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Luxury Car Companies Are Putting Women In The Driver's Seat

Women are now a major force in the auto marketplace, and luxury car designers have adjusted accordingly with new features that focus on more than just looks.

Luxury cars used to be so reassuringly obvious. They had leather seats and extra legroom. They were shiny, costly and envy-inducing. But now investment bankers are buying $90,000 pickup trucks for weekend diversions, and celebrities like Jay-Z and Drake favour a matte finish for their Maybachs. Once as downmarket as you can get, matte is now a custom luxury feature that can add as much as $5K to the cost of a vehicle. And thanks to the singular vision of billionaire-inventor-futurist Elon Musk, Tesla has also done its part to complicate the luxury market by making electric cars fast and sexy. Increasingly, eco-consciousness is less crunchy granola, more a signifier of status.

If you like old-school luxury, however, comfort is your priority and the Lincoln Motor Company knows it. "It feels like it was designed just for you," says Soo Kang, chief interior designer of the relaunched Continental. Its patented Perfect Position Seats can be adjusted 30 different ways, provide multiple heating and cooling options and will even give you a massage, thus linking luxury with wellness. So while its signature grille may be Bentley-esque, the interior of the Continental feels like a therapy session.

Lincoln also seems to know what "the ladies" like, which is good since female buyers have become a major force in the auto marketplace, both as decision-makers and drivers, according to the 2014 Frost and Sullivan research report, Women in Cars. The legacy automaker's current ad campaign "stars" actor Matthew McConaughey, something not a single woman fails to note when I mention the new Continental. McConaughey brought his curious allure to Lincoln's MKX commercial, in which he was wordless (and hot). The new Continental campaign capitalizes on a good thing: not only does McConaughey speak, there are two of him.

"You may never sit in the back seat," he muses to himself from behind the wheel. "That'd be a shame," his other self replies in a sexy drawl, settling into the rear of the car, eyes drifting closed.

To re-imagine the Continental, a car with a storied past – J.F.K. was assassinated in one – Kang set out to engage you emotionally and, if it's not love at first sight, the Continental aims to connect with you on first contact. Instead of pedestrian door handles, the Continental features the "e-latch," a slim, sculptural door pull positioned at the vehicle's mid-line. Lightly touch it and the door releases electronically. Like "a first-class handshake: not too firm, not too weak," she says.

A car's colour is another powerful way to make an emotional connection and, at GM, the Buick Avista, 2016 Concept Car of the Year, was conceived by its designers from the start in an intensely deep, moody blue. In its design, the Avista pushed boundaries and a high-gloss blue was the colour that showed off its surface details best. It also appeals to women. Says Sharon Gauci, Buick's design director: 'Women aren't afraid of something that takes them outside of their comfort zone.'

That very mentality is what Fiat Chrysler must be banking on this year as it reintroduces North Americans to its iconic Alfa-Romeo brand, starting with a trio of television commercials launched during the 2017 Super Bowl. As we watch the red-hot Giulia sports sedan fly along a mountain road, we hear a sassy female voice: "Dear Predictable, There's no other way to say this: It's over."

The same could be said of the luxury car market in general – the fastest growing segment of the industry. The future is here. Everything about transportation is changing, from how we drive to what cars are made of, which makes predictable luxury seem just so yesterday.

This article appeared in the October 2017 issue with the headline, "Shifting Gears," p. 63.