Jaguar is the latest car manufacturer to join the rush for female customers, and the first to try to sell them a car synonymous with speed and power. Their strategy? To add door handles that won't break your nails.
it's accepted wisdom in advertising-land that most ads are aimed at women. "The consumer is not an idiot - she is your wife," ad-mogul David Ogilvy memorably observed, back in the Fifties. Car ads, however, are supposed to be one of the exceptions to the rule (the other is insurance).

Today's car manufacturers, however, have woken up to the fact that women also drive, that some of them have money, and that even those who don't know their clutch from their automatic choke often have a say in what their partner buys - RAC figures show that women buy half of all new and used cars, and have a deciding influence on 80 per cent of car sales overall.

The latest to join the rush for female customers is Jaguar, whose newest model, the XK8, was launched at the prestigious Geneva Motor Show this month. Marketing services manager Amanda Chick, in charge of the worldwide launch, hastens to emphasise that the XK8 is not only for women. "But we have taken into account a female point of view. In its design and styling it has little features a man might not even notice - the door handles are designed so you won't break your nails when you open the door, and there's a cover for the handbrake so that skirts don't get all tangled up in it."

She believes that where Jaguar lead, others will follow. "It's very important for luxury car manufacturers to recognise that there are more and more female executives who want to drive our kind of cars," she says. "I myself like to drive a beautiful, reliable, powerful car. Not all women want a small nippy car. And while the XK8 is very much a driver's car, it's very easy to handle."

The Jaguar campaign will be a grown-up addition to the current spate of jolly ads bent on persuading women that what they need is a zippy little runaround. Among them are the campaigns for the Renault Clio (Nicole and her papa are shifting them in thousands); the Vauxhall Corsa (Ruby Wax and a bevy of good-looking men); the Ford Fiesta (pastel-co-ordinated suburban zombies all putter off to work together in their matching cars - except for Fiesta woman, who daringly takes a different turning); the Peugeot 106 (two women driving across the American desert; shades of Thelma and Louise, but without all the unpleasantness); and the Nissan Micra (slogan "Ask Before You Borrow It" - a furious woman chucks her stuntman boyfriend through a closed window, not for playing fast and loose but for driving her Micra without permission. Another in the series shows a nubile lad in jeans clutching his crotch in pain, after retribution for a similar crime.)

Philip Holliday is group account director at TBWA, Nissan's ad agency. "In our research we found that women have a great sense of liberation and independence," he says. "It's not that their car provides it, but that the car is a manifestation of their ability to do what they want. This is why they are so possessive."

He also believes women are coming into their own as car buyers. "Certainly within the small car sectors most of the major manufacturers recognise that women are their major target. But in the large car market too, when a car is bought, often it's a joint decision, so ads aren't talking blokey things about cars any more. We're all very mindful of that."

Penny Sparke, course director of the history of design at the Royal College of Arts and author of As Long As It's Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste (Pandora, pounds 9.99), has seen the new Jaguar. "It's very curvaceous, on a superficial level - much more obviously organic and sexy. The stereotypical female car is a little runaround with pink graphics on the side, but one is told that women are buying more Mercedes, Jaguars, BMWs.

"I would compare it with dress - the self-identity of women is so in flux, so variegated, they can wear a trouser-suit one day, a frilly dress the next. Men don't have the same variety available to them. For instance, those little jeeps are driven by women - men would feel emasculated." Would she be tempted by the XK8? "With three small children, my requirements are purely practical."

Greg Myers, lecturer in Culture and Communication at Lancaster University, suggests that cars have been treated as a fashion accessory before. "I have an ad in front of me from the Ladies Home Journal, an American magazine, from 1927. It reads `Motor Cars that Match Milady's Mode - Yes, Her Every Mood!' and the picture shows a woman with different cars to match her outfit. And in ads from the 1950s, women are often shown as the drivers of large family cars, ferrying the kids around - though that is presented as a chore, not fun. Today's ads stress the fun aspect of driving, they use images like romance and style - and they always show women doing the driving."

Not all his first-year students, however, were impressed. Lots of them have the Nissan "Ask Before You Borrow It" ad pinned to their fridge doors, but "It's a bit patriarchal trying to sell a woman a small car and a man a big car," observes one (male).

And while car manufacturers are trying to woo women, it seems that once the money has been spent, female drivers need not expect much after-sales support. New research published this week by the RAC shows that women are more likely to be overcharged by garages. "Many men know less about cars than some women, but women are seen as easier to intimidate," explained Shelley Maxwell, RAC spokeswoman. "Garages tend to give women less information about repairs than men, and go ahead with repairs without explaining them. Women are being landed with huge bills for repairs they may not have authorised."

She cites the case of one female motorist who was told by her garage that the sweet smell in her car was probably because she'd spilt some perfume - it was later found that her heater unit was leaking engine coolant into the car.

There are currently five women learning to drive for every three men; in eight years time, the number of male and female drivers will be equal.

"Women are becoming the driving majority," says Shelley Maxwell of the RAC. "Manufacturers who fail to come to terms with the power of women motorists do so at their peril."