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New and restyled models like the Nitro (shown), Caliber, and Avenger are helping Dodge win over female car buyers.
New and restyled models like the Nitro (shown), Caliber, and Avenger are helping Dodge win over female car buyers. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press Photo)

Traditionally testosterone Dodge gains women fans

Sporty offerings and new styling boost line's appeal

DETROIT -- The Dodge brand, with its bullish Durango SUV and muscle car Charger, traditionally hasn't been much of a hit with female buyers. But a few strategically placed, subtle styling cues on its new Caliber and Nitro are generating more female attraction of late.

The Chrysler Group brand's new sporty offerings, despite their testosterone-injected names, are helping boost the brand among female buyers, who currently make up about one-quarter of Dodge's customers.

The Power Information Network reports that 44.9 percent of the Caliber's buyers in the third quarter of 2006 were women and 39.2 percent of the new Nitro's early buyers were women. The only other Dodge models to do as well were the Neon and the Stratus, both of which the company no longer makes.

Just 27.2 percent of the total brand's buyers are women. That compares with an industry average of 37.2 percent and an industry high of 48.7 percent by Mini, according to data from the Power Information Network.

"Until recently, Dodge has been predominantly a truck brand. We play big in the large truck segment with" sales of "about 450,000 units," said Mark Spencer, senior manager of Dodge brand communications. "Most of the truck buyers, 85 percent, are male. . . . When you look at the Caliber, it will be significantly female; we anticipate 45 percent of buyers will be female. The Nitro should be similar.

"Our brand will be much more gender-balanced going forward."

That doesn't mean Dodge is scrapping its masculine image, its trademark cross-hair grille, or its chiseled, muscular exterior design.

The Caliber slogan is: "It's anything but cute." The Nitro: "Go bold or go home."

"That's very testosterone-driven," said Joanne Helperin, senior features editor for Edmunds.com's women and family car guide. "This is a macho brand. The models have a very aggressive look, and it goes along with having names like Magnum and Caliber; those are both gun-related. The Viper is a venomous snake. Even the Nitro sounds explosive.

"I think one of the reasons the Caliber has done as well as it has is that it's got softer lines than some of the other cars. . . . The Caliber is still aggressive looking, but it's sporty, has a five-star crash rating and good fuel economy. If you need a small hauler for the kids, it works."

And with the fold-down seats and extra storage capabilities that both the Caliber and Nitro offer, they're going to appeal more to women than the Charger, Helperin said.

Those are exactly the characteristics that appealed separately to Alicia Vaillancourt, 27, of Three Rivers, Mich., and Linda Odette, 50, of Flat Rock, Mich., who each bought Calibers last year.

"I saw it at the auto show, and I like the look of it," Odette said.

"I didn't want another minivan," Odette said. "I like the hatchback and being able to put down the seats if you want to put more things in it. It's easily maneuverable for parking, and it's got good pickup for getting on the expressway."

Vaillancourt said she fell in love with the looks of the vehicle as soon as she saw it on Yahoo.

"I like a style that stands out," Vaillancourt said. "We special-ordered ours in sunburst orange with a sunroof and orange details in the seats. It's very stylish, and it works with our children. We have two car seats in the back and enough room for the stroller."

"We had to wait nine weeks," Vaillancourt said. "We thought that was long, then we read on some online forums about a lot of people who had to wait four or five months for theirs. . . . It was worth it. We wanted something in a good price range that still had some style. Everybody who sees it says, 'Oh, wow. What is that?' I like that."

Chrysler's Spencer said that improved appeal is by design.

"In fact, when we did the Nitro, we did research to find the appropriate masculine messaging to attract both males and females," Spencer said. "You can attract women with masculine messages. The reverse doesn't work. And you can always attract older demographics with younger messages. The reverse doesn't work."

Dodge also expects its Stratus replacement, the Avenger, to do well among female buyers . That segment typically attracts women as a little more than half of its buyers, Spencer said. He expects the Dodge mix for the new mid size sedan to be slightly lower than half.

"I think the general trend for us is, with each successive launch, we're attracting a younger, more affluent, more multicultural buyer, and it seems to be working," Spencer said.

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