Sun, Mar 07, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Volvo's `female-friendly' car creates a stir

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , GENEVA

Handout composite photo released Tuesday of the Volvo YCC, or Your Concept Car, which is currently on display at the Geneva Motor Show. The car has an autopark function which, with the pressing of a parking assistance button, helps drivers manoeuver into a parking space. The creation of an all-female project team, the YCC can be personalized to suit individual tastes.

PHOTO: EPA

Car shows, it has to be said, are for men. The talk is of torque and horsepower. The biggest names, Porsche and Ferrari, are testosterone on wheels, while the lesser ones adorn their cars with slinky women, lending these shows a retro feel that is part The Price Is Right, part Playboy Club.

So when Volvo rolled into the Geneva Motor Show this week with a car designed by women, for women, the reaction among the mostly male crowd can best be described as a collective grinding of the gears.

They gaped at the car's gull-wing doors, designed to make it easier for women to enter and exit. They clucked at the rear seats, which flip up like theater seats to store shopping bags. They lampooned a rubber bumper that swathes the car, protecting it from parking-lot dings and scratches.

"It's not even a theory, it's nonsense," said Michael Ganal, the head of sales and marketing for BMW.

Robert Lutz, the vice chairman of General Motors, said the whole idea was sexist.

"Most women would say: `I send my husband out to do the shopping. Let him have the car with the rubber bumpers,'" he said.

With this much vitriol, it is obvious that Volvo, the Swedish subsidiary of the Ford Motor Co, is tweaking the folkways of the industry. The question is whether Volvo's car will prove to be a gimmick or a pioneering response to the growing influence of female consumers in the auto market.

Volvo's designers concede that their car, known as the YCC, will not be built in anything close to its current form. But they said that many of its innovations are sure to turn up in other Volvo models. Given that 54 percent of its customers in the US are women, that could be shrewd marketing.

"Men and women really want the same things in cars," Camilla Palmertz, 36, the Volvo project manager, said. "But women want more. There's no car out there right now that fulfills all their criteria."

Over the last year, Volvo set loose a 120-person team to design a car that would meet what Palmertz said were the six main desires of female car buyers: ease of parking, comfortable seats, visibility, ample storage space, easy maintenance and the ability to personalize one's vehicle.

Not every member of the team was a woman, Palmertz said, but the core group of project leaders and designers was restricted to women. Aside from the go-ahead for the project, which was given by Volvo's chief executive, Hans-Olov Olsson, all major decisions were made by women.

The resulting vehicle looks nothing like the rounded minivans or hatchbacks that carmakers have historically aimed at women. With a sweeping roof and large alloy wheels, plus squat, sturdy dimensions, the YCC has a hybrid style that its designers liken to a rugged sports coupe.

"We're typical women," said Anna Rosen, who designed the exterior. "We want a mix of the best of everything."

Rosen, 28, said the car was aimed at independent women. While they could be mothers, the more likely owner is single. With computer-assisted parallel parking, the car is clearly designed for city streets.

For decades, carmakers have tried, however clumsily, to appeal to women. In the 1950s, Dodge introduced a pink car known as "La Femme," which had a compartment on the back of the seat that held cosmetics.

It was a fiasco, which Lutz said led Detroit to steer clear of cars that played to gender stereotypes.

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