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Brawn vs. brains and practicality?

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smikolajczyk@crain.com AKRON (April 25, 2012) - - THEdefinitive vehicle survey you've all been waiting for is here . . . ta da . . . drum roll please . . . and it's a shocker - - NOT.

If you're expecting a meaty discussion about mpg's vs. horsepower vs. cost vs. number of cup holders, well, this ain't it. This survey is much more, shall we say, esoteric. And since it delves deeply into gender differences, it has got "battle of the sexes" written all over it.

Now that I have your attention, I'll clue you in on the headline that grabbed my attention amongst the wheat and chaff that enters the ol' email in-box on a minute-to-minute basis: "Men prefer flashy or brawny vehicles; women prefer import brands and smaller vehicles." Yep, this was a truly stop-the-presses moment.

The second part of the headline was even jucier: "Volkswagen Beetle no longer holds top spot among women new car buyers; Porsche 911 still has the highest percentage of male new car buyers." This piquant observation of he-man vs. girly-girl comes from TrueCar.com, which bills itself as "the authoritative voice in new car pricing and industry trend information."

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based firm just released its third annual demographic study based on car-buying behavior in 2011, with an all-important examination of gender differences in auto buying. And this study weren't no slouch. It was based on more than 9 million retail purchases in 2011.

"While gender preferences amongst the buyers of various automotive brands still exist, the gap is narrowing," pointed out Jesse Toprak, TrueCar.com's vice president of market intelligence. "The SUV and truck heavy mix of the domestic auto makers continue to generate a disproportionate number of male customers, while the exotic brands remain to be the best medicine for a midlife crisis."

Ah, the proverbial midlife crisis reference. I read the part about men preferring flashy and I envisioned the Brawny Paper Towel Guy cruising by in a yellow 911, giving a manly wave while revving to the redline. Some of the "key findings" of TrueCar.com's study include:

  • The brand with the highest percentage of retail sales to females in 2011 continues to be BMW's Mini Cooper (46.2 percent), followed by Nissan (45.7 percent), and Kia (45.6 percent). That's compared to 2010 when Mini (47.9 percent) came in first, followed by Kia and Honda respectively (46.8 percent and 46.0 percent). All in all, TrueCar.com said there were 14 brands with a female ratio over 40 percent in 2011, and newcomer Fiat landed at 41.9 percent.

 

  • Males continue to be the majority of buyers of exotic new cars, but last year there was only one exotic brand with 10 percent or less retail sales to women - - Ferrari (7.5 percent) - - compared to 2010 when there were six brands.

 

  • Sixteen of the top 20 brands in 2011 with the highest percentage of female buyers were import brands, while domestic brand Fiat - - the relative newcomer reborn to these shores through the merger between Chrysler Group L.L.C. and Italy's Fiat S.p.A. - - landed at 12. Chrysler, Buick and Jeep bottomed out the list at 18-20. Only three luxury brands made the top 20, TrueCar.com said, with Lexus (44.2 percent) being the only luxury brand over 40 percent.

 

  • Thirteen of the top 20 brands in 2011 with the highest percentage of male buyers were either exotic or luxury brands. When including luxury brands, nine of the top 20 were domestic. GMC and Dodge brands both had over 70 percent new car male buyers in 2011.

 

  • The new Volkswagen Beetle, introduced in 2011, had a higher percentage of male buyers in 2011, with 45.4 percent of buyers being male. (Really? A "chick car?" I'll have to throw my mind's eye in rewind - - maybe the Brawny Towel Guy was actually trundling by in a Beetle.) In 2010, the Volkswagen New Beetle had only 39.4 percent of male buyers.

"Female car buyers really gravitated toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and crossovers," said Kristen Andersson, senior analyst at TrueCar.com. Of course they did. Women are excruciatingly more practical - - at least in my family and those of my friends. While the guys are getting all flossed up on vroom vroom, rpm's and the smell of nitro-flavored aftershave, the women are getting out the calculators and determining the best mpg's while making sure the vehicle will safely hold a child seat, have enough space for groceries, and mayhaps even have adequate room to get a sheet of drywall home from the local home center.

"It was the complete opposite for male buyers, who preferred either a fast and sporty vehicle with distinctive curb appeal or a big vehicle, like a large truck or SUV," Ms. Andersson added. Aha. Just as I'd thought. Fast or big F-series. Or, in the case of some of us, small, fast - - and on two wheels. (This has nothing to do with any of this, but I found it interesting that the banner ad at the top of TrueCar.com's website is a nod to the non-stereotypical woman. It's for TrueCar Racing, which the site says is "Women Empowered."

The headline next to the images of six determined-looking women in racing suits boasts: "6 Women, 24 Wheels, Empowered to Win." Betcha they're not worrying about fuel efficiency and cup holders.) TrueCar.com said it also examined more than 1,000 vehicle sales annually for the most current market prices and listed discounts for all of the brands and specific models that were tracked. For a look at the top 10 brands with the highest male and female purchase ratios and their current discount percentages, click here.

So what does all this mean? Probably not much in the "shocking news" department. A lot of guys have always been gearhead/muscle car junkies. Most of the women I know lean toward the practical when it comes to modes of transportation, though I can think of a few friends who were right alongside their hubbies - - and loving it - - in the pits at local drag strips drenched in machismo.

And don't let that stereotype of mostly men preferring "flashy or brawny" fool you. Just ask Tire Business reporter Kathy McCarron about her recent tour de force on a race track during a tire company ride-and-drive event where she got to crank a Lambo up to about 110 for an all-too-brief moment. She still wears the glow of speed around the office like a badge of honor.

Only problem is, now she wants one.

Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk is managing editor of Tire Business and well into his midlife crisis.

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