Thelma and Louise sought top-down glory in a light blue '66 Ford Thunderbird convertible. Carol Brady settled for a Plymouth station wagon, an eminently practical choice -- and about as exciting as a soft-boiled egg. The luxury vehicles with the highest percentage of women drivers today aren't at either of these extremes. Rather, they're some of the most well-balanced cars out there, from a shapely, sporty BMW roadster to a quartet of super-safe yet chic Volvos.
"The common denominator with most of the vehicles on this list is that they're all sophisticated, refined vehicles with complex surfacing and highly-evolved design," says Imre Molnar, dean of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Mich., where he runs one of the world's largest transportation design programs.
Molnar calls out the "flame surfacing" that chief BMW designer Chris Bangle employed -- sometimes controversially -- when creating the BMW Z4, which heads up our list of the top 10 luxury cars driven by women. The Z4's body blends convex and concave shapes inspired by a flame. When designing the car, Bangle even commissioned a group of dancers so that he could model the roadster's form in part based on their spontaneous body movements. "Women are responding to this fluid, organic, inspired form," Molnar says.
Besides sophistication, women are also looking for subtlety. "I think women have such a good eye for detail," says Vicki Vlachakis, designer of the Saturn Sky, which is popular with women, according to CNW Marketing Research data, but isn't on our list because it's not a luxury car. "The attention to detail is really important on the interior; on all of the key driving interfaces such as the gauges, shifter area, steering wheel and seats."
Styling and aesthetics alone won't win women over, though. "To put it bluntly, women are more practical than men when it comes to cars," says Art Spinella of CNW Marketing Research. "Whereas men tend to buy cars that are more testosterone-based and macho [see our men's list], women are into cars that are sophisticated and sensible." The Lexus IS, which ranks 10th, offers strong performance from two available V-6 engines, but still returns decent gas mileage at an estimated average of 27 mpg for combined city/highway driving in the IS 250. Likewise the sporty BMW Z4, which cranks out more than 200 hp but gets 30 mpg on the highway.
The Audi A3 hatchback (ranked third) and Volvo V70 wagon (ranked fourth) further prove the practicality point with versatile interiors that can be configured to accommodate lots of cargo. "Women don't see any perceived value in the macho qualities that are in men's favorite cars, like the Hummer," Molnar says. "They're completely unseduced by the idea of a car's primary purpose being an image-maker."
Safety is another top concern among female drivers, which explains why Volvo, whose reputation is built on safety, has several cars on the list. "Women generally care much more about safety than men," says Marti Barletta, founder and president of consulting firm The TrendSight Group, and author of PrimeTime Women: How to Win the Hearts, Minds and Business of Boomer Big Spenders. "Take the Volvos on the list: The company doesn't do much marketing specifically to women, yet women gravitate toward their safety features and are clearly responding to the brand."
This list includes the top 10 luxury vehicles with the highest percentage of female primary drivers based on CNW Marketing Research survey data. The Bandon, Ore., -based firm conducted more than 15,000 phone surveys during 2006 on a range of topics about car buying and ownership. The list does not account for yearly vehicle sales volumes. Rather, it measures which vehicles have the highest percentage of female drivers based on the number of respondents who said they were the primary driver of a particular model. We excluded vehicles below $30,000 that weren't part of a luxury brand, as well as models that have been discontinued for 2007.
The percentage of primary male drivers for our list of the 10 vehicles most driven by men averaged 90.8 percent, versus an average of 51.9 percent for women. That's a big difference and, while it clearly can't account for all buyers of high-end cars, the discrepancy between the percentages of male versus female primary drivers does imply that men are buying more high-end cars than women.
Barletta was surprised to see the women's numbers so much lower than the men's but says that this will change. Female baby boomers have just started spending and they are about to ramp it up. "The baby-boom generation is moving into the post-family stage -- 50-70 years old -- and now that they've taken care of everyone else, they're ready to spend on themselves," she says.
"You'll see women buying more luxury cars and sports cars," Barletta says. "The cars atop this list, and car manufacturers that didn't make it, will all have to pay more attention to women drivers in the near future. The companies who make the mistake of not doing so will find themselves way behind."