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What Women Want: More Horses
By Alex Williams
Sharon Fitzpatrick (left), 52, and Diane Dirienzo, 53, go Mercedes shopping in Greenwich, Conn. Photo Suzy Allman for NYT

DIANE NOEL DIRIENZO and her friend Sharon Fitzpatrick have a lot in common. They live on the same street in Milford, Conn. They are both mothers as well as busy professionals, and both found themselves unexpectedly single after many years of marriage. (Ms. Dirienzo was widowed; Ms. Fitzpatrick divorced.) A few weeks ago they both even decided to deal with a sudden bout of midlife ennui in the same way.

"I said, 'Let's go shopping,' " recounted Ms. Dirienzo, a real estate agent. "Let's really go shopping." So they did: specifically for two Mercedes, one apiece. Both wanted a black one - sexy, elegant. Later that day Ms. Dirienzo, who is 53, signed the contract for a convertible CLK350. Ms. Fitzpatrick, 52 and a nurse, opted for a sleek, nimble E320 sedan. For each, their car was a statement as much as a means of transportation. For too many years, they said, they had let the roles of wife and mother define their purchases: minivans or stodgy family sedans.

"I'm just celebrating my life," said Ms. Fitzpatrick, the mother of three grown sons.

"I don't have the disease to please anymore," explained Ms. Dirienzo, whose daughter has graduated from college. "I'm pleasing me."

Women of the baby boom generation have made no small effort to seize the freedoms once reserved for men, so it is not surprising that as this vast group graduates from the soccer-mom years, many are doing what men have traditionally done at midlife: buying a sexy and indulgent car meant more to trumpet their liberty than to haul kids around.

In recent years there has been growth in sales of "fun" or extravagant cars among middle-aged women that are a far cry from family leviathans like the sport utility vehicle or minivan. Industry analysts report sales of luxury vehicles are up for women over 45, and dealers report that more of them are walking into showrooms with more interest in horsepower than trunk space.

"We touch on it in almost every sales meeting," said Lou Liodori, the sales manager of Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich in Greenwich, Conn., which sold Ms. Fitzpatrick and Ms. Dirienzo their cars. "We're in Greenwich, one of richest towns in the country, but we're also right off I-95. Nurses, teachers, I can't tell you how many are buying convertibles."

There is no single category of female "reward car," as some in the auto industry call such purchases. But analysts see increases in the number of middle-aged women buying all sorts of nonfamily cars.

Vehicle registration records compiled by Mark A. Pauze, a consultant at R. L. Polk, which tracks car registration figures, show that the number of women over 45 who purchased cars in the niche known as "mid-sized sporty," which includes two-door models like the Mazda RX-8 and the Chrysler Crossfire, is up 277 percent since 2000. Among women of 45 and over earning at least $100,000, smaller luxury cars like the BMW 3 Series and the Audi A4 are up 93 percent since 2000, Mr. Pauze said. Full-size pickups are up 310 percent.

Suraya DaSante, a spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler, said boomer women may be a factor in "why cars are back" in favor as S.U.V.'s stall in popularity.

"It seems like we spent a lot of years with minivans and larger utility vehicles," she said. "We're seeing a lot more cars now."

This is not to say that middle-aged women have abandoned practical vehicles like minivans or sedans like the Toyota Camry; those sales are up, too. But it is notable, analysts and dealers say, that women in this age group are buying so many me-mobiles, the signature purchase of men in the grip of a midlife crisis.

Psychologists have been re-examining how women navigate those bountiful, if challenging years differently from their mothers, and more important, from men. In the recent book "The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today's Women," Sue Shellenbarger argues that for many women the midlife transition is less a crisis than an awakening, a chance to heed a long-suppressed inner voice. Some may experience an attack of entrepreneurialism, others may backpack through Honduran rainforests.

The red sports car is still a male cliché. But women, too, have fantasies of the open road, especially the generation weaned on "Easy Rider" and "Thelma and Louise."

Pamela Robinson, a 41-year-old respiratory therapist in Valdosta, Ga., has lived as a single mother since her divorce six years ago, "saving pennies," she said, to buy an orange Nissan 350Z sports car. She finally ditched a older Nissan sedan since carting around her son and his friends was no longer a daily concern. She even got a tattoo: "one of the other things people do in midlife crisis," she said. It's at the base of her neck and is - what else? - a Z.

"I don't even call it a midlife crisis," Ms. Robinson said. "I call it an epiphany. I wanted to go back to being the person I remembered being. You were a person before you got married, before you had kids. I just decided to reclaim it."

Dealers and auto industry watchers say women are ever more knowledgeable as car customers. "Previously they weren't comfortable coming into a lot of dealerships," said Tim Tauber, the general manager at the Newport Auto Center in Newport Beach, Calif., adding, "I sold a Porsche Carrera GT for $450,000 to a lady last night."

But now, he said, female buyers are "obviously more educated, and obviously, a lot of women are making a lot of money right now." Twenty to 25 percent of his high-end sales are to women, up from five years ago.

It is widely estimated within the industry that women influence about 75 percent of all car purchases. While their knowledge comes from years of weighing in, if not deciding on, what family car to buy, women have also gained expertise from the Internet women-and-cars sites.

"The Internet never became the buying source it was predicted to be, but what it did was become a huge source of information," said Ken Gorin, the president of the Collection, a high-end car dealership in Coral Gables, Fla. The explosion of information, he said, has turbo-charged a trend of female automotive enthusiasm.

Sandra Kinsler, the editor in chief of in Ventura, Calif., said her site reflects an increasing desire to be autonomous. "Instead of the husband saying, 'My baby really needs a whatever,' the woman is saying, 'I want a 150,' " said Ms. Kinsler, referring to Ford's full-size F-150 pickup truck.

"Women love them," she said of pickups. When she test-drove the F-150 at a Ford promotion last year, women gathered around whenever she stopped. "There was a big debate, automatic versus stick," she said.

As for the me-mobiles that women buy once the needs of their children or husbands are less paramount, she said, those with means tend to "revert to their roots."

"If she was into sports cars in young adulthood, that's what she'll go for," Ms. Kinsler said. "If she found pickup trucks tough and sexy when she was young, that's what she'll go to later on. It's not reverting to childhood, it's reverting to preference."

But are the impulses of such customers big or definable enough to become a target market? Few industry ads recognize this niche. Ms. DaSante, the DaimlerChrysler spokeswoman, said car manufacturers rarely find it strategically wise to target one gender over another, since that would split the potential target audience.

The notion of the reward car is one that executives in the auto industry discuss often, said Daniel Gorrell, a vice president at Strategic Vision, which tracks consumer data on automobiles. But they find it difficult to build specific models targeted to a particular demographic group's idea of what a reward looks like because tastes within those groups vary so much.

Mr. Gorrell added that among women the trend toward luxury car purchases are "is definitely increasing"; some companies, like Lexus, now sell more than 50 percent of their vehicles to women. But for many women, he said, the reward means shifting from extreme practicality to sexy practicality, which accounts for the spike in smaller, sportier S.U.V.'s like the Porsche Cayenne or the Volvo XC90.

Perhaps it's pointless to market to men and women differently. "There's no reason it has to be different," said Paula J. Caplan, a psychologist and visiting scholar at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University, who has coveted a Maserati for as long as she can remember. "If you love speed, grace, power - all of those are just interests for a lot of human beings."

Janet Ziedrich, 46, of Healdsburg, Calif., still hauls her two children to school in the family's spacious Lincoln Town Car, but she keeps a new Indy-blue Mini Cooper in the garage for herself, for when she needs to really drive. "I take it out when I want to really enjoy myself. I cruise in it," she said.

The sporty coupe makes a great rolling jukebox for her solo drives through the Napa wine country. "I crank it up, Heart, Peter Frampton," she said with relish.






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