks sixth on the list of the 10 most popular female-owned luxury vehicles.

Primary Decision Maker

Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for PIN, noted that most of the models in the most popular luxury list purchased by women are at the entry level for their respective brands, all of which have MSRPs of under $40,000.

"You're not going to get that many single women buying an $80,000 vehicle. To some extent, the lower the price, the higher percent female," he said. According to Libby, to determine the percentage of ownership, PIN looked at the finance contract to see if a woman was the sole owner or the top signer. The data do not include marital status.

Colleen O'Dea, sales manager for Kundert Volvo of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., said it is not at all uncommon for women shopping alone to come in and buy or lease a Volvo. She believes most of them are married. "It's probably a household decision, but it happens all the time that women are picking the car, picking colors and the equipment. Maybe 10 or more years ago, women would do that, and then the men would come in and negotiate, but today it's just the opposite. The woman is definitely the primary decision-maker," she said. O'Dea said that according to Volvo statistics for the Northern New Jersey sales region, 63% of the S40 buyers for the last 60 days were female.

No Condescending Salesmen Allowed Another sign of the changing times is that women are increasingly knowledgeable about cars. As a result, men and women indicate that they are equally satisfied with the automotive sales experience, at least according to the most recent J.D. Power Sales Satisfaction Index. Both sexes gave the dealership where they bought or leased their new car an identical satisfaction rating of 847 on a 1,000-point scale—a record high for the 20-year study.

Of course, there are some dealerships where salesmen treat less well-informed women condescendingly, or suggest that they "come back with their husbands," assuming that the man is the real decision-maker. "You do still hear that sometimes, although in my case, I would kill any of my salespeople," O'Dea said.

"Women want a vehicle and an experience with the dealership that says she is respected for the smart choice she made, that she is an expert at knowing what she wants," said Shedroff of Strategic Vision.

Four-Car Garage

Tricia Patricco of Union, N.J., a self-described "Volvo Girl" and another Volvo Club board member, said she tries to underplay the fact that she's a Volvo expert, if a salesperson tries to take advantage of her.

"I think people are more savvy than they used to be, what with the Internet and all the sources of information. You know what a dealer's margin is, what a reasonable amount of profit is for them, and the fact that you start negotiating at that point. If you don't do those things nowadays, you'd have to be pretty dumb," she said.

Patricco and her husband currently have four Volvos—two daily drivers and two vintage cars that they take to Volvo Club events—so it's impossible for her to play dumb in front of her friends. "They all know I'm a maniac."

See BusinessWeek's slide show for a roundup of the cars women are most likely to buy.

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