(AOL Autos) -- Women have become increasingly influential when it comes to the automotive world, in everything from car design to advertising campaigns to what happens when you show up at the dealership. So what do women really want when buying a new car? And how are automakers responding to this turning tide?
Driver loved the CTS' swooping cabin, hand-stitched leathers, chrome and wood accents and giant skylight.
According to "Marketing to Women" author Marti Barletta, women seek more advice from an auto authority (57 percent) before buying a new car; they spend more time in the purchasing process than men (17 weeks versus 15) and women shop at an average of three dealerships for best price and treatment.
In Judith E. Nichols' book, "Understanding the Increasing Affluence of Women," she says in the majority of U.S. households women bring in half or more of the income and women control about 80 percent of household spending, including new car purchases.
What women want
"Women want the same things as men, but they want more," said Ford's Sheryl Connelly, the company's chief marketing office manager for global trends and futuring. "For example, they want performance, package and design, but they also want safety and more features. We are taking that into consideration in all of our new products."
Marketing to women, is definitely different, Connelly said. "Men respond to things and women respond to people," she noted. "It isn't that men won't respond to people, but women just respond differently. So, we look at this in the types and ways we advertise."
Michael Albano of GM's global design group says women's influence in the automotive market has hit an all-time high, noting 85 percent of all vehicle sales decisions are influenced by women with women buying 45 percent of all vehicles. (This information is based on car registration numbers only and does not reflect households where vehicles are shared.)
A female touch
Albano says when it comes to car interiors; GM pays particular attention to details in trim, fabric, colors and compartments, shapes and positioning of controls. "And then, of course, storage is a big deal to women buyers whether it's room for groceries, handbags, kids' toys, foldable seats or built-in car booster seats," he added.
As for exteriors, "women want great designs, but they also don't want to compromise on safety and efficiency," Albano noted. "So we pay particular attention to proportions and stance, including the wheel-to-body relationship."
In fact, many of GM's top design engineers are women: several female engineers (along with the guys too, of course), worked together to design the new Cadillac CTS, which was named Motor Trend's 2008 Car of the Year.
Liz Pilibosian, chief engineer for the 2008 Cadillac CTS, said she believes "when you make a car for a woman, you are going to satisfy everybody."
Pilibosian said female engineers at GM don't just work on interiors. "We have women working on the power train, electric systems, control systems and vibration. All of our women are very hands-on types who aren't afraid of touching anything or taking it apart or putting it back together. They are passionate about cars."
Attention to detail
The details are what propelled the CTS into the spotlight. Pilibosian says Cadillac's engineers were meticulous in designing each and every system with female needs in mind. "We made sure things like the steering column were not too low and not too high," she said. The same approach was applied to the seating, which was designed for petite women as well as very tall men.
She mentions industry buzz words like "outside hand placement," which translates to: door handle. Not only did the engineers make sure the handle won't knock your body when you open the door, but they were also cognizant that women drivers may have long fingernails and need a door handle that's easier to grab.
The exterior styling on the CTS was also a consideration for both sexes. Pilibosian said the design team wanted "fast, swoopy, diagonal lines" for a sporty and luxurious look. She said both women and men are enticed by the car's "smoothness from one end to the other with no rough edges and a tight, flush design."
The "gender phenomenon," said Pilibosian, is not that the CTS appeals more to women or men, but that the vehicle's "aggressive and elegant" lines are pleasing equally to guys and gals.
Gender phenomenon or not, I'm a woman and I'm an auto journalist. Heck, I drive cars for a living, right? So, what do I think about all this?
The best way to appreciate phenomenal gender-friendly design is behind the wheel. So, I recently road tested four new models: a totally pimped-out Cadillac CTS, the all-new, seven-seat Taurus X, the so-very-utilitarian Dodge Caravan, and the affordable and fuel-efficient Mazda5.
Let's get straight to the point: Does the 2008 Cadillac CTS deserve its seemingly endless praise? Pretty much.
The interior feels like you are in a lavish jet with its swooping cabin, hand-stitched gray and white leathers, chrome and wood accents and a giant skylight with sheer retractable roof. The suspension is extremely smooth, the handling is superbly tight, the braking is spot on and the 3.6-liter direct injection V6 304 hp engine is adequately responsive.
The award-winning details are everywhere. For example, inside door handles are individually illuminated with a dim turquoise light. The interior's main console has a concave roundness that's filled with good-looking buttons and digital information windows. The killer infotainment system screen raises up when you start the car and can be raised and lowered by the push of a button.
Speaking of the infotainment system, the one inside the 2008 Cadillac CTS may be the best in the automotive industry today. We were blown away by the push-button tabs, outstanding graphics and quick-to-learn features.
However, we were a bit disappointed with the comfort of the seats. We drive lots of miles -- sometimes on way-too-long family road trips -- in luxury vehicles and we felt the CTS' bucket seat didn't hold our bums and back sides in absolute blissful comfort. Somehow, and rather unfortunately, the rather hard seats just don't have that super cushy feel for driving long distances or in commuter traffic.
The Cadillac CTS does look sleek from back to front. Somehow, it even feels like this car disappears into the scenery with that exclusive quality of classic modern design. From the back, the CTS has a definite appeal with its in-your-face trunk and lots of chrome.
Our fully-loaded test model topped out at $46,440 with the premium luxury package, all-season tire package and premium crystal red paint. With good looks, a great drive, OnStar, satellite radio, a combined mpg of 20 and some excellent safety marks, the 2008 Cadillac CTS does seem like an outstanding buy.
2008 Ford Taurus X
The all-new 2008 Taurus X seems like Ford's dark horse as a luxury CUV with seven seats and lots of extras. What did we think on this first look? We love the Taurus X.
In fact, if we had the $38,000 for this fully-loaded dark ink blue model and if this CUV got better gas mileage (15 mpg city, 22 mpg hwy), the Taurus X would be a top contender for our energetic family of five.
Why does the Taurus X top our list? The Taurus X is definitely appealing to women, which some auto designers say gives a car gender-bending attributes.
Unlike the Cadillac CTS, the seats in the Taurus X were supremely comfortable. Not only that, we found even the easy-to-clean back seats were plush and felt like you were in a rolling recliner. The wide stance of the car, which gives it a bit of an SUV feel, makes the second-and-third row cabin quite roomy. There are also cup holders galore and lots of nesting places for digital media.
Research shows women are more concerned about safety, so the Taurus X shines again as what Ford calls "the safest seven-passenger CUV in America," with its five-star NHTSA front and side crash test ratings.
What do guys like about the Taurus X? First off, this CUV is big and its sheer size makes it feel more like a beastly SUV. Inside, you feel like you are driving a luxurious truck or SUV, but the ride is smoother and much less bumpy. The 3.5 liter V6 engine could use a bit more acceleration from second to third and through fourth gears, but the Taurus X kicks it at high speeds and then glides along like a dream.
Women love good design and the Taurus X hit all the right style notes with its faux bois trim, chrome accents, surprisingly good-looking textured plastics and cozy leather seats. Ford's designers definitely focused on the details, so we loved the cup holders everywhere, niches and pockets for digital media as well as dual overhead sunglass holders.
Our teenager was also enamored with Ford's SYNC technology, which Ford says can be upgraded via its Microsoft platform. She immediately plugged in her iPhone, downloaded her entire digital music library in minutes and began barking out verbal orders to the computer, which obeyed her every command.
For little kids, the "DVD Family Entertainment Center" rocked. Four-year-old Juliet was ecstatic about driving another "TV car" and we were impressed the DVD system could be programmed from the front or the back and could also be disabled by the driver or passenger.
We'd love to see a hybrid engine on the Taurus X, perhaps raising the overall mg to the low 20s at a minimum. Our busy family needs to save money at the pump and we are quite baffled as to the alarmingly low city mpg (15) on the Taurus X. Can we get a hybrid Taurus X in 2009, please?!
We had never driven a minivan (nor ridden in one much) until the Dodge Grand Caravan showed up on our driveway in both the Stow 'N Go and Swivel 'N Go seating models. We drove both models over the holidays and we were totally impressed with the Dodge Caravan's family-friendly attributes.
Yes, minivans aren't cool anymore. Yes, CUVS are hot and are sexy enough not to be mistaken as parent patrol. But who cares about all that when the minivan hauls the family around in complete and utter comfort complete with every parent-serving feature known to humankind?
Our fully-loaded test model was priced out at $30,330, including a "preferred" package with dual DVD entertainment system,
And, if you can believe it, Dodge Caravan SXT's 3.8 liter V6 engine can really haul. We thought the acceleration was excellent and we also enjoyed the tight suspension, great handling and overall ease in driving, parking and hauling stuff (and kids) around.
First, we tried out the Stow 'N Go model. For those who do lots of hauling for home repairs or use the minivan for both work and home transport, this Dodge Caravan can't be beat. At the push of a button, the second-row seats collapse, leaving a perfectly flat row. The third row seats can be manually lowered for completely flat cargo space. We were able to easily haul this year's Christmas tree inside the Dodge Caravan rather than awkwardly roping it to the roof.
Perhaps the most family-friendly vehicle on the road today is the Dodge Caravan SXT with Swivel 'N Go seating. I was fascinated by the thought of my family running around town with a mobile living room in the car. I mean, by swiveling the second row seats and putting a table between the rows, the Dodge Caravan becomes a mini recreational vehicle. Does it really work? Yes.
Up to five people can sit in the back rather comfortably. When there are just a few people you can even stretch your legs out on the opposite seat while the nicely-sized table in front of you holds your digital media, homework, game or food. And, you can even get some peace and quiet with two separate video screens and pull-down headphones in the back. We even planned a trip to the beach where we had a picnic in the car and played a board game afterwards.
One big shortcoming is the gas mileage. The Dodge Caravan really sucked up the gas at just 16 mpg city and 23 mpg hwy. Yet again, we see an immediate need for hybrid engines in classic family cars such as minivans.
This was my first real look at the Mazda5 and I wasn't impressed. It looked like just another boring family sedan, albeit with tons more design appeal than the family-friendly Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
Then, I opened the back door to help my 4-year-old daughter into the back seat. The door slid open like a minivan, allowing more space for my daughter to get into the seat. We could easily lean over to attach her seat belt and get her situated. Also, the very comfortable front and second row seats featured flexible armrests. We were also impressed with the easy-to-use third row seats, which are roomy and easily collapse flat.
Inside, the Mazda5 has a pleasing minimalism. The graphics on the fairly large infotainment system aren't the best, but they are certainly adequate. The instrument panel has a racy feel and the in-dash computer information center is helpful and doesn't block your view. Controls are easy to use and the center console is a pleasing matte metallic.
The 2008 Mazda5's 2.3 liter, 16-valve engine does have that signature Mazda "zoom zoom" drive. Both sexes can love the overall fun drive with excellent acceleration as well as tight handling and suspension.
On the outside, the Mazda5 does have a rather special look for a small CUV. Mazda knows how to give their cars modern appeal, so the exterior has some sexy swooping curves and daring dovetails.
For the price ($25,480 for our grand touring test model with a navigation system and Sirius satellite radio) and rather good mpg (21 city and 27 hwy), the Mazda5 is a definitely an overall good buy. E-mail to a friend