Women are fueling the red-hot auto industry, long dominated by men. They influence more than 80 percent of automotive purchases and drive more than 50 percent of autos sold annually in the United States. Since 2012, women held more driver's licenses than men did.

Now more than ever, women hold great sway over the auto industry, from the features in how cars are designed to the other end of the car-buying spectrum at the dealer relationship.

The recognition of woman as driver of the auto industry instead of mere accessory is a long way from the '50s when Dodge patronized women with a car called "La Femme." Promotional materials called it "the first and only car designed for Your Majesty, the modern American woman."

Recent research highlights how much female drivers have changed.

Women are prudent shoppers, according to a recent study by Jumpstart Automotive, a division of Hearst Magazines focused on shopping trends. The study included one-on-one interviews plus 1,014 respondents online.

"Women want more practical features," said Libby Murad-Patel, Jumpstart analyst. "Few [female car buyers] just want a change in style or performance. They trade because of vehicle age, mileage, and having children or growing out of children. They're looking to get through a life stage with the current vehicle."

Jumpstart's study also found women are more willing to switch from new to less expensive pre-owned vehicles, and they place value on comfort, seating, and safety.

"Women focused on a specific budget; men were more interested in style and performance," Patel said. "Women place greater emphasis on purchase price and monthly payment, whereas men look at cost of ownership as a bigger factor."

And while men like to show off their engines, women have different priorities.

"We want safety, we want performance, we want confident power," said Brandy Schaffels, editor of AskPatty.com, which provides automotive advice to women. "It's not the size of the engine but how you use it. We're not likely to sacrifice fuel economy to boast about horsepower. We want comfort. Women also love technology like Lane Keep Assist and accident mitigation; they get distracted by what's happening in the backseat. Anything that makes us better drivers is a plus."

Women are more likely to value unbiased opinions, relying more on independent research and reviews. They do their homework online and are more likely than men to consult Consumer Reports.

Auto dealerships are taking notice.

"To think women aren't involved, salespeople are fooling themselves," said Gabe Greene, general manager of Ed Martin Acura in Indianapolis. "We try not to focus on gender, but rather [on] saving the customer time and providing value. We have a play area for kids and a business center shut off from noise. Recognizing mothers are busy, we have free service loaner cars and extended hours for sales and service."

Want to know what really peeves a female buyer?

"Salespeople who won't speak to her or speak only to the man," Schaffels said. "Don't talk down to her; don't assume she doesn't know. Women are naturally more inquisitive. Dealerships must be ready to answer questions, willing to listen, or she will shut down communication. Don't give us a know-it-all attitude."