Heels and Wheels 2015Posted on May 27th, 2015
Women’s automotive conference charts changes in the industry
By Nina Russin
It’s been a long time coming, but the automotive industry has finally realized that women think about cars differently. Since female buyers account for 50 percent of all new car purchases, understanding how their preferences impact purchase decisions significantly impacts automakers’ bottom lines.
For the past five years, my colleague Christine Overstreet has assembled a group of female journalists, product specialists, market analysts and engineers for Heels and Wheels, a conference focused on the growing impact women have on car design, engineering, media coverage and automotive sales. This year’s conference that took place in Southern California included market analysts from Kelly Blue Book, engineers from General Motors and FCA, products specialists from GMC, Buick, Dodge, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Mitsubishi, Kia, Nissan, Infiniti, Mazda and Volkswagen.
Two-dozen journalists covered the gamut from traditional outlets such as Cars.com and Autobytel to electronic media, travel writers and mommy bloggers. While earlier Heels and Wheels programs focused primarily on the dealership experience, the 2015 event had a broader base, looking at recent trends and giving journalists a chance to spend time with women who work for the automakers on product development teams.
Recently Kelly Blue book surveyed 4,000 visitors to its site to analyze the different ways men and women buy cars. What the researchers discovered is that women spend more time doing their homework before entering the dealership, and tend to prioritize safety and utility over image and performance.
According to their data, women spend an average of 75 days researching and shopping for a car as opposed to 63 for men. Women use the Internet to compare vehicles side by side and read expert reviews, preferably written by women. They will also seek out the opinions of friends and family, whereas men are more likely to go the distance alone.
While men are attracted to full-size trucks and European luxury cars, women are more pragmatic, choosing mainstream brands with a focus on utility. Popular brands among women buyers include Honda, Kia, Nissan, Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Women decide upon the features and benefits they want in a vehicle and find models that fit the bill rather than starting with a particular make and model.
Women are more likely than men to pay attention to recalls and take OEMs with bad safety records off their consideration list.
In the dealership, men focus more on the numbers whereas women are more concerned with being able to find a car that meets their specific needs.
Form and function
Women are multitaskers. Those who aren’t raising families are often assisting aging parents. In general, women are still in charge of running the household, whether they follow a career path or not. While women are as image conscious as men, they are also extremely practical. A car must be a moving toolbox. If it looks cool and is fun to drive, that’s even better.
Female automotive engineers bring this perspective into the development lab. For example, when Anita Burke served as chief development engineer for the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, she made sure the midsize pickup trucks were family friendly.
“There are 12.5 million midsize trucks on the road today,” she said. Yet for many years, the products didn’t satisfy the customers. Unlike the full-size segment, there are fewer competitors. As a result, products didn’t meet customer expectations for interior quiet, fuel economy and versatility.
Women comprise 14 percent of GMC Canyon buyers and 17 percent for Chevrolet Colorados: a relatively high number in a segment heavily dominated by male buyers. The development teams appealed to women by giving their products the versatility and fuel economy to serve as daily commuters. A four-cylinder engine available on the Canyon/Colorado can tow up to 3500 pounds. The V-6 block has a 7,000-pound towing capacity. Soft touch interiors make the trucks comfortable to live in.
Both crew cab and extended cab models can accommodate child seats. The crew cab can hold infant, child and booster seats. Headrests are removable and stow under the second-row seats to make child seats easier to install. On the extended cab, the second-row passenger side headrest can be removed from the seatback and locked into place in front of the seat cushion to create a larger surface on which to install a child seat.
Lisa Jesme who served as the all-wheel drive system engineer for the Buick Regal GS explained that her focus was to balance safety with performance. The GS lineage dates back to muscle cars from the 1960s but unlike those models, the newest car has the traction and safety features to work well on snow and ice.
There are two torque transfer devices that transfer engine power between the axles and as well as side-to-side. Jesme tuned the car to allow for a little wheel slip when the car is driven for performance, but with enough traction to prevent the car from slipping into an understeer situation on wet or icy roads.
“We wanted to make sure that people feel comfortable driving this car every day,” she said. “The all-wheel drive system does that by enhancing traction, but it also makes the car more balanced when the driver wants to push the car on a challenging road.”
Alison Rohm who served as chief engineer on the new Dodge Charger worked with the design team to create an exterior that was emotionally compelling but still met her team’s targets for aerodynamics and cooling.
“The front of the car had to meet the cooling requirements for four engines,” she said. “And the police car has its own set of cooling requirements.”
Design teams began by producing 3/8 scale clay models that the engineering team took into the wind tunnel. Designers chose one exterior to move forward with and created a full-scale clay model to take back into the wind tunnel and refine.
The new model comes with the eight speed automatic transmission for both V-8 and V-6 engines (previously it was only available for the V-6). The result is better power on the low end and bigger overdrive gears to extend fuel economy on the highway.
Electric power steering improves fuel economy, but it can produce a numb feeling at higher speeds. In order to prevent this a special team tuned the EPS specifically for the Charger.
“While other companies utilize one power steering system for a group of vehicles, we tune ours separately for every model,” she said. “We use both solid and isolated mounts to meet our performance targets.”
In addition to meeting fuel economy targets, engineers were concerned with increasingly stringent carbon dioxide standards. In order to comply, they reduced the drain on the battery by utilizing LED units for all of the lighting on the car.
While a lot of the chief engineer’s focus is on the drivetrain, Rahm was equally passionate about the Charger’s interior.
“The interior will always have a soft spot for me because it’s where the driver spends all of his or her time,” she explained. Prior to becoming chief engineer for E segment cars, Rahm had worked as the interior manager for the Chrysler 300 and 2011 Charger.
For the new Charger, the team focused on soft touch surfaces and premium materials. A new center stack screen is bigger and features the newest generation of the brand’s Uconnect infotainment system. A thin-film-transistor display in the gauge cluster gives the driver access to information about fuel economy, driving range, tire pressures and more.
Safer night driving
A presentation by Autoliv, a major manufacturer of safety components based in Sweden, gave program attendees a glimpse at advances in night vision technology. Night vision systems are not new: military applications date back decades. Cadillac experimented with a system in the late 1990s, but had problems meeting demand with the component supplier.
As with older systems, the new Autoliv components utilize infrared cameras. The cameras sense the thermal imprint of persons and animals and can enable the driver to see three-to-four times further than traditional headlamps.
The difference between the older systems and the new ones is in the quality of the imagery and area the cameras can see. Older systems had a very narrow range whereas the new systems can sense people and animals further off center. The images are much clearer, with pedestrians and animals projected in bright colors on the screen inside the car, making it easier for the driver to see.
Audi and BMW are currently offering night vision systems in their vehicles, with displays in the gauge cluster or heads up units. A spotlight function available on European models uses infrared sensing to locate pedestrians on dark roads and projects a spotlight to illuminate them. The spotlight function is not yet available in the US because it fails to comply with federal lighting regulations.
According to Autoliv research, 69 percent of pedestrian fatalities in the United States occur at night. The OEM hopes that advances in night vision technology will have a significant impact on over 4,000 pedestrian fatalities that occur in this country each year.
Heels and Wheels would not be complete without some time out on the roads. Product specialists from Kia Motors America, Mazda USA, Nissan North America, Jaguar/Land Rover, GMC, Buick, Mitsubishi, Lexus, Dodge and Infiniti were on hand with new models that gave attendees plenty of opportunity to have fun behind the wheel.
Land Rover Discovery Sport
Land Rover’s talent is in creating vehicles with extreme off-road capability but road manners that rival passenger cars. Whereas competitors utilize body-on frame truck designs, the Discover Sport’s unibody construction combined with an independent suspension makes the vehicle feel very much like a luxury sedan.
Driving through the two-lane canyon roads the Land Rover felt solid as a rock with absolutely no wheel chatter. The electric power steering system is well tuned to the chassis, offering excellent on-center response on the highway.
Utilizing aluminum suspension components enabled engineers to minimize unsprung weight, giving the Discovery Sport its nimble performance on challenging roads.
Buick Regal GS
The GS heritage dates back to the muscle cars of the 1960s and 70s. The GS was Buick’s answer to the Chevrolet Chevelle and Oldsmobile 442. The new GS has a different type of muscle, utilizing a small turbocharged engine to produce the power drivers are looking for with better fuel economy than the car’s namesake.
To give readers an idea of what turbocharging can do for a small block, the two-liter engine in the Regal GS develops 259 horsepower: just 21 horsepower short of the car’s 1969 namesake that came equipped with an engine twice this size and with significantly poorer fuel economy.
Turbocharging produces a long, flat torque curve that’s ideal for climbing and gives vehicles exceptional acceleration off the line. In a town such as Los Angeles where aggressive driving is the norm rather than the exception, it’s a huge advantage.
In addition to giving the car four-season capability, the all-wheel drive on demand system improves handling on challenging roads. The biggest problem with front-wheel drive cars is their tendency to push in the corners. If sensors in the GS determine that the rear end of the car is starting to lift the all-wheel drive system will use a combination of braking and torque transfer to bring the vehicle back under control.
Volkswagen Golf SportWagen
Volkswagen was at the event to show off its new Golf SportWagen. I put that car to the ultimate test, commuting from LAX to the event headquarters in Westlake Village through rush-hour traffic.
Like its predecessors, the newest SportWagen is available with a choice of gasoline or turbo diesel engines and manual or automatic transmissions. The SEL grade at the event came equipped with the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine and six-speed automatic transmission.
The 2015 model builds on the heritage of the former Jetta SportWagen with enhanced connectivity features, a slightly larger interior and more efficient powertrain. For buyers with active lifestyles, the wagon adds more cargo space for loading bicycles, skis and snowboards in back without great sacrifices in fuel economy.
The turbocharged engine had plenty of power to move to the front of the line on highway entrance ramps and pass slower vehicles once up to speed. The engine develops up to 199 foot-pounds of peak torque: plenty for climbing through the mountains between the Pacific Coast Highway and Westlake Village.
Mazda6 Grand Touring
Mazda’s flagship sport sedan remains one of the best buys on the market for driving enthusiasts. Pricing for the base model with the manual transmission starts at $21,495. The upscale Grand Touring model with the automatic transmission tested is carries a $30,195 base MSRP.
Mazda’s Skyactiv technology is the brand’s answer to green car technology. By making small improvements in efficiency throughout the powertrain and doing extensive wind tunnel work on the body, designers and engineers have produced a gasoline-powered car that averages up to 40 miles-per-gallon on the highway with no compromise in power or performance.
New active safety features such as a heads-up display enable the driver to monitor vehicle speed and audio settings without having to take his eyes off the road. Blind spot monitoring on the test car illuminates LED signals in the side mirrors when vehicles in adjacent lanes pass through the driver’s blind spots.
Although my personal preference is for the six-speed manual transmission, I can’t argue with the performance of the six-speed automatic in the test car: a more practical alternative in areas with dense traffic such as LA. The Mazda6 ate up the curves on Mulholland Road as if it were the sedan’s personal playground.
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