LIBERATING WOMEN FROM AUTOCRACY
PHILADELPHIA - "How many people have changed a tire?" instructor Lori Johnson asked the dozen women gathered in a residential Philadelphia driveway around a brand-new Volkswagen Passat.
Two tentative hands went up.
"It makes no sense to be waiting an hour for AAA to come" after getting a flat on the highway, Johnson said.
Johnson, the petite, spiky-haired entrepreneur behind start-up Ladies Start Your Engines! used to work in an auto dealer service department. She started her instructional service for women this year because of what she often witnessed from male fellow wrench-turners: condescension toward, and sometimes exploitation of, female customers.
Representing half of all new car buyers and wielding increasing economic clout, women are commanding more respect from automakers, car dealers and their service departments - but experts say there's plenty of room for improvement. And services, Web sites and magazines are sprouting up to help women demand it.
"We do not feel respected," by the male-dominated industry, said Jody DeVere, president of AskPatty.com, a Web site about cars, geared toward women.
The site says it offers "a safe place for women to get advice on car purchases, maintenance and other automotive related topics," through interactive e-mail, blogs and "Womanars," Web-based seminars delivered by female automotive experts.
DeVere said she is confronted all the time with the question "why do women need a special Web site, special marketing, etc. -- cars are cars, right?"
She insists, "I'm not a screaming feminist," but says the sexes have different preferred modes of communication, and differing perceptions of what makes a good car.
Women spend more time on the Internet researching cars, for instance, preferring to avoid the high-pressure, confrontational experience of a dealership until they're armed with information, said Courtney Caldwell, publisher of Road & Travel Magazine.
"Women and men want the same things from a car, but they prioritize them differently," said Caldwell, whose online magazine content is oriented toward female readers.
For women, a vehicle's safety is the top priority. For men, performance and styling are high-priority with safety an afterthought.
One of the top drivers of traffic to the female-oriented sites and Johnson's class is discomfort with dealers - inappropriate sexual comments, a "bring your husband back when you're ready to buy" attitude and the suspicion of being ripped off, get mentioned often.
Everyone, including dealers, say that's bad business.
According to some estimates, women fill out 85 percent of the "customer satisfaction index" forms that consumers return after a car purchase or repair.
"They are more likely to complete those forms, because they tend to be less confrontational," DeVere said.
Those forms are sent to car manufacturers and inform the companies as they decide how to allocate corporate goodies, such as advertising money and the most desirable vehicles, to dealers.
"In general it's a male-based industry," said Karen Riveros, a regional service manager for Volkswagen of America Inc., whose job it is to make sure local dealers are keeping customers happy.
Part of that, she and others said, will come from having more women auto executives, engineers, designers, mechanics, service managers and dealership owners.
Progress has been slow but steady -- Riveros for instance, is one of a handful of females in her position nationwide, out of about 50.
Caldwell recalled that when she approached advertisers in 1989 with the idea of a car and travel magazine for women, "There was a lot of laughing at me."
Today the magazine, which several years ago went to an online-only format, is flush with ads and expects to log 10 million page views this year.
Volvo took the unusual but well-received step of handing over the drafting of its "Your Concept Car" to an all-female design team, unveiling it in 2004. The non-production car included fingernail-friendly capless fuel and washer fluid doors, swappable interior fabrics and gullwing doors for easier entry and exit.
Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia said that today's dealers know that "the days of 'look at that vanity mirror' are long gone," when it comes to marketing cars to women.
While the dealer's group hasn't launched any specific outreach efforts toward women, he said the group has designed its advertising buying to lure female attendees to the association-produced Philadelphia Auto Show.
Johnson, of Ladies Start Your Engines, thinks the answer lies in empowering female consumers to see through any bull they may encounter when taking their car to the shop.
In one segment of her lesson, she showed attendees how to change their car's brake pads themselves -- and how to recognize a puffed-up repair estimate.
If, she said, after a simple brake pad job the mechanic says "Oh, you need new calipers, new rotors," beware.
"Does it happen, yes. But do you need a new caliper every time you go in? No way.
For now, Johnson's class is a traveling show.
"I can't train someone to be a technician," Johnson said. "This is for you to know what they're talking about."