November 18, 2011

Men buy throbbing engines, women buy gas sippers with style and safety

The movie "Cars" is packed with vehicular stereotypes, from the rusty but trusty country truck, to the VW minivan peddling gas ("I got organic fuel, man!") to the heroine and enabler (the character whose actions make it possible for the hero to achieve his resolution).

The heroine, a light blue Porsche 911, is an icon. Everybody recognises it, its curves are irresistible, and male cars are supposed to go gaga over it.

In real life also, it is overwhelmingly men who fall in love with and buy the Porsche 911. A study released this spring by Truecar, the car sales specialists, is as crowded with stereotypes as "Cars" the movie.

Truecar collected data on more than eight million vehicle purchases in the US in 2010, and for each make and model tallied the percentage registered to men and to women. Among manufacturers, women favour Minis; Ferrari's sales go to men by a huge margin. The top ten brands favoured by women give, on average, a higher discount from the MSRP than the top ten favoured by men. CelloMom supposes that when you're buying a Maserati or a Jaguar it looks less than dignified to be niggling on the price.

The Truecar study lists the ten car models most favoured by men, that is, with the highest percentage of males registering the car. In the table below, CelloMom has added the columns characterising the cars.


Top male purchases in 2010

Make / Model %
Porsche 911 87.9 3.4L 18/25 350 82,100
Chevrolet Corvette 86.7 6.2L 16/26 430 49,525
BMW M3 85.6 4.0L 14/20 414 55,900
Audi S5 83.0 4.2L 14/22 354 53,900
Average peacock feather   4.5L 16/23 387 60,356
GMC Sierra 87.4 4.3L 15/20 195 21,945
Chevrolet Silverado 86.3 4.3L 14/18 195 21,945
Ford F-150 86.3 3.7L 17/23 302 22,990
Ford Ranger 84.4 2.3L 22/27 143 18,160
Toyota Tundra 84.3 3.0L 16/20 270 27,115
Dodge Ram 84.2 3.7L 14/20 210 21,475
Average practical truck   3.6L 16/21 219 22,272

CelloMom has taken the liberty of scrambling the order, to group the cars in two categories: practical and otherwise. The first four cars fall in the latter category: they are all display devices, and we're not talking computer screens. Men are just programmed to display their prowess like peacocks, stags and stallions. In the old days, they would go for the chariot with four barely-in-control stallions. Now, in the industrialised west, they go for four-wheeled vehicles propelled by engines with the power of 400 horses. Never mind that on the streets of Manhattan or on the congested LA freeways you never get to use all that horsepower, just like in the crowded streets of ancient Rome a team of fiery Arabian stallions was more a liability than a pleasure ride.

The point is, these cars exude an aura of power and prestige, and the bank account that goes with that. Either that, or a desire to project an aura of power and prestige, even if it comes with an oversized car loan that you have to pull like the peacock dragging its tail wherever it goes. You can't deny it's a show-stopping animal, though. The peacock that is. Oh allright, CelloMom herself does have a soft spot for the 911. Pity it just won't do for the family. Not to mention the cello. The budget? - you don't think about budget when you think of the 911.

*Sigh*. Moving right along. The second group of cars in the table above are not cars, but trucks. (Isn't it interesting how it's okay to call an Odyssey a "mini-van", but it's out of bounds to call a Tundra a "mini-truck"? After all, these are not your Mack 18-wheelers). Many of their drivers buy these trucks from a strictly utilitarian point of view; think of construction workers who have to haul large and heavy things regularly.

One example is CelloMom's friend Jonathan, an imaginative stone sculptor who prefers to work with upcycled material. Once he hauled five huge chunks of granite salvaged from an old stone bridge that was being replaced by a steel one; together these must have weighed close to 7500lbs. For that kind of load you need something like a Chevy 3500; Jonathan's has a double set of wheels at the back, and an immense turbo-charged engine that runs on diesel. When he starts it up the whole neighbourhood knows it.

Another truck-driving example is CelloMom's friend Chris, who owns a 17-horse barn that she runs largely by herself. She drives a Ford F150 for hauling hay bales, fences and such, and to hitch the horse trailer to when she takes students to a show. But CelloMom knows she's been eyeing a used VW Beetle to use as a city car, for the manoeuverability and the better fuel efficiency.

Funny that, about the Beetle. It happens to be the car with the highest percentage of women buyers, 60.6%. In the table below CelloMom has again re-arranged the order of the list, to sort the cars into two groups.

You might not think that the 52-55% in the list is an overwhelmingly large female percentage, but you need to keep in mind that in the Truecar study, women account for 34% of the car registrations overall. Yet a University of Pennsylvania study has found that in the US, about equal numbers of men and women hold a driver's licence. Probably part of the difference is because in many families a car might be registered to the husband even though it's used primarily by the wife. So take the percentages in the table below with a grain of salt.


Top female purchases in 2010

Make / Model %
VW New Beetle 60.6 2.5L 22/31 170 19,795
VW Eos 55.3 2.0L 22/29 200 33,995
Volvo S40 54.5 2.4L 21/30 168 26,200
Nissan Sentra 53.5 2.0L 27/34 140 16,060
Toyota Yaris 52.7 1.5L 30/38 106 14,115
Average stylish sipper   2.1L 24/32 157 22,033
Nissan Rogue 56.3 2.5L 23/28 170 21,530
Jeep Compass 54.3 2.0L 23/29 158 19,295
Honda CR-V 53.8 2.4L 21/28 180 21,895
Hyundai Tucson 53.2 2.0L 23/31 165 19,045
Toyota RAV4 52.7 2.5L 22/28 179 22,475
Average shining armor   2.3L 22/29 170 20,848

The cars in the upper half of the Women's table have a mix of style, fuel efficiency, and safety in varying proportions. This is a set of good-looking cars, and it's probably safe to say that the Beetle is a design icon. All the cars have decent mileage - and CelloMom's guess is that, if the smaller-engined versions were available in the US, many American women would buy them, since women's car purchases are influenced by the issue of fuel efficiency.

However, CelloMom has heard many moms say that they would love to buy a gas sipper but that those make them feel less safe on the road, which they have to share with heavier vehicles like those in the Men's list, above.

The safety issue is part of the reason why SUVs and cross-overs, like those in the bottom half of the Women's table, feature so prominently in women's choice. SUVs tend to be heavier than sedans and hatchbacks, and you sit higher, which gives you a leg up on those ridiculously high SUV bumpers, and a better view of who might be inclined to bump their manly truck (or larger SUV) into the vehicle in which you're ferrying your children. Although chivalry is far from dead, there sure is a dearth of it on the road. So, if the knights around you are just interested in their own chargers, perhaps the best you can do is to surround yourself in your own shining armour.

From the Women's list it's clear that horsepower is not a women's preoccupation: apart from the VW Eos, all the cars in the Women's table have less power than those in the Men's table. In order to make a fair comparison, for each model CelloMom has chosen the engine with the smallest power, the one that tends to have the lowest price tag as well.

On the whole, things are not as black and white as suggested by the catchy titles of the articles covering this study. The study itself it titled "Men go for looks; women opt for practicality"; but CelloMom would say both men and women go for looks or practicality, each in their own way. The folks at CarFinder advanced the title "Men like trucks and chicks dig VW". Okay: sure grabs your attention.

So here is CelloMom's gambit for a catchy title that ignores the nuances revealed by the Truecar study, with a nod to the town that houses Volkswagen's headquarters: "Men are from Mars, women are from Wolfsburg, Germany".

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