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Women Drivers Strut their Struts at Heels and Wheels

Auto Industry Event Showcases Best Cars for Women and Families
Who says women don’t know nothin’ about cars?  After two days at a ranch in the high desert of Bend, Oregon, at Heels and Wheels, an annual gathering of female auto industry experts, I had never heard so much estrogen-driven car talk.  These women were versant in every aspect of cars, from “fit and finish” to engine torque.

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Women auto executives and journalists gather for Heels & Wheels in Bend, Oregon.

Heels and Wheels, now heading into its fourth year, is a forum for women manufacturer reps and automotive journalists to gather and discuss what’s new in the industry and — the highlight of the event — go on drive outs, where participants hit the road in brand new vehicles, some on their maiden voyage, on a mapped route through twists and turns and open freeways to accesses the latest features of the autos, and also to just experience the sheer joy of driving.
Attendees at H&W got ot play cowboy and even got an archery lesson.

Maybe it was being at a ranch, the fabulous far-from-rustic Brasada Ranch, where the high desert meets chic, that we all felt free.  And just to set the record straight, there were no actual heels at this event.  Flats, namely boots, were the style of the day, along with jeans.  I had brought my handy Rowenta travel iron, but it stayed tucked away in my carry-on, as this crowd was more interested pistons than pressed slacks, and the mood was as laid back as the dress.
Topics around the room ranged from car tech to girl talk.

The table talk ranged from divorce to the challenge of raising boys to not play with themselves in public.  Then there was plenty of shop talk, such as spirited discussions on car detailing and design and tours to Korean car factories.  While the socializing and female bonding — including archery lessons and bonfires — was a central part of the weekend, the mission of the group was serious:  we were there to give industry executives feedback to help them market new vehicles to America’s primary car buyers — women over 40, and moms.
Vehicles wait for drive outs in front of the barn at the Brasada Ranch.

We reviewed industry research, which reported some interesting facts about women and cars:

  • Women have the highest growth in two of the fastest growing segment in automotive – small cars and eco-green cars.
  • 500,000 women every month are in-market to buy a car within a one- to three-month period.
  • The number of car registrations is between 60/40 and 50/50 men to women.
  • When it comes to her vehicle, a woman’s top reasons to purchase, in order, are reliability and dependability, overall quality, safety, driver’s seat comfort, and the joy of the ride.

Along with educational presentations aimed at women car buyers from Cooper Tire and Kelly Blue Book, nearly a dozen manufacturers rolled out their latest autos at Heels and Wheels for us to review.  I also independently test drove several other cars that manufacturers are target marketing to women.  Here are the highlights of what’s new in 2014, with special emphasis on added features, emphasizing women’s preferences.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland4X4 is the manufacturer’s premier lifestyle vehicle, featuring such a quiet cabin and comfortable ride you wouldn’t know it is an off-road vehicle.  This family Jeep owes its luxury-car feel to the Quadra-Lift air suspension which features five height settings for optimum ride performance.  It’s also loaded with over 70 available safety features including lane departure and forward collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control, side curtain airbags, an emergency 911 call button, and a traction control system that gives you five driving modes including one for snow.  A very cool technology is the hybrid 3.0L EcoDiesel V6 low-emissions engine that recharges when you break, and the fact that this Jeep gets 30 mpg on the highway, which is phenomenal for its class.  Its base price is $45,995, while the souped-up model will run you $51,875.

The Jeep Cherokee Overland awaits a woman driver!

For a Jeep that will really flip your wig, Jeep teased the H&W crowd with a preview of the Rubicon-tested new bests-in-class Jeep Trail Hawk, gleaming in its signature Anvil paint job and styled whimsically like its 1975 “Old Willy’s” Cherokee ancestor, only with a completely modern makeover.  H&W attendees clamored to get a closer look at this beauty, with is front-wheel drive, 9-speed transmission with 4×4 capability, four- or six-cylinder 2.4 liter engine, and the ultra-comfortable quiet cabin that defies its design as an off-road vehicle.  It also had all the comforts of a luxury car with hands-free calling and talking, a media hub with a recharging cradle and plenty USB outlets, park assist for parallel or perpendicular parking, adaptive cruise control to a full stop if the vehicle in front stops, and forward collision braking at the last .5 of a second before a crash to lessen the impact.  For the ultimate in comfort, the beautifully stitched leather seats go completely flat and the rear seats recline, just in case you want to make it a night in the Jeep.  Other fun amenities included a pet cage, clips for grocery bags, and a toaster for gloves.
The 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander crossover SUV has lots of features to recommend it to families, like seating for seven passengers utilizing a fold-flat third row; and safety features like lane drift warning, forward collision detection and braking to reduce the severity of a frontal collision, and a blind-spot warning system.  But despite the confidence-building promise of Super All-Wheel Control, when I test drove this car in the rain, the backend fish-tailed as I pulled out onto the wet pavement.  Perhaps I did not have the proper one of four S-AWC settings engaged, but on the fly I’d want the car to know best and automatically select the best driving mode.  In addition to the feeling of the car being light, overall the ride felt hard, as did the seats and the plastic interior.  At Heels and Wheels, this SUV garnered praise and elicited respectful nods from the experts who recognized Mitsubishi’s reputation as reliable, affordable car built to last.  One diehard fan said she still drives her 1999 Eclipse with pride.  But it seemed to me the experts were not impressed with this vehicle’s performance but with how far the manufacturer had come since appearing on the market.  In comparison with other SUVs in this price range, I found that it still has a ways to go.  The bare bones model in ES trim runs $22,995, and the top-of-the-line Outlander GT model MSRP is $27,795.  Available with either at 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine in the SE or 3.0-liter V6 engine in the GT.  Depending on the engine option, mph ranges from 28 to 31 on the highway.
The 2013 Aston Martin DB9 was an anomaly at Heels and Wheels — as it’s a far cry from a family car, but it was the one vehicle we all couldn’t wait to drive.  The only thing remotely feminine about this hot rod were the elegant swan wing doors that spread open for passengers to enter.  Despite its very low profile, there was plenty of head space, and the car felt roomy and comfortable inside. The understated yet absolutely elegant interior was exquisite in every detail, from the crystal starter key — about the size and weight of an old fashioned silver cigarette lighter — inserted into a slot on the dash, to the hand-stitched eight hides that line the interior.  Though I felt completely safe encased this 3,900 pounds of sports car, something about the $118,000 price tag and the thought of damaging the car made me drive cautiously, at least for the first 10 miles of my test drive.  Finally, on a two-lane highway stuck behind a tractor trailer for about five miles, I got the guts to peel out and pass.  The power of the V12 engine was awesome, though I approached 90 mph, not the 186 of which it’s capable.  I kept the drive mode in the middle of three driving experience modes for sport and non-sport driving, where I could enjoy the feel of the road and a little lesser degree of computer assisted driving.  At one point I felt the car was rounding the turns for me as it was so responsive to the slightest steering adjustment.  Bottom line, it’s like a bad boy you date for a year.  It’s a great fantasy car, but not one I or most women will ever own — but thanks for the ride.
After my drive out in the Aston Martin DB9. I got it to 90 mpg to pass a truck, but then chickened out and slowed to the speed limit.

The 2014 Mazda 6 was a car I liked from the moment I put it in drive.  It felt solid and smooth on the road.  The Mazda 6, featuring a 2.5L engine, competes with the Toyota Camry and other top sedans and surpasses in its pleasure to drive.  It features optional navigation, satellite radio and plenty of tech, including a blind spot warning system, lane change assist, and front-end collision prevention.  The Mazda rep at Heels and Wheels recalled how she had tried out the latter feature, the Smart City Brake Support, as part of training.  She explained how instinct made it hard to let a slow-speed front collision happen, but through her experience she offered a credible testimonial that it worked, stopping her from hitting another car in front of her.  Besides the handling and safety features, the Mazda 6 ‘s amazing fuel efficiency — averaging 40 mph on the highway — is comparable to any hybrid.  But rather than make this car a hybrid, Mazda accepts that 90 percent of world’s automobiles are run by combustion engines, so the manufacturer has focused on making its cars lighter and more fuel efficient.  Soon Mazda will also have a clean diesel coming out.   MSRP for the Mazda 6 is $29,495; or loaded it runs $31,490.
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Beverly Braga, rep for Mazda, demonstrates the roominess of the new Mazda6 Sport trunk.

The 2014 Buick Verano was as quiet as a Lexus, and frankly comparable to any imported luxury car I’ve ever driven.  The Verano’s two-toned interior design with buttery soft padded leather seats was not only elegant but sumptuously comfortable.  Some folks will never give Buick a chance — holding on to Buick’s reputation as an older person’s car, but those skeptics should definitely give this car a try.  I was impressed by its smooth ride and peppy sporty feeling.  You could feel the quiet power of the 2.0L ECOTEC engine, which was thoroughly enjoyable with the manual six-speed transmission.  It hugged the road on turns and wet pavement.  Plus it had all the bells and whistles – lane change alert, which they call Side Blind Zone Alert, optional rear parking assist and rear cross traffic alert, rear vision camera and 10 air bags that come standard.  Additional technologies include remove starter and Intellilink available through an eight-inch touch screen.  My Dad always said you get more car for your money if you buy American, and in this case you definitely get more Buick for your buck.  Basic model starts at $23,700.  Add on a few more luxuries for the top model at $29,000.
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The Buick Verano on the road during a drive out at Heels & Wheels.

The 2014 Dodge Dart is equipped with abundant safety features — count 60 of them available – including a reinforced safety cage, 10 air bags, front head restraints, Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Path Detection and selective braking depending on road conditions.  Safety aside,  and its fuel economy aside (36 to 41 mph on the highway), the tech in this car makes it a blast to drive. The Dart sports an airplane cockpit of features like graphic digital dash display, a huge 8.4-inch touchscreen with voice activation for hands-free navigation, dialing, talking and tuning, an optional kick-butt Alpine stereo system with satellite radio.   For social media addicts, the Mopar Web Module Kit offers Internet connection wherever you ride and within 150 feet of the car.  With all its gadgetry, the Dart holds down its price, with six models to choose from, at $15,995 to up to $20,995 with all a full slate of options.
If you’ve been waiting for a good looking and reasonably priced family sedan hybrid, the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid is your car.  Priced at$25,560 to$32,000, this car keeps on saving at the pump, requiring infrequent refueling approximately every 1-2 weeks for an average driver.  In Oregon where I test drove this car, the Jetta’s fuel economy (48 highway mpg and 42 city mpg) comes in handy because customers can’t pump their own gas in the state.  Interesting fact.  The Jetta might be light on gas, but it feels heavy and solid on the road.  Tech abounds in this vehicle, with keyless access, one-touch power windows, rear view camera, and VW Car-Net that allows you to have a link between your iPhone and Android devices so you can get restaurant locations, remotely unlock your doors, get alerts from your car, and get emergency assistance if needed.  Yet, the most impressive technology is under the hood. The gas and electric motor work together to deliver a turbocharged 170 hp, and the battery gets a constant charge while you drive, thanks to the regenerative braking system where energy is transferred back to the battery every time you brake.
Other than the fact that the 2014 Kia Cadenza’s name reminded me of a large piece of furniture in my grandma’s dining room, I loved this car.   It blends luxury with performance to offer a comfortable ride that drives like the sports car you had before you had kids.  Its 3.3-liter V6 gasoline direct injection (GDI) engine provides an impressive 293 horsepower paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.  Powerful it is, but it still manages to pull out 19-28 mph — not bad for a car this posh. The UVO eServices with Navigation lets you to use your voice and smartphone to access infotainment and phone features, including vehicle diagnostics checks, roadside assistance and locations from Google Maps that you can transfer from your phone, with no subscription fees.  Other tech features include keyless entry, back-up warning system, and an adaptive front lighting system that adjust the headlights based on conditions and speed.   Inside the ultra-quiet interior, the Nappa leather seats and heated steering wheel remind you that this is a luxury car, no matter how tight this peppy sedan rounds a corner.  The luxury features will cost you a bit more than some of the sedans in the class, starting at $35,100 and south of $41,900, but you won’t be disappointed with the package.
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The Kia Cadenza before heading on the road for a test drive.

While it is a blast to drive, the 2014 Mini Cooper Roadster convertible is a tight fit for four passengers and probably not a good choice for a family car, but it is a supremely tempting choice for a second car. The Mini sips gas at 26 to 35 mpg, so maybe you can justify the cost for this grown-up toy car, priced from $25,150 for the trimmed-down version, to $35,300 for the totally tricked-out 208-Horsepower engine turbo-charged John Cooper Works model.  The top folds down in 15 seconds and can be opened half way for a sunroof-type effect. Pair the joy of riding top-down in the open air with six-speaker CD audio system with AM/FM HD radio, Bluetooth and USB/iPod interface and optional harman/kardon premium sound package with SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and it’s hard to resist. It’s a cinch to park, and the drop-down tailgate makes it easy to load, and with the seats folded down you can squeeze in a few bags of groceries in the 23.3 cubic feet cargo area, so maybe you can make an argument that it’s a perfect Mom car.