This Volvo Is Not A Guy Thing

The company turns to women to learn how to make the ideal car -- for everyone

Burning rubber. Roaring engines. Grease and gas. Cars are a guy thing, right? The industry sure seems to thinks so. Auto ads tend to emphasize big, fast models, usually driven by a man -- with a woman at his side, if at all -- over user-friendly touches such as ergonomic seats. It's no surprise the crowd that designs, develops, builds, and sells autos remains a boys' club.

Yet on the other side of the sales desk, women sway a disproportionate share of car sales. According to industry studies, women purchase about two-thirds of vehicles and influence 80% of all sales. It's this gender gap that Volvo (F ) is trying to bridge with a concept car unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show on Mar. 2. Shaped by all-female focus groups drawn from Volvo's workforce, the two-door hatchback was created by an all-woman management team. Dubbed Your Concept Car, or YCC, the resulting show car cost some $3 million to design and build and is packed with thoughtful design twists that attracted a big, spirited crowd in Geneva. "We found that by meeting women's expectations, we exceeded those of most men," said Hans-Olov Olsson, president and CEO of Volvo Cars, a unit of Ford Motor Co. (F ).

There's no guarantee the YCC will ever make it to a showroom. The auto industry uses concept cars as test beds for designs and technical innovations, and to gauge the public's reactions. Packed as it is with the latest gizmos, the YCC would be expensive: Volvo estimates a road version would cost about $65,000 and compete with luxury coupés built by the likes of Audi and Mercedes.

More James Bond than Soccer Mom, the YCC may just create enough buzz to hit the roads. Its gull-wing doors -- which resemble the line of a bird's extended wings -- are there as much for convenience and accessibility as for design chic. A button on the key fob stirs the YCC to life, raising the whole chassis a few inches to meet the driver, just as the upper door lifts hydraulically and the sill -- the lower part of the door -- slides under the car. The oversize opening makes stepping in and out a breeze, says Maria Widell Christiansen, the YCC's design manager. And because they're motor-driven, "the driver doesn't even need to touch the car to get in," she adds.

This hands-off approach is deliberate and consistent. Rather than a dirty, tough-to-unscrew gas cap, the YCC borrows a technology from race cars: When the gas button is pressed in the cockpit, a ball valve on the outside of the car rotates, exposing an opening for the fuel pump. Ditto for windshield-wiper fluid. Body panels are low-maintenance, too. Clad in a nonstick paint, they repel dirt.

SMART PARKING. Much of the advanced technology in the YCC is hidden from view. Women in Volvo's focus group weren't willing to give up power but wanted cleaner, more efficient performance. Hence the 215-horsepower, five-cylinder, near-zero-emissions gas engine, which shuts off when not in motion and then fires up instantly with the help of an electric motor. This delivers a 10% boost in mileage, says Olsson. There's also a nifty parallel-parking aid. When the car is aligned in front of an empty spot, sensors can confirm that, yes, it's big enough. Then, while the driver controls the gas and brake, the system self-steers the car into the spot.

In the cockpit, the design team focused on ergonomics and styling. "Access for women, in particular, can be difficult," says Jennifer Stockburger, an automotive-test engineer at Consumer Reports, who has been testing vehicle ergonomics into her ninth month of pregnancy. For small women, especially, "reaching out to shut a heavy door, or adjusting pedals, can be tough."

To tailor the cockpit to drivers, the YCC team developed and applied for a patent on the Ergovision system. At a dealership, the driver's body is laser-scanned in a booth. Volvo then calculates optimal positions for the seat belt, pedals, headrest, steering wheel, and seat, all of which is saved in the key fob. Each driver is "automatically custom-fitted" when they get in the car, says Camilla Palmertz, YCC's project manager.

Whether or not the YCC is eventually built, some of its design innovations are likely show up in future Volvo models, says Olsson. The concept car will make its U.S. debut on Apr. 7 at the New York International Auto Show. And no doubt plenty of gearhead guys will be there to admire its feminine wiles.

By Adam Aston in New York with Gail Edmondson in Geneva

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