As a female automotive reviewer, I'm an oddity among my professional peers, the vast majority of whom are men. And though it may seem strange to a few antiquated minds that a woman would actually like cars, I have learned over the years that I am far from alone. To the Luddites, I say welcome to the 21st century, where many women love the give of the gas pedal beneath their foot, the feel of the leather-wrapped steering wheel in their hands, and the infinite promise of the open road. We thrill to a car's design. We even relish the sound of a deep, throaty, resonant exhaust note.
Sports-car makers know this. But that doesn't mean they're willing to cater expressly to women speedsters. They've adopted a slightly subtler approach. Consider Ferrari's new two-seat convertible, the California (ferrariusa.com). It's muscular without being muscle-bound, seductively curvy but not raunchy, a touch mean looking but short of menacing. It rockets from 0 to 100kph in a skin-tightening 3.7 seconds thanks to its V-8, 510hp engine. If Malibu Barbie bought a new car, it'd be the California. But tell that to Ferrari execs and they go nuts. It's not that Ferrari doesn't want to sell cars to women; of course it does. It's just that labeling any sports car a "chick ride" completely contradicts its raison d'être.
I should be insulted, but I get it. "Sports cars are rough analogs to masculinity and virility," says Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize–winning automotive writer for the Los Angeles Times. "The whole point of a sports car is that it's overcompensating for the male equipment. So since the California is less masculine—meaning it's softer and prettier than other Ferraris—then the Ferrari folks have to consider that more women will spark to it."
Hard data shows that men and women are not so far apart in their car-coveting habits after all. Ed Kim, of the Los Angeles–based automotive-industry consulting group Auto Pacific, says that 41 percent of women who will buy a car this year will consider buying a sports or luxury car, versus 47 percent of men. To that end, Ferrari's Matteo Sardi acknowledges the California's feminine side: "Ferraris in general are still very much a male purchase, but the California, because of its easier ride and its gentler looks, may appeal more to women."
Naturally, I loved it, though it really has a different feel from other Ferraris I've tested. I took the California on a twisty thread of a mountain road near my house in the Hollywood Hills and let 'er rip. Thanks to this sweet coupe's softer ride, going over potholes and bumps didn't inadvertently restyle my hair. Its steering was also gentler and less exact, less go-karty than other Ferraris, which meant I didn't need extra trips to the gym to turn the wheel. Stereotypical, sure. But the California is every bit the hardcore sports car; Ferrari somehow managed to soften the feel of the suspension and steering electronically without compromising the mechanics. It is precision driving at a very high level. And so it should be for its formidable $197,350 price. Ferrari expects to make about 1,200 for the worldwide market this year.
Meanwhile, Maserati (maseratiusa.com), Ferrari's sister, er, sibling company, is proud to have women love its cars. On HBO's lively series Entourage, the fast-talking Hollywood agent Ari Gold bought his wife a white Maserati Quattroporte as an apology gift in one episode this year. "She's empowered, she's sporty, she's sexy," says Maserati's Jeff Ehoodin. "It's all the things that make women great. And she looks amazing in that car." Sure enough, women who live in fashionable car-centric regions like Los Angeles, Monte Carlo, and Sardinia are more likely to employ cars as a stylish accessory—no different from a distinctive handbag or piece of jewelry.
Maserati's Quattroporte four-seat sedan is sleek, fetching, and even practical ($124,150), with a huge trunk and room for the family. The two-seater Gran Turismo ($121,000) is even sexier, with long, swooping lines. No back seats means no Goldfish crackers stuck between them. Like I said: sexier. (If men are drawn to sports cars to compensate for whatever they might be lacking, maybe women like them as a reprieve from all they've got.) Both were created by the famed Italian firm Pininfarina. As I see it, carmakers are fortunate to have women covet their sports cars. Masculinity always seems more appealing when it's tempered by the feminine side.