Women in the driver’s seat

From parking to ponytails, Volvo car is female friendly, GORDON PITTS writes
GORDON PITTS

With files from AP and Reuters
March 3, 2004

Volvo Car Corp. says it has unveiled the ultimate female-friendly car that’s easy to park and maintain, with features such as special headrests to accommodate a driver’s ponytail.

If this car could talk, it probably wouldn’t have a problem asking for directions — or, at least, that’s the impression left by Volvo’s gender-heavy public relations pitch.

The Swedish auto maker claims the sporty YCC — short for Your Concept Car — is the first car in which every aspect of design and production has been entirely overseen by women.

The product of the 14-month project by a core team of 25 women was unwrapped yesterday at a car show in Geneva.

But the YCC will probably never see the light of day as a mass-produced product, despite a reported investment of $3.5-million (U.S.) so far. Volvo officials say design features on its concept cars often show up in future models, but usually not as a fully realized vehicle in a showroom.
Joanne Thomas Yaccato, a Toronto consultant on gender marketing, agrees there is a lot about the YCC’s launch that smacks of public relations.

Still, “I will not slag a car company that puts women on the radar,” says Ms. Thomas Yaccato, who argues that auto makers have generally disregarded women in the conception of their products.
Yet there is a lot in the YCC promotion that seems to advance the old stereotype that women don’t know, and don’t particularly care, what goes on beneath a car’s hood. In fact, there are probably a lot of men who feel that way.

The YCC is touted as a low-emission, gas-electric hybrid that’s designed to be nearly maintenance free, requiring an oil change every 50,000 kilometres.

When it’s time for an engine inspection, the car sends a wireless message to a local service centre, which notifies the driver. The vehicle has no hood, only a large front end primarily suited for opening by a mechanic.

It features a race-car-like fuelling system with a roller-ball valve opening for the nozzle but no gas cap. There is computerized assistance for parallel parking, and gull-wing doors for easier loading and unloading of large objects and children.

The YCC incorporates a system that records body measurements and stores them in the vehicle’s key, allowing seat, steering wheel and seatbelt to be adjusted automatically.

Then there are “feminine” details such as compartments for handbags, exchangeable seat covers of various colours and materials, and “head restraints with room for ponytails,” the Volvo press release said.

“How could a man think of that?” asked Lisa Graham, public relations manager for Volvo Cars of Canada Ltd.

But design team member Anna Rosen said that “this is not a statement about sexual stereotyping. We wanted to see what would happen when we gave women all the decisions.”

Project communications manager Tatiana Butovitsch said the team for the Swedish auto maker included five female managers and an additional 20 or so who made all calls regarding interior and exterior design. The leaders at times tapped the insight of 400 other women. Volvo, a unit of Ford Motor Co., has 28,159 employees worldwide, 20 per cent of whom are women.

Ms. Thomas Yaccato, author of The 80 Per cent Minority: Reaching the Real World of Women Consumers, generally applauds Volvo’s move because women have been ignored by mainly male car designers, even though they buy half the new cars and guide 80 per cent of household spending.

But design, while influential, is of secondary importance in terms of what women really want from their car companies, she said. Above all, they want car salespeople who understand their needs and do not demean them.

“Until you fix the place where we go and buy the car, it’s a lot of the money down the toilet,” she said.

Her research showed that in a poll of Canadian female consumers, car dealers ranked 21st out of 22 industries in meeting shoppers’ needs, rating only above gas retailers.

In fact, car makers have for many years grappled with how to target a female market with specific vehicle design. In the 1950s, there was the La Femme by Dodge, a rose-coloured car that turned out to be merchandising bomb.

One distinguishing feature was a compartment on the back of one of the seats that, according to promotional literature, held a shoulder bag in “soft rose leather, fitted with compact, lighter, lipstick and cigarette case.”

“Pink is a colour, not a marketing strategy,” said Ms. Thomas Yaccato , who sees the demise of La Femme as evidence that in marketing to women, “you’d better be sure you know what you’re doing.”

More recently, there have been serious attempts to incorporate design recommendations of women. Ford employed a team of female engineers known as the “Windstar moms,” who pioneered such minivan features as the “conversation mirror,” which folds from the overhead console to let parents keep an eye on their children.

Mazda Motor Corp. unveiled a special edition MPV minivan called the Sports F, developed by a five-member female project team.

Even more influential in the future may be the rise of female engineers as top designers in car companies. Several years ago, General Motors Corp. stole Anne Asensio away from Renault, and promoted her to executive director of its advanced-product design.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. designer Diane Allen has been instrumental in creating the exterior look of such vehicles as the Sentra, breaking the mould of female designers who concentrated mainly on interiors.

The results of such input can extend beyond the woman’s market. “If you make it woman-friendly, you make it everybody-friendly,” Ms. Thomas Yaccato said.

WHEN WOMEN DESIGN CARS

Volvo unwrapped the YCC, a low-emission, gas-electric hybrid that’s designed to be nearly maintenance free, at a show in Geneva yesterday. It features gull-wing doors, massive alloy wheels and a sweeping glass fastback roofline.

Storage: Gear lever and handbrake moved for a centre storage console. Back seats fold back.
Maintenance: Two capless filling points: one if for gas, the other for washer fluid.
Visibility: Driver’s body is scanned, so car customizes steering wheel, pedals, head restraint, seatbelt.

Parking: Car checks whether there is enough space to park and can help with steering into the space.

Green: Engine can shut off automatically when idling. It turns on again when driver presses accelerator.

The team: Volvo appointed a female project management team to create the concept car aimed at female professional consumers, where every aspect of design and production has been overseen by women. “We learned that if you meet women’s expectations, you exceed those for men,” says Hans-Olov Olsson, Volvo’s CEO.

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