It's a wonder women bother to drive. Draped over cars to flog them to men and mocked for their skills behind the wheel, it's never been an easy ride. Men are still deeply critical of a woman's driving ability. According to a new survey carried out by Duckhams Oils, 21 per cent of women feel less confident with a male passenger in the car and 50 per cent feel men should be less judgmental about their driving. Personally, I'd rather stick pins in my eyes than allow my boyfriend space in the passenger seat. The last time we got into a car, I'd barely reached the end of the road before he started shrieking "STOP, STOP!" and curling up into that telltale foetal position as soon as I touched the accelerator. All I'd done was turn right at a busy junction. His excuse is that he doesn't feel safe when I'm driving despite the fact I've never crashed - and he has.
We know women are more sensible drivers, that they are involved in less drink-and-drive accidents and that they drive far less recklessly. Even so, women drivers are viewed as a joke. Women parking? Snigger. Fixing a flat tyre? You can't be serious.
Yet they are now fierce car consumers, buying 42 per cent of the 2.2m cars sold. Last week, the new registration plates were launched, which will see a boom in car sales. According to Mercedes-Benz, women have shown particular interest in its convertibles - 45 per cent of its range is bought by women - an 11 per cent increase on last year. There's also a big female market for the Mazda MX-5. BMW says more than one-third of its Z3 convertible buyers are women - 10 per cent higher than its other models. Women are also snapping up Volkswagen's new object of desire, the remodelled Beetle. According to VW's PR manager, Wayne Bruce, "If you're in a VW Beetle, it's amazing how many women ask questions about it. I assume they love the design; it's curvy, cute, non-threatening." It's also got a flowerholder - a retro touch from the original Beetle. "I don't want to sound patronising, though," adds Bruce. "It's as appealing to men - Arnie Schwarzenegger has bought one!"
Women and cars are a rapid growth market; in 1997, they bought 750,000 new cars compared with 660,000 10 years ago. Car salesmen have picked up on this - one I spoke to admitted women were more informed than men. "Men see cars like train sets and want to talk about gadgets. Women want a car for a particular purpose and are more decisive."
If only the magazine publishers were so enlightened. Worse than the old jokes are the latest attempts at women's car magazines. The two women- only car magazines currently in the shops make driving a car seem as sexy as unblocking the kitchen sink.
One, Ignition, reads like a bizarre hybrid of What Car? and Good Housekeeping. Its summer issue free gift? Marigold gloves. There's a spread on baby seats and a beauty page, featuring "Cosmetic essentials for your glovebox" (sample quote: "For eyes that stop traffic, forget struggling with eyelash curlers"). And now there's the first issue of Your Car, a joint product of Prima and What Car? In a celebrity interview with Ulrika, she talks about how "frightening" it is to drive at 100mph on the motorway.
Maybe these mags would have more success with men, marketed as Viz meets Loaded in Halfords. Just take the feature in this issue of Ignition, which goes, "Breasts. A women's best friend, perhaps, but a damned nuisance when it comes to strapping yourself into your car. Although if the worst comes to the worst, those DD cups will act as nature's airbags." Jeremy Clarkson couldn't have put it better himself.