It may be Corsa, but is it any better?: Vauxhall has spent millions dressing up its new car. Jonathan Glancey unstitches the campaign

GENERAL MOTORS missed a trick or two when it failed to name its latest 'super model' the Vauxhall Evangelista. This sounds a lot better than Corsa - rather an unfortunate name for a car trying to be that bit more refined than its rivals. It is also the name of a real-life supermodel, Linda Evangelista, one of the Amazons who has dominated the catwalks of the fashion world for the best part of a decade. She stars, along with fellow 'supermodels' Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Kate Moss, in an operatic television advertising campaign for the car.

Given the amount that Vauxhall, the Luton subsidiary of the American car giant, has spent on the campaign for the Corsa, it will need to sell huge numbers of a machine that - aside from a chic cabin - is little different from others in its class. Vauxhall and its advertising agency will not tell, but the 80-second commercial, in which a red Corsa proves to be more attractive to men than the couture-clad models, cost about pounds 3m to make.

Each of the girls is said to have been paid about dollars 250,000 a day for appearing in this televisual extravaganza and the director, the singularly named Tarsem (celebrated in the media world for his sophisticated Swimmer television ad for Levi jeans and his Losing Religion promo-video for REM) has been paid more for 80 seconds than most British film producers earn for 80 minutes. Again, neither Vauxhall nor its ad agency, Lowe Howard-Spink, is saying. Alongside the TV ad, Lowe Howard-Spink has produced giant ads for roadside hoardings and glossy pull-out ads in women's and motoring magazines.

The car itself is competent, although the motoring press has carped about its allegedly jiggly suspension. Like all small cars bought by individuals, the Corsa and its over-the-top advertising campaign is aimed at women. Of Britain's 12.2 million women drivers (41 per cent of all licence holders), 66 per cent own their own car. A further 1 million women are learning to drive; in the depressed automotive world, women drivers are as in vogue as Kate Moss.

Renault has been selling its likeable Renault 5 replacement, the Clio, to women in television adverts that marry the world of Mills & Boon with that of Manon des Sources; it is the old romantic sell. Rover has employed the odd combination of Joan Collins and Jonathan Ross to push its perky Metro: Joan says nothing as she blasts the Metro around parched mountain roads, but we learn that secretly she finds a drive in this overblown bubble-car more glamorous than her role in Dynasty. Convincing stuff, huh?

In the Vauxhall supermodel ad, filmed lavishly at Shepperton studios on a budget that film-makers can only drool over, we are blasted into believing that men of all sorts are more likely to want a baby Vauxhall than a beautiful woman. Dressed in scraps of immodest couture leather, Naomi Campbell destroys a wimp whose eyes steal past her dominatrix strut to gaze lovingly on the lines of a cherry red Corsa stealing past in the distance. Now, an E-Type one might understand, but an entry-level car from Luton is another matter.

One virtue of Tarsem's film is that, if daft, it is impressive to look at; impressive, that is, in the way that Tim Burton's Batman Returns was; and it is from that film that the Corsa ad draws its imagery and atmosphere. Another is that the ad is touchingly irreverent. Here is a bevy of Amazonian beauties prepared to be upstaged by a mass- produced blob of a car.

The down side is the fact that the ad sells cars through a crude display of female sexuality and that the supermodels just cannot act. Even more important, however, is the fact that although aimed at women, the ad is misogynistic; it offers a trade-off between the charms of Christy Turlington and a Vauxhall Corsa, and the car wins. But then the advertising of cars to women is hardly an art form; in fact, it has yet to become a basic skill. Nevertheless, the Vauxhall campaign - noticeably the roadside hoardings - does appear to understand what most women might expect of a car: safety, room, reliability and 'greenness' (rather than what men seem to want: performance, more performance and loads of gadgets).

Women have a long history of playing a passive role in car advertising; they have simpered in pencil-skirts as their husbands fondled keys of the latest Austin Westminster. Women were occasionally shown driving soft-focus sports cars such as the Triumph Spitfire and Sunbeam Alpine, but only men - ventilated driving gloves, Kangol caps and rakish moustaches - could cope with the brute performance of a full-blooded Austin Healey; in later ads, beefy sports cars were clearly for men with hairy chests, medallions, a well-practised leer and keys to a time-share apartment in Marbella.

The most absurd among recent ads for men is one that celebrates the love affair between a man with a sun-tan and deep voice not for a human being but for a steroid-popping, 150bhp Ford Escort XR3i (the stuff of joy-

riders' dreams). Men, according to the Home Office, are 13 times more likely than women to commit a serious motoring offence; they cause 98 per cent of deaths resulting from dangerous driving, are charged with 95 per cent of drunk-driving cases; of the 2 million motoring offences passing through British courts last year, only 7 per cent were committed by women.

In reality, there is no such thing as a car for men and a car for women; true, more women than men are likely to drive a Renault 5 with power-steering and automatic transmission, and more men are likely to drive tricky and powerful sports cars; equally, however, more American women than men buy big, powerful Jaguar saloons.

Where next? The androgynous advert, relying neither on the Amazonian aggression of the supermodel ad, nor the romantic slop of the Renault Clio campaign? Do such campaigns exist? Yes, they do: the Nissan Micra, for example, among the best of the new generation of town cars, is being sold successfully and without pretension in a cartoon campaign representing the little Japanese car as a bubble on wheels.

Equally, but less interestingly, ads for Volvo estate cars play on the car's role as a safe-as-houses family hack (driven by mum or dad), while those for Skoda Favorits - which sell pretty much on price alone - emphasise its capacity to transport family plus the week's shopping.

The dotty thing about the Corsa commercial is that, at the end, you realise the women have hardly given the car a second glance; only the men have been fascinated. But, however silly, car ads have still come a long way from those of the Sixties and Seventies when women and cars were seen as interchangeable: 'Take me to your husband,' says an ad for 'The unbeatable 108mph BMW 2000'; and 'What if he does fall in love? It's better than having him fall for another woman.'