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Women's Needs are Shaping GM's New Trucks

by Martha Hindes

A year or so ago, when General Motors' Hummer H2 was just getting out into the public, a man from the Washington, D.C. area involved in judging auto industry products made a prediction that no amount of argument could dissuade.

Women, he said, would never buy the oversized, steroid-loaded monster sport utility truck, designed to climb over low walls and boulders, mush through trenches or intimidate just about any competitor off the road. Why would women want them, he reasoned. It would be a nightmare to navigate through a supermarket parking lot. Forget trying to edge into a curbside parking place. And getting in and out would try the patience of even the most sports-minded member of the distaff side. Give them, oh say, a five percent share of total H2 sales and call it a success, he pontificated. And that, he added, was being generous.

But what did he know? A few months ago, that same reviewer, looking puzzled in the process, had to admit he was totally wrong after GM reported that nearly a third of the pricey, battleships of the road were going to women buyers.

But he simply couldn't figure out why.

"Women buying trucks is really what is fueling the growth in SUVs."

-- Craig Bierley, marketing director, GM midsize trucks

Many men, it seems, don't understand what women want in a vehicle or why they would buy something so specialized and so costly as a large truck -- or any truck for that matter. The answer, just about any interested female buyer could have told him, is simple. Women want the same things that men want in the cars and trucks they drive, including the fun factor. And they buy them because they can.

That doesn't mean that women have abandoned the wants they're traditionally associated with, such as dependability, ease of use, good visibility, adaptability to lifestyle -- plusses incidentally that score high with their male counterparts. It does mean that auto makers are realizing women's interests go far beyond the limits of the old stereotypes, and they're practically tripping over themselves to make sure the end results meet those desires in the exploding number of new trucks or truck-like vehicles now being readied for market.

Yes, it has to have an accessible trunk ledge for bags of groceries or a full-grown St. Bernard. And yes, it has to fit into a knotty parking space without needing Arnold Schwarzenneger-style
biceps to assist in the job. (Even the hunky Hummer H2 can be surprisingly agile in that task once a sense of its girth is acquired.) A zest for life is just one of the reasons so many women are moving away from the minivan and its "mom-mobile" label into something trendier that works equally well.

(Check out some upcoming treats from GM that could draw a leadfooted female following, the driver's Redline edition of the Saturn Vue or Pontiac Aztek's sporty Rally edition, both for '04. And while almost everybody knows about it but GM won't admit it, there's a smaller, Hummer H3 under development, about the size of the Chevy Trailblazer sport utility according to some engineers. If it wisely retains enough of the H2 DNA, it could draw more women buyers as well.)

"Women buying trucks is really what is fueling the growth in SUVs," said Craig Bierley, marketing director for GM's midsize trucks. "A lot of them are coming out of minivans. They like the versatility and flexibilty and they don't have the stigma of minivans, or their needs have changed."

"We learned women are much more demanding and discerning when it comes to their vehicles."

-- Margaret Brooks, marketing director, Chevrolet Equinox

Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of marketing and industry analysis, calculates buying trends for GM. He says an increase in women buying trucks is because of a "legitimate shift" in the country's cultural and social trends at the same time the products being developed are exceptionally functional and have a strong image.

"A couple of things clearly are going on," said Ballew. "There's the growing affluence of women in the U.S. society. We see more women under 35 who are college graduates. Women increasingly have the majority of graduate degrees. From the educational standpoint, women are truly becoming the superior gender."

Overall, about 40 percent of vehicles classified as trucks now are being bought by women, according to Ballew. Women are buying about a third of Cadillac's full-size, pricey luxury Escalade SUV designed for the upmarket crowd. Cadillac projects women will buy about four out of 10 of its upcoming SRX medium luxury utility vehicles and will focus major advertising in some traditional women's publications. And even pickup trucks are part of the trend, although in smaller numbers, with women pulling out their checkbooks to spring for about 10 percent of the full-size version, a longstanding bastion of the macho male in America.

According to Ballew, as women have more impact on the job market and move into the higher income stratosphere, auto makers such as GM are learning to appeal to their sense of assertiveness and brand strength as they traditionally have with men. Now the company has put increasing numbers of women engineers and other specialists smack in the center of the design process to make sure new products reflect those demands.

Margaret Brooks, marketing director for the upcoming Chevrolet Equinox compact sport utility, said appeal to the woman buyer has become a sort of touchstone in designing vehicles. "We learned women are much more demanding and discerning when it comes to their vehicles," she said. Early in the design life of the Equinox, for example, men in focus groups simply shrugged and accepted the original styling concept. But women soundly rejected "everything, the front profile, the side profile, the execution," sending the early idea back to the drawing board for a major overhaul, said Brooks. "The vehicle we're bringing to market has an incredibly higher appeal."

GMC's new Envoy XUV is another new truck impacted by the needs of women. Originally it was envisioned as a sort of "son of Avalanche," the full-size pickup truck with a drop down midgate that converts it into a sport utility. But Sue Huizenga, who is XUV vehicle line director, made sure the end product would satisfy women's needs. "Picture a woman with a baby in her arms and think about that when you design the gate system," she told the early development team. The result was a split function rear gate that can either drop down pickup truck style or swing aside like a car door.

And many affluent women with teenaged daughters or sons find themselves driving their offspring around for such equipment-laden sports as waveboarding or skiing. That's where a smaller pickup truck like the new Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon would be ideal, according to Lori Cumming, chief engineer for GM's small and midsize trucks. "Those are my children's new favorite passtimes," she added for emphasis.

"I think women love the safety and security and maneuverability of trucks. Women feel safe and they have great visibility when the sit up high." Cap that with greater flexibility, multiple uses and easy handling being designed into the company's upcoming truck products that appeal to women as well as men.

Trucks, added Cumming, make women feel they are in control. "It gives them an 'I can do anything' feeling."

That said, click on any of the GM models below for a look at the auto maker's new trucks and SUVS, designed with women in mind!

For more information on General Motors products, click here.