DETROIT - What do women want in a car? The same things men do - with subtle differences.
Exterior styling and overall value are the most important things to new car buyers of both sexes, according to TrueCar.com, an auto buying site that regularly surveys buyers. Past experience with the brand and driving performance are next on the list.
But while men usually give an edge to styling and driving performance, women tend to rank safety and fuel economy more highly than men do, TrueCar says.
Those small differences are important as women become a larger force in the marketplace. Forty percent of new vehicle registrants were female in the first four months of this year, up from 37 percent in 2009, according to car shopping site Edmunds.com. And that's only expected to grow. Among younger buyers, women are already outpacing men.
"Women represent the biggest marketing opportunity in the world," says Chantel Lenard, Ford's U.S. marketing director.
Even when preferences converge, it may be for different reasons. For example, reliability is important to women because they don't want to get stranded on the road, Lenard says. Men want reliable cars because they don't want to spend a lot of time in the shop, she says.
Horsepower is important to men, which helps explain why Lamborghini has the highest proportion of male buyers of any brand, at nearly 95 percent, according to Edmunds. But it's also important to women, who want to know that they can accelerate quickly away from a problem, Lenard says.
Debbie Parsons sprang for a high-tech luxury - remote start - on her 2014 Chevrolet Spark after spending a frigid winter watching her neighbors use it to heat their cars. But mostly, she bought the subcompact for its cute styling and lemon-yellow paint.
"I'm sure they target women with these cars," said Parsons, 58, a retired state employee who now does maintenance at an apartment complex in Charleston, W.Va.
Parsons was also drawn to the car's value - starting price $12,170 - and fuel economy. With safety in mind, she paid extra for OnStar, which gives her hands-free calling and quick access to emergency services.
Jeremy Acevedo, an analyst with Edmunds, said women tend toward smaller, easy-to-maneuver vehicles such as compact and midsize sedans or crossovers, while men tend toward trucks and larger sedans. The tiny Scion xD hatchback has the highest proportion of female buyers, at 57 percent. By contrast, only 13.5 percent of Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck buyers are women.
"The vehicles women tend to buy aren't the largest or the fastest," he said.
Small car specialists and budget names top the list of brands with the highest percentages of female buyers. Kia, Mini, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Hyundai and Honda all get nearly half of their sales from women.
Sarah Harkins, 20, recently bought her first car, a 2011 Kia Forte. Price, gas mileage and durability were critical for Harkins, a student at the University of Georgia in Athens. Kia's 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, which includes roadside assistance through AAA, was also a selling point, since Harkins is wary of getting stranded at night.
"I'm a poor college student, so my first car needed to be an investment that will last a long time," she said.