Women now buy nearly half of the new cars in the U.S., a sharp increase compared with a generation ago, and the auto industry is trying to demonstrate that it's keeping up with the times when it showcases the latest models to the public.
Auto shows now offer cooking demonstrations, private tours and an increasing number of male models to appeal to female visitors.
But that hardly means the industry has shelved a staple of nearly 100 years of auto shows: having female models preening beside the latest sports car or SUV.
The shows, which are run by dealers, say they're trying to attract more women with events like fashion shows. The Detroit auto show doesn't keep track of visitors by gender, but the New York International Auto Show says 40 percent of its 1 million visitors in 2013 were women, up from 29 percent two years before.
'Family safe' in Seattle
The recent Seattle Auto Show added a Ladies Day, offering reduced admission for women. The show also had car-care seminars, makeover giveaways and an emphasis on positive test drives for women. Jim Hammond, executive director of the show, says approximately 30 percent of its showgoers are women, "specifically professional women who are in the market to purchase a new vehicle." Seattle's show works hard to be "family safe," he says.
— NWautos staff
Spokesman Chris Sams says the show made a point of reaching out to women, using more females in its ads and hosting special parties and tours. It even held a contest to find the best place to store a purse in a car.
But contrast that with the scene at media previews for the recent Detroit auto show. General Motors' CEO Mary Barra, who is the first female head of a major automaker, walked the floor in a conservative black suit past Corvette models in skimpy dresses and leather jackets. Young women in heels handed out breath mints around the corner from plunging necklines at Infiniti.
"Face it. Automotive is a men's industry, and it's always a novelty to be among the women who are there," says Brandy Schaffels, the editor of AskPatty.com, an automotive site for women.
But as females gain more buying power, automakers may have to rethink using the short skirt to grab attention.
Some automakers have already done away with models altogether. At Honda's stand in Detroit, the focus was on the brand's new Fit subcompact and a futuristic fuel-cell car called the FCEV. The company says it tries to appeal to the broadest range of customers.
Across the way, Ford set up a sample assembly line in its exhibit, which is staffed by both men and women. Ford's Chief Operating Officer, Mark Fields, says women and younger buyers, in particular, come to auto shows to get educated.
"That's how we make sure auto shows stay relevant," Fields says.
But there were still plenty of theatrics at the Detroit show. Over at Dodge, models in tight white dresses and shiny go-go boots posed in front of an orange Challenger muscle car.
Bo Puffer, who hires the models that the Chrysler Group uses at its 71 U.S. auto shows, is unapologetic.
"A good-looking person next to a good-looking car is a formula that's going to work for us no matter what brand it is," Puffer says.
Teckla Rhoads, GM's director of global industrial design, has male and female models wearing yellow T-shirts and Converse sneakers near the youthful Chevrolet Spark, but puts women in sexier dresses next to the Corvette.
"It's not gratuitous. It's to help reinforce what that vehicle is," she says. "That's not to say that a 6-foot-tall woman in a tight dress isn't going to be really attention-getting. We get that. But there's also a spirit of fun about it."