- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

Men ask in exasperation: What do women want? Finally there is an answer. They prefer a car-based, midsize sport utility vehicle over one that is truck-based.

At least college-educated women do, according to a study by AutoPacific, an automotive specialist market research and product consulting company headquartered in Tustin, Calif.

Their 2002 SUV crossover study showed that the latest crop of car-based midsize sport utility vehicles has attracted a high percentage of an important type of buyer: the well-educated female, which means women with at least four years of college.

It is the sophistication of these vehicles that ride like cars instead of like trucks that has made them appealing to educated female buyers, who demand refinement, a carlike ride, value and functionality.

"More and more of these midsize car-based SUVs are coming to market, and they represent a new type of vehicle in many ways," said Ed Kim, product analysis manager. "They offer the styling and functionality that SUVs have offered for the past decade, but in addition because they are based on passenger-car platforms they offer a lot of benefits over a traditional truck-based SUV."

Based on unit-body platforms, vehicles such as Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander the vehicles looked at in the survey offer ride, handling and refinement that are comparable to sedans.

Many women who have high expectations for vehicles in these respects did not find these attributes in traditional truck-based SUVs. In many cases, those vehicles have had trucklike ride and handling, "agricultural-sounding" engines, high step-in height, making it difficult to enter and exit, and all around less refinement.

Furthermore, because they don't sit on a frame, car-based SUVs have a lower floor for easier entry and exit.

Yet they still have the high ground clearance and command-of-the-road seating position that people expect from an SUV.

According to the AutoPacific data, 33 percent of Ford Escape buyers Ford's only car-based SUV are college-educated women.

However, when it comes to Ford's truck-based SUVs, 16 percent of buyers are college-educated women. "That's more than double," Mr. Kim said. "With Escape, Ford is succeeding in diversifying the appeal of their SUVs. And that's really significant to the Ford brand, which has always relied on their 'Built Ford Tough' macho image."

The story is similar, although not as dramatic, for other new car-based midsize SUV entries, such as Highlander, Tribute and Santa Fe.

In the case of each of these vehicles, the companies have succeeded in earning more buyers who are female and educated.

For example, 20 percent of Hyundai Santa Fe buyers are college-educated women, compared to 16 percent for the rest of the brand. Although four percentage points isn't a huge difference, it is directional, Mr. Kim said.

These findings are significant because they indicate these vehicles are addressing the concerns and needs of one group of consumers who have stayed away from SUVs in the past, which means the SUV market has a lot of life left, Mr. Kim predicts.

SUV sales are showing signs of maturing, and AutoPacific forecasts that sales will number about 4 million in 2002. With more car-based SUVs arriving over the coming years, total SUV sales could grow to more than 4.2 million by 2007.

Although 200,000 vehicles over five years doesn't seem like a lot, Mr. Kim said it's still growing, just not at the rate it was in the 1990s, the period of major growth in the SUV market. And car-based Sport Utility Vehicles are where a lot of the growth will be, he said.

"Through 2006, there are 22 new car-based SUV's coming to market, while there are 11 new truck-based entries coming. By bringing out these car-based SUVs, they are helping to maintain the momentum. A lot of people who bought Explorers and Blazers in the '90s are finding their needs a lot better met by these car-based SUVs."

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