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Automotive News

By Jamie LaReau

Aug. 21, 2006

DETROIT – In the summer of 2002, about 100 male General Motors employees headed to the Milford Proving Grounds west of Detroit to do something likely not in their job descriptions. They had to wear skirts made from garbage bags, put on size-11 high-heeled shoes, sport long fake fingernails, and carry purses and baby dolls.

"I would never have expected it," says Mark Cieslak, assistant vehicle chief engineer for full-sized trucks and a participant in the event.

The intent was to show male engineers just what it would take for GM's new full-sized trucks to win favor with women, says Mary Sipes, GM's vehicle line director for full-sized trucks and the brains behind the exercise she called "Mr. Mom."

Sipes gave the men what appeared to be a simple assignment. They were to wheel a baby stroller to an SUV, where they would use a remote to unlock the doors, then use the door handle – careful, don't break a nail!

They had to remove the doll and fasten it correctly in a car seat, fold the stroller, walk – watch those heels – to the rear of the truck, lift the rear door to put the stroller away – don't rip that skirt! The men then had to get into the driver's seat without using the running board – oops, there goes a heel! – then fasten the seat belt and adjust the radio – uh-oh, another chipped nail!

Sipes timed the men and deducted points anytime they tore a skirt, chipped a nail, twisted a heel or struggled in any way.

"Trying to get into the vehicle (dressed as a woman) was a very different experience," recalls Cieslak. "It gave me a better appreciation of the meaning of running boards to the female customer and realizing the importance of the size of buttons and handles."

Sipes says women represent 50 percent of the drivers of full-sized trucks and influence 85 percent of the purchases of those vehicles. The competition in full-sized SUVs and pickups is rising rapidly as sales shrink.

Cieslak, a GM veteran, says he had never had to think about where to store a purse. He concluded that installing a large console area that offers 20 liters of storage would be the answer.

"I thought, 'Well, shoot, I would want my purse right at arm's reach,' " he recalls. "So you start searching for that area. You want it accessible, but not to be staring at it when you're driving. So that's how we came up with the console area."

Cieslak also had to use pedals in heels. The result was to reposition the pedals for the new full-sized trucks, built on the GMT900 architecture, and to change their range of motion.

Cieslak learned that the rear liftgate and the rear seats in the prior-generation trucks were awkward for someone wearing a skirt to use. Now the power liftgate and power folding seats are offered.

Sipes says safety ranks higher with women than men as a reason for purchase. So GM installed head curtain airbags for all three rows of seating in the full-sized SUVs. Other safety features include a remote start.

The GMT900 vehicles appear smaller from the outside, even though they are the same size as their predecessors, Sipes says. "We wanted a package on the outside that appeared less intimidating but on the inside appeared big and functional," she says.

GM also lowered the instrument panel and moved it forward to accommodate women, who tend to be smaller than men. GM used adjustable pedals so that a woman can sit farther from the steering wheel airbag, yet still reach the pedals.

"Some of the refinements we made, we did have to fight for," Sipes says. "We're given an allocation of money to spend, so it comes down to trading off somewhere else."

An example of a fight against cost restraints, Sipes recalls, arose when some male GM executives wanted to put smaller uniform visor mirrors on all vehicles to save money. She concocted another surprise "exercise" during lunch.

Sipes took a group of men and women out to a vehicle and made each get inside and check his or her teeth for food. The women all used the visor mirror to check their teeth, while the men used the rearview mirror – making Sipes' point that a large visor mirror is essential for female consumers.

According to the Power Information Network, the percentage of female buyers purchasing GM's 2007 full-sized SUVs is down compared with prior models. For instance, 31.2 percent of buyers of the 2005 model Chevrolet Tahoe were women, compared with 28.7 percent for the 2007 model through June 23. The mix for the GMC Yukon remained relatively flat, while 25.3 percent of purchases for the 2007 Chevrolet Suburban were made by women vs. 23.9 percent for the 2005 model.

GM did not provide its data. But Sipes says anecdotal evidence shows that women like the vehicles.

"Just looking at the mix of trucks, we're selling much more highly contented trucks than we did with the outgoing models," she says. Sipes thinks women are having an influence over purchases of the vehicles, given that features such as a power liftgate and rear camera are pricey options.

Dealers say the interior is more refined and the cab more "cocoonlike," giving a feeling of safety.

"We have a great acceptance on the new Yukon series by women," says John Pitre, general manager of Motor City Buick-Pontiac-GMC in Bakersfield , Calif. "The old one was more trucky and manly-man. This has wider door handles, running boards and more comfortable seats."
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