- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

Listen up, automakers: I'm predicting a new trend is emerging, and you'd better get on board or you'll miss out on a lot of sales. I'm sensing the air is slowly leaking out of the sport-utility-vehicle bubble, partly because suburban women want out of their big vehicles and into handsome, sporty, medium-priced sedans.

Here's my evidence, as skimpy as it may be:

My friend Barb called last week to seek my advice in her car shopping. She's a stay-at-home mom with a middle-school-age son and a teenage daughter about to get her driver's license. Her family has owned not one, but two, full-size sport utility vehicles.

She's decided one is plenty, as she is no longer car-pooling and wants her daughter to learn to drive on a smaller vehicle. Barb is considering a downsized sport utility maybe the Acura MDX which, at $40,000, she thinks is too expensive. She'll consider the nearly identical but lower-priced Honda Pilot I suggested. But she's leaning toward a car. Her shopping list is rounded out by the Volkswagen Passat and the Saab 9-5, the front-runners at this point.

My friend Carla in Cleveland is going to keep her Mercury Villager minivan until it dies. It has served her well, but its days are numbered. Her husband still uses it to camp out at the racetrack where he volunteers as a flagman. And it's been handy to carry the large displays they use in their industrial design work. But with their son off to college and their daughter approaching driving age, the minivan doesn't really work as the daily driver anymore. In addition, my friend, concerned about turmoil in the Mideast, thinks using less gasoline would be a good thing. The Volkswagen Passat tops her list, but she'd also consider a gas-sipping hybrid car.

My college friend Carol in the District recently sought my advice as well. Should I buy an SUV this time?" she asked me. And as always, I replied, "Do you really want one?"

"No, not really," she said, but she felt vulnerable in her sedan in the sea of SUVs on the Beltway. Maybe she needed an SUV just to put up a fair fight. I persuaded her last time and again this round to stick with a car that she finds more comfortable and manageable. Carol kept the Volkswagen Passat I had recommended a few years ago for her college-bound son. She considered an Acura 3.2TL, but opted for the less expensive Honda Accord.

Then there was the 50ish woman who sat next to me on my Detroit flight from Miami recently, and she's already made the jump out of sport utilities and into a sedan. For the years her sons were growing up, she had three requirements of her vehicle: It had to be able to carry the bulky equipment of her goalie son, as well as the gear of his two teammates; it had to be long enough to carry three hockey sticks; and the door handles had to be designed so they didn't break her well-manicured fingernails. The Jeep Grand Cherokee met those requirements.

Now, with her hockey car-pooling days behind her, she's blunt: "I don't want a mommy mobile," she told me. Her recent car-shopping list included an Acura 3.2TL, because of her pleasant experience many years ago with her much-loved Honda.

She instantly discounted the Toyota Camry as too stodgy. "They'd better do something about the boring design, or they'll lose sales," she said. She ultimately opted for a Volvo S60.

Her husband lamented that it had no rear leg room, but she doesn't care. She doesn't intend to haul anyone in the back seat. Besides, she likes its sporty performance.

Indeed, these four women represent a growing demographic trend. Every day, millions of us are turning 50 and becoming empty-nesters. In total, 80 million baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, and presumably half are women. We likely will live longer than any previous generation, which means we'll also drive longer and buy more cars. And we already know that women influence 80 percent of all car purchases.

While my sampling is highly unscientific, I suspect the tide is turning, and automakers had better pay attention.

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