Women love driving, but they are not in love with cars - and the AA says they only like red Ford Fiestas

Penny Jackson sets out to buy a new car

A survey by the AA two years ago showed that the most popular car with women was the Ford Fiesta, closely followed by the Escort. Their favourite colour was red; the average engine size 1400cc. And this red Fiesta was probably about six years old and had been bought secondhand.

Given that there are 12 million women drivers in the country - some 40 per cent of the motoring population - and that new car sales are in the doldrums, perhaps women should be out there now using their clout, even if they do not know their bhps from their rpms. The AA's survey, Women and Cars, showed that only 52 per cent had their own name on the registration document, compared to 84 per cent of men.

However, all was quiet in the showrooms of south London last week. Certainly there was no sign of any women customers eager to clinch a good deal for an N-reg. My first port of call was Ford, leading member of the UK's big three of Ford, Vauxhall and Rover.

I arrived with my L-reg Renault 19, dusty and filled with the usual junk, prepared to offer it in part-exchange for a Mondeo. "Are you buying it for yourself?" asked the salesman, who was nothing like the young spiv I had assumed inhabited these places. He obviously thought I looked old enough to have a driving teenager in the family. I put him straight and we got down to the business of airbags, power steering, boot space and (of course) colour.

Then, prices. The right car for me, we decided, was the 1.8LX at pounds 12,825, but an even better buy and pounds 600 cheaper was the limited edition Verona. I would get about pounds 6,000 for my Renault. I went off quite happily to consider my position. Maybe the other two in the trio would be guilty of employing the kind of sales methods that seem to get up the noses of some women.

On a hot day, I spent hours hopping in and out of cars, checking the power steering, admiring the boot space, the fascias and the electric windows until they all became a bit of a blur. We discussed discounts, and then part-exchange, and then other financing methods until I felt equipped to start a fleet. But no one offended me in the slightest.

Perhaps there was a hint of concern at Rover that I might be becoming confused (which was true) and that if I was spending my own money a "nearly new" in the 600 range with all the bits and bobs would be better value than the pounds 16,295 for a new 620Si. According to my salesman, Rover is fashionable at present. It feels itself to be a cut above its rivals - BMW kept cropping up in the conversation.

At Vauxhall, on the other hand, it was the deal that counted. A new Cavalier will be out in the autumn, so my best bet would be the Classic 5-door at pounds 12,460 on the road, I was told. If I buy before the end of August, in its 50/50 deal, I pay half now and the rest in two years. But they are going like hot cakes, I was warned. What a bargain, I thought, as I left. I even forgot to mention my Renault.

I had had enough of window shopping by now. It was time for a different kind of car company. That will be the Daewoo (as they say in the advertisements). You know, the one no one pronounces properly (it is "day-oo") and that does not pay commission to its sales staff.

I was too far from a Daewoo car centre, but tracked down one of its 136 support centres at a Halfords servicing superstore.

In the car park, I fiddled with every gadget available before setting off on a hot afternoon. I nearly bought the car then and there; it has air-conditioning as standard and, for the first time in two months, it was a joy to be driving. I wished I could have slept in it. My five-year- old son did, while the salesman gave me the lowdown. And I also knew there were no exhausting deals to be cut. That was a breath of fresh air in itself.

Daewoo never gives discounts. The pounds 11,295 for the Espero 1.8CDi with a three-year warranty was non-negotiable. The company would buy my Renault for the going price and sell it at auction. It was given a thorough once-over and I was telephoned a day later with the price. It was pounds 5,995 - the best firm offer so far.

As I was ruminating on this new object of my affections, I drove past a Mercedes showroom. It was about time I was upwardly mobile. I tried to look less heat-damaged and asked to look at the C-Class, starting price pounds 18,300.

I knew I was in a different league and began to lose interest in how many children's bikes I could fit in the boot; instead, I started to fantasise about owning a Mercedes sports. Unfortunately, I was only offered pounds 5,500 for my own car.

And the salesman? As I was going in, I wondered how he was going to perform at the de luxe end of the market.

Actually, "he" turned out to be a woman. I suppose it serves me right.

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