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March 30, 2012

News & Features

For good or ill, some cars scream 'male' or 'female'

Bloomberg News

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Clockwise from bottom left: "male" cars include the Hummer H2, the latest Volkswagen Beetle and the Chevrolet Camaro; "female" cars include the Mini Cooper, Porsche Boxster and the previous Volkswagen Beetle.

Two garage attendants are talking about the svelte Mini Cooper Coupe I've just parked. One says he likes it, the other laughs. "Are you kidding? That's a chick car." The first man's face falls.

I saw this coming as soon as I stepped into the $22,000 Coupe, one of Mini's newest models. The Coupe has a standard Cooper body shape, but with only two seats and a capped roof that looks like a slicked-back pompadour. Sporty, but not aggressive.

It joins vehicles such as the Mazda Miata, the Volkswagen Cabrio and BMW Z3 that have been dubbed by some as chick cars. Conversely, a vehicle like the Chevrolet Camaro, a muscle car redolent of testosterone, might be branded a meathead-mobile.

As someone who has test-driven vehicles ranging from the Mini Coupe to the Dodge Viper, I've discovered: You will be judged.

It's obvious that some cars skew female or male, in terms of both audience and overall aesthetic. Most of us can easily identify in which camp a car sits.

The Hummer H2 is a dude-mobile. The MX-5 Miata, female (though confident men know it's a blast to drive). Corvette, guy; Lexus SC convertible, woman.

Carmakers are certainly aware of this schism. It goes back as far as the Model T, which Henry Ford decreed appear only in black. Or the original Ford Mustang, which Carroll Shelby branded a "secretary's car" because he thought it underpowered.

Chris Bangle, former chief of design at BMW Group who now runs his own design firm, says: "The industry does not share a focused concept of a 'woman's car.' They would agree that marketing a car toward women only is not a smart plan unless it is some narrow version, like a white VW Golf Cabrio from 1985. I was always told guys don't buy 'girlie cars.' "

Look at the extremes that Volkswagen has taken with the 2012 Beetle, which was redesigned to be more masculine. One TV commercial shows a young guy driving through city streets in his black Turbo. He's given high-fives and fist bumps by a bonanza of men, including the driver of a semi-truck, construction workers and even a Harley rider. Dudedom, it seems to suggest, is united behind the latest VW Bug.

This stands in sharp contrast to the first "new" Beetle, released in 1998, which emphasized fulsome curves and whimsical details such as an interior flower vase. Customers bought it in droves — female customers, that is, by almost a 70 percent margin. VW even created a special one-off Malibu Barbie car, with rhinestone accents and extra vanity mirrors.

No more. Now VW hopes to even out the ratio for broader sales.

Some perceptions come simply from a vehicle's size and profile. Bangle notes that a car's body mimics a person's, with a face, shoulders, hips and rear.

That may explain why some cars devolve into caricature. Chevy designers obviously wanted the modern Camaro to out-macho the Ford Mustang. The result is all exaggerated muscle. Headlights shine from inside a long, narrow grill like a menacing glare. The hood bulges, and the roof is low and chopped. (The Camaro, by the way, is outselling the Mustang.)

However, Bangle says that, contrary to common cliché, women like powerful engines. "In my experience, the adrenaline-jazz of powerful cars can appeal to females just as they do to guys," he says.

Personally, I find it perplexing when I step out of a Porsche Boxster convertible and get a comment like, "I know it drives great, but it's still a chick car."

The Boxster is fast, nimble and outrageously fun. If that's the definition of a chick car, I'll be seen in one any day.

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