Hester Lacey on an appliance with attitude. Do you get on with yours?
VACUUM cleaners have character. It's impossible not to form a close bond with your cranky old upright, choking its way unsteadily across the living- room carpet, wheezily ignoring the dirt. But many find the relationship is tempestuous.

"Mine is a vicious little bugger - completely malevolent. The gentlest tug on its cord and it deliberately turns turtle or throws itself down the stairs," complained one victim of a particularly malicious machine. "It hates me so much that it spits greatglobs of fluff at me every time I change its bag and it's always tripping me up."

"My stairs haven't been cleaned for at least three years, because all the nozzles and attachments and brushes are tangled up in a box and I just can't be bothered to dig them out. And anyway, once you get them all jammed together, the suction is so feeble it won't pick up," sighed another. "I used it to suck up plaster dust when I was decorating, and it vomited the lot on to the living room carpet."

"I particularly hate that agonising hunch-backed shuffle I have to do when I'm using the hose," added a third.

Apparently exploding dust-bags, hoses that don't reach and cleaners that refuse to digest lumps should be a thing of the past for the discerning consumer (or the one who is prepared to fork out hard cash). The modest dust-sucker is giving way to smarter,sleeker, more powerful models - the newest cleaners double as trendy style icons.

The hi-tech grey and yellow Dyson Cyclone is on display in the Design Museum and the Science Museum, and is the only domestic appliance in the Victoria and Albert Museum's new 20th Century Gallery. Designer James Dyson hopes that it will go down in history as a classic like the Aga or the Dualit toaster. "The consumer is first struck by the fact that it looks different - people are subliminally aware that what they're buying is the business because it looks right," he says. "And it has the first new technology since they were invented - it doesn't have a bag . With a bag, after one room you lose 50 per cent of power and after five you've lost two-thirds. It's like buying a car and driving it at 10 miles an hour. We're now Britai n's best-selling vacuum- we've overtaken Hoover."

Hoover are unimpressed. "Well, our Alpina model was in DesignWeek magazine," retorted the Hoover PR lady. "It looks like a hi-tech bobsleigh. Or a Porsche." DesignWeek praised the Alpina's "chubby low-slung snout and streamlined bullet-shaped body", not to mention the rubber bumper that "could be mistaken for a go-faster stripe".

The humble vacuum has in fact been an object of desire before. Hiring Hubert Cecil Booth's patented cleaner in 1901 was guaranteed to throw the neighbours into a frenzy of awe and jealousy; it arrived on a horse-drawn cart, which remained in the street while 800- foot hoses sucked out the dirt. The first upright model, made from an electric motor, a broomstick and an old pillow case by an Ohio inventor, was picked up by a former harness manufacturer called Hoover. The first Hoovers appeared on the British market in 1919. They had great social cachet - it was considered frightfully up-to-the-minute to buy one for the maid, and at £25 they cost much the same as the maid's annual salary.

Today's models have a ferociously businesslike air. Even the natty little Alpina (from £139.99) has a mighty suction rate, while its cousin the Hoover Turbopower 3 (from £199.99) looks like an extra from Alien, with all its black innards on display. Skirts fly up alarmingly as the Cyclone (from £199.95) whooshes powerfully into action with a rumbling growl.

All three machines made short and vicious work of a test mulch concocted from the contents of the bin. The Cyclone extracted a frightening amount of grit and fluff from the frantically undulating carpet into its transparent dust drum before even reachingthe test area.

Using any of them after a clapped-out old upright is very like driving a Ferrari after pottering along in a Robin Reliant. Look out for pets and small children, which might disappear inside forever.

It's depressing seeing just how much grime can be extracted from carpets, curtains and upholstery that were supposed to be (reasonably) clean. The truly houseproud will adore their state-of-the-art machines; but for the rest of us, if our homes are embarrassingly filthy, do we really want to know?