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FORD CULTIVATES WOMEN'S ADVICE ON EUROPEAN CARS

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When Ford Motor Co.'s new supermini goes on sale in Europe in 1996, buyers should find it noticeably easy to park and handle.

Smaller drivers will find the seats seem to "fit" them better. And there will be few if any hard angles or edges in the interior-all the better to prevent damage to long fingernails.

These are just some of the ways the new car will reflect the input of Ford of Europe's Women's International Marketing Panel.

The group of 20 employees, created in October 1991, includes representatives from 10 countries, and occupations ranging from entry-level secretaries to engineers. Their task: to help Ford designers and engineers remember women also drive cars, and their needs often differ from men's.

"Women have been overlooked in our attempts to find core targets," said Matthew Taylor, manager of Ford's small car strategy in Europe.

So what exactly do women want in a car that men don't?

"Women really want a vehicle that offers value for their money, is safe, reliable, and with low running costs and ease of parking. But they still want performance and style," said Carol Giles, 47-year-old panel co-chair and a secretary to the VP of sales.

Although that may not sound different from what men want in a car, Ms. Giles said, it is. According to Ford studies, males above all are hung up on a car's prestige. In contrast, she said, "women see prestige as a major and amusing male preoccupation-but irrelevant for them."

Women also are less interested in a car's technical aspects, wash it less often, attend to it less often and replace it less often than men. And although women tend to grow more attached to their cars than do men, they "treat it more casually and with less reverence," Ford's study shows.

In the U.S., Ford has been considering similar observations and suggestions from a women's advisory group since the early 1980s, although the automaker still lags behind the competition in sales to women.

But in Europe, the new city car will be the first vehicle that the European panel will have influenced in a major way.

So what took so long for Ford of Europe to sign on?

According to the company, it's because women represent only 26% of the primary car buyers in Europe, compared with nearly 50% in the U.S. But more than 50% of small-car buyers are women. Thus, women will have a major say in every detail of the new supermini. And they aren't just being asked if they like the new car's colors.

For instance, Ford is considering two steering options: power assisted or "to make it as easy as possible without power steering," Mr. Taylor said.

The women will decide the issue, Mr. Taylor said. "The involvement of the women in determining what this car will be is unparalleled."

Although the new car will be the first big test of the panel's influence, they haven't been idle for three years. Members test drive cars, visit dealerships under cover, get involved in dealer and service area training, and critique new ad campaigns.

In marketing, Ford now runs prospective advertising campaigns past the panel for comment and review.

The panel's advice: Focus on the woman as a driver, not just a family member or passenger.

Ms. Kurylko is Europe editor for Automotive News.

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