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BANDON, Ore. — The success of the auto sales recovery may hinge on the re-emergence of one pivotal group of vehicle shoppers that went into a "recession hibernation" during 2009, according to CNW Research.

Who holds the keys to a market rebound? Why it's women, of course, according to CNW.

So it's good news for the industry that so far this year, female consumers have flocked back to dealership showrooms after many stayed away last year, and this means the chance for more vibrant market increases.

The percent of new-vehicle showroom traffic composed by women in 2009 was 32 percent, a significant decline from a peak of roughly 45 percent in 2006, CNW pointed out.

However, women represented more than 40 percent of showroom traffic during the early part of 2010, and this number continues to increase through March.

"If the first quarter of 2010 is an indication, women are returning to the new-car market and improving the chances for the industry to surpass a 12.25 million sales year," explained Art Spinella, president of CNW Research. "Because women drop out of the new car market faster than sales slide, they are critically important to a recovery. And it appears they are back."

However if female shoppers don't come back at the level expected, full-year new-vehicle will probably only reach 11.7 million vehicles, Spinella noted.

Should women continue returning to dealerships at a similar pace as the start of the year, there could be an additional 800,000 to 950,000 vehicles sold, according to Spinella.

"The question is how can automakers and marketers get women to feel sufficiently comfortable buying a new vehicle?" Spinella stated. "What message will convince her the time is right? And what new vehicle attributes does she find compelling?"

CNW set out to investigate.

For starters, more than a third of all new-car searches by women are started from four commercial sources, according to the CNW Purchase Path study. These include casual contact via social media, home improvement magazines, TV channel geared toward a specific ethnic group (BET, for example) and direct mail. The latter is "getting hotter among women," Spinella noted.

The industry must also understand what qualities women find to be the most important in vehicles. More often than not, women tend to put more emphasis on "practical" qualities than men. For instance, men put "styling" as their top vehicle attribute, while this quality ranked 11th with women.

"For women, the more practical attributes place higher, including visibility from the driver's seat to both the front and rear, stain resistant seating surfaces, and financial issues such as low monthly payment and resale value," Spinella shared.

"Whether the vehicle's presentation is made by an automaker through its marketing effort or at the dealership by a salesperson, these are the general hot-button issues," he added.

Women have certainly changed their top vehicle priorities in the last four years, according to CNW, which said female shoppers, for instance, "are paying more and opting for more content."

Some examples include cast alloy wheels (up 14.29 percent in importance from 2006), cloth seating surface (up 11.29 percent), and sports-car suspension (up 8.2 percent).

"Some of the choices are budget related others are attitudinal shifts. For example, the desire for cloth seating surfaces is viewed by many women as a way to cut the overall sticker price," Spinella noted. "A growing percentage of women are looking at engine design as it relates to fuel economy/horsepower and entertainment systems."

Offering some more context, he added: "Preconceived notions can be accurate about the woman's market when it comes to longstanding issues such as safety and financial considerations.

"But women are becoming far more aware of and in favor of aggressive styling, performance features from wheels to suspension," Spinella noted. "It's around these new-found desires that marketers have to concentrate their message.

"This doesn't mean the sports car performing donuts on a beach will appeal to a female new-car intender," he continued. "Women still think that's a bit too masculine and ‘childish.' Twisted to link performance to safety — passing, avoiding obstacles, stopping quickly to keep from hitting an unexpected bike rider — seems most desirable to women."

Interestingly enough, women typically have different viewpoints on incentives than do men. Where women see incentives as a "tipping point" for making a purchase, men are often more likely to use them to buy a vehicle in a higher class.

"Asked about their use of incentives, women respondents consistently stated that the cash paybacks or lower interest rates (which lowered monthly payment) were the tipping point for making the acquisition," Spinella noted.

"Men, on the other hand, considered the incentives a regular part of the car buying process and felt using the extra funds for a nicer vehicle was a ‘practical' use of the money," he added.

Female shoppers also have very different views of specific brands than men, according to CNW. In fact, there is only one brand that generates the same "positive" feelings from both men and women: Porsche.

"Other than that, no brand places the same on both the men and women lists," Spinella noted.

When asked whether they have "negative," "neutral" or "positive" feeling toward specific brands, the ones he largest percentage of women found positive are as follows: Porsche (87.3 percent positive), Volvo (80.7 percent), Saturn (76.8 percent), BMW (76.9 percent) and Land Rover (71.1 percent).

For men, meanwhile, the ranking of brands with the most positive feelings were Porsche (88.3 percent), BMW (86.2 percent), Jeep (79.2 percent), GMC (78.6 percent)) and Hummer (76.3 percent).

Looking at women's overall responses, 26.33 percent were negative toward a brand, 25.4 percent were neutral and 48.27 percent were positive.

"Calculating the overall scores shows that there is little true difference over the years for the industry as a whole," Spinella noted. "Among women, the two-point rise in overall positive responses is indicative of better products with additional safety features such as side-air bags.

"What's interesting is to compare the industry average positive response rate with an individual brand's positives," he continued. "For example, Honda has a massive gap between overall industry average and its positive rating. Any doubt it's one of the darlings of the woman's market?"

Spinella added: "Acura is another case in point. While the positive scores are below the industry average, there is a significant difference in its favor between Acura neutral scores and industry average neutral. If Acura could spread the love for the brand into the hearts and souls of neutral women, it might just pull itself out of the doldrums.

"That, in effect, is what Ford is doing. They, too, have high neutrals and below-industry positives," he concluded.