DETROIT -- A group of female executives at General Motors sits at a conference table and studies a drawing of a car.
It's bright pink. Its grille is shaped like a pair of lips. It has eyelashes over the headlights.
The drawing is a joke. But the subject is one the executives are serious about: designing and engineering for women.
"If we're not going to worry about this, who is going to?" says Lori Queen, GM's vehicle line executive for small cars. "We're not trying to design a pink car, but we need to understand what women want."
Two years ago, Queen and Grace Lieblein, a GM vehicle chief engineer, helped form the team of about 25 women. Its agenda is to make meeting the needs and demands of female customers "everyday thinking" at GM, says Courtney Moody, Chevrolet's director of car product and a team member.
Queen says women buy 60 percent of vehicles and influence 85 percent of vehicle purchases. They tend to demand more in their cars and trucks than men, she says (see box above).
Some differences between male and female motorists are obvious. Because the average woman is shorter than the average man, ensuring clear visibility for female drivers often requires lowering a vehicle's rear beltline, Lieblein says.
Other trade-offs are more subtle. Many female buyers insist on both fuel economy and interior quiet, Lieblein notes. To help block noise, designers can use heavier laminated steel in a vehicle's front end. But that can reduce fuel economy, she says.
The GM women's team tries to define the point at which a woman would walk away from buying a vehicle because it lacks an important feature, Moody says. Then the team works to ensure that feature is included.
Relying on men's judgment, even in a male-dominated industry, may distort those calculations, Queen says.
"The trade-off that may seem natural because you're a man may not be the right trade-off when you understand that 60 percent of the people who buy this vehicle are women," she says.
General Motors executives (from left) Lori Queen, Courtney Moody, Deborah Lund and Sarah DeVries helped make the new Chevrolet HHR retro wagon female-friendly. PHOTO: JOE POLIMENI
The GM team also wants to make sure auto dealerships treat women well, members say.
"If you walk into a dealership with your husband to buy you a car, and they don't talk to you, that's probably not a good experience," Queen says. "And we knew that kind of thing was going on."
GM trains its dealers to point out vehicle features that women consider important, Moody says. Examples are easy-grip door handles that are "manicure-friendly" and interior space that can accommodate a standard-sized purse or small briefcase, she says.
Because some female buyers lack credit histories, they have different financing needs than most men, Moody says. The GM women's team is training dealers and General Motors Acceptance Corp. personnel to work with female customers to get them financed.
The training is paying off in higher customer-satisfaction scores for GM dealers, Moody says.
Chevrolet's new retro wagon, the HHR, is the first vehicle the women's team worked on from concept to production.
The women working on the 2006 HHR put a lot of emphasis on safety, says Deborah Lund, GM's vehicle line director for small cars. Among its features, she says, are high-strength steel in the rocker panels that run under the doors.
Working on features that are important to women early in the development process increases efficiency and saves money, Queen says.
"Making better decisions to meet your customers' needs early on is always going to save you money in the long run," she says.
She adds that such a strategy also ensures that GM adds value for its most demanding customers: women.
Says Queen: "My motto is, if you meet or exceed the expectations of your most discriminating customers, you should by default delight the rest."
You may e-mail Jamie LaReau at [email protected]