Nissan woos female buyers with cute car

YOKOSUKA, Japan -- Ayano Sasao is defying the conventional wisdom that cars targeted to a niche consumer category like young women are doomed to fail.

The 18-year-old Japanese hospital worker just bought the Nissan Pino, a toylike minicar just 11 feet long with star-stamped upholstery, a hook for a handbag, and a chic "milk tea beige" exterior -- although she says she almost went with the pink.

"It's so cute. I just love it," she said.

To make sure women like Sasao get the message, Nissan Motor Co. launched a merchandise line for Pino, including pink bear-shaped cushions, seat covers with hearts, and a CD case that looks like fat red lips.

Ironically, Pino isn't even made by Nissan, Japan's third-biggest automaker. It's made by Suzuki Motor Inc.

But under a manufacturing agreement, Nissan packages Suzuki's Alto model differently, with fancier seat fabric, a distinct front design, and a hubcap inspired by a snowflake so the wheels appear to sparkle on the road -- all touches to give the car that cute look.

Nissan had 5,500 orders for the Pino in the first month since it went on sale in January, more than double the company target of 2,500 a month.

While models such as sportscars or family minivans target segments of the population, auto companies generally avoid producing models aimed at narrow niche markets because they usually don't sell in numbers.

Toyota Motor Corp. officials often say they don't believe in overly specific marketing tactics.

And in most countries, experts tend to advise against making autos pink or adding other "cute" features to appeal to female drivers partly because that may smack of sexism and turn off women -- except in Japan, where young women are extremely powerful in setting trends.