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Women Drivers Hit the Road for Heels & Wheels

Beverly Braga, rep for Mazda, demonstrates the roominess of the new Mazda6 Sport trunk.
Beverly Braga, rep for Mazda, demonstrates the roominess of the new Mazda6 Sport trunk.
K. Pearson Brown

Event for Female Auto Industry Experts Showcases Best Cars for Families and Women

Author Pearson Brown and the Aston Martin DB9
K. Pearson Brown

As a child whenever a car cut us off, my father would exclaim, Woman driver!" Inevitably, when we pulled up next to the driver, it was a man. My father would be flummoxed. Eventually Dad caught up with the times and realized that women were equal to men on the road, and in fact he let my mother do most of the family driving. The auto industry came to the same conclusion, and at Heels and Wheels, they acknowledged that women have a lot of power behind the wheel.

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 access the latest features of the autos, and also to just experience the sheer joy of driving.

Maybe it was being at a ranch in Bend, Oregon, 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.

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.

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 Overland 4X4 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.

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 4x4 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.

The 2014 Mazda6 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.

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.

The Buick LaCrosse Touring was one of the most luxurious cars I have test driven lately. When the valet parked in in front of the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, it looked perfectly at home alongside the Jaguars and Bentleys. Besides its beautiful exterior styling, the interior is built for comfort, including eight-way driver’s seat adjustments plus and power lumbar support. The cabin is generously proportion to be roomy for stretching out on long trips, and the safety features like side blind zone alert and rear cross traffic alert helps make trips more carefree, and the IntelliLink infotainment center with satellite radio and Bluetooth connection and navigation can be controlled hands-free so you can keep your eyes on the road, which is a good thing because the manual button operation of the navigation was cumbersome. The LaCrosse exudes power inside and out, which you can feel as you accelerate the 2.4 ECOTEC DOHC 4-cylinder DI engine, but as you’d expect with a heavy, solid car like this, the mph at 21 on the highway is not the most fuel efficient, but then again you are in this car for the love of the ride. $32,769 or fully equipped at $39,240.

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.

The 2014 Kia Rio is a great small car for bouts around town, commuting or even a short vacation trip. Priced at $13,900 to $21,340, this mighty subcompact has an unbelievable package of standard features and an amazing premium package for a car in this price class. Standard features include Bluetooth and UVO infotainment system with satellite radio (subscription required). Options include navigation system with Sirius traffic, heated power mirrors, split folding rear seats, cruise control, rear camera display, full-length side airbags, tilt and slide sunroof, and a compass and HomeLink to dim the glare reflecting lights in the rear-view mirror. Not too shabby on gas either -- at 33 mpg to 40 on the highway, and it comes with the very attractive Kia 10-year-10,000-miles warranty.

luetooth® wireless technology, to the UVO Infotainment system.

Another Kia worth mentioning is the 2014 Kia Sorento SX , a whopper of an SUV that any parent would be proud to cruise up in at the drop-off line. Its roomy interior is full of creature comforts like front row heated seats, nappa leather trim, second-row window sunshades, dual climate controls, a heated steering wheel and a four-way adjustable passenger seat. For larger families, there’s an available third row that can be split and folded and can accommodate up to 7 passengers. There’s plenty of amenities for traveling families, like the kick-butt infinity audio system, hands-free Bluetooth connectivity for mobile phones, media outlets for plug in devices, and voice-command navigation with an 8' touch screen featuring real-time highway conditions from SiriusXM Traffic. Its 3.3 liter engine may not be the most gas efficient, burning 18-21 mpg, but the tradeoff is, well, everything else. Safety comes first with this vehicle, with a rear camera backup camera, blind spot detection and an advanced airbag system. Priced starting at $35,000 and up to $37,695 with upgrades and the third-row seat, it’s a steal for an urban assault vehicle packed with this much power.

Driving the 2014 KIA Sportage, I knew right away where from it gets its name. If I did not know I was driving a four-door SUV I could have imagined I was in a nimble sports car. The feel of the road, the responsive handling and the dash loaded with lights, bells and whistles made me reminisce about the days of kid-lessness, when I cruised carefree in my old convertible. And maybe as a 40-somethingmom I should not care about a kick-butt stereo, but this ride had an amazing audio system with great bass, and Sirius and a plug in an iPhone/MP3 to boot. The lively acceleration of the 2.4L Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) I4 engine and quick turning action was handy pulling out of parallel parking spots on busy LA streets, and the beeping three-tier back up warning system utilizing a rear mounted camera – with a green-, yellow- and red-zone visual grid to alert you to objects behind you, was very helpful for those same parallel parking challenges in reverse. Maybe it’s trivial to note, but I loved the large, easy-to-find-in-the-dark ceiling map light, which is super nice and bright so you can see and find things like a crying baby’s dropped binky, toll money or an elusive garage pass card. The interior was not top-grain kid leather, but that’s not a bad thing, as it was soft and pliable enough for comfort without being too delicate for installing children’s car seats or enduring the kind of constant in-and-out of the seat action most mommobiles-slash-kid-limos get. My complaints about the KIA Sportage were small. The headrest could have used a few more adjustment options, though it was sufficiently comfortable, and the interior was more hard plastic than padded leather or pleather than some more luxurious SUVs – but then again, it wipes clean easier that those coverings. For the money - starting at $21,600 and $29,000 loaded with tech features like voice-activated navigation, streaming audio entertainment system, HID headlights and LED rear lighting options, this was a solid choice for a family car that also was thoroughly enjoyable to drive and ride in.

· One of the best little minivans I have ever driven is the 2014 Mazda5 Grand Touring. It is compact and sprightly enough that I did not feel like I was in a 6-seater minivan, yet with the third seating row put down its cargo area was large enough to fit all our family gear, including skis, boots, poles, puffy coats and everything we needed for a mountain vacation. Priced at $22,270 for the basics, or $26,125 fully loaded, with a fuel-efficient 2.5L engine that gets 22-28 mpg, it’s a great economy family car. The interior feels a little stripped down, but other features help make up for it, like the safety-first rear back up sensors, dual front and side–impact airbags and fast–inflating air curtains to protect all three rows of passengers, dynamic stability control and traction control to prevent wheelspin and increase traction during hard braking, acceleration and cornering, and available Xenon headlights and halogen fog lights for better vision for driving at night or in inclement weather. The standard tech package is a bit skimpy, though it does include Bluetooth hands-free phone and MP3 player input. Upgrades that I feel are essential for family trips included the overhead DVD entertainment system and Sirius XM satellite radio. For the serious traveling family, the auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink is also a nice comfort. If you want to get really fancy, other options include the remote engine start option, moon roof and premium audio system, a rear spoiler and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Overall, a great car, ahem, minivan for the money.

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.

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