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Motoring: How to get the best deals on wheels

With the launch of the S-plate today, John Blauth opens this two- page report with a guide on how to buy a new car
It is curious to the onlooker, but of enormous delight for the professional car seller, that most car buyers discard logic, reason and coherent thought when they enter a car showroom and are faced with shiny, sexy metal and a smooth-talking salesman.

But within months of purchasing a new car the love affair is over and, as with so many impulse decisions, it could all have been so different. Pre-purchase planning is vital and the ideal process for buying a new car comprises three distinct phases.

Firstly, whatever the advertisements and enthusiastic motoring journalists say, cars are fundamentally nothing more than a means of transport. Forget looks and speed. Who needs transporting, what comes with them and where will they need to go, are the most vital questions to ask. From these you arrive quickly at the appropriate type of car: hatchback or saloon, estate or MPV (multi-purpose vehicle or "people carrier") or sports car.

Then there are the practical and financial implications of the new car. With the average driver lobbing out at least pounds 1,000 per year from taxed income in motoring taxes - and that figure looks set to rise annually by about three times the current level of inflation - you must consider the running cost of any car you buy. Big engines need more petrol; liquified petroleum gas (LPG) and natural gas conversions require a large investment which needs to be covered by lower fuel costs over the life of the car.

Cars that are undesirable or quirky cost a fortune in depreciation. Cars that are insufficiently protected against theft and which cost a lot to fix after accidents, have higher insurance premiums than cars which have the latest anti-theft devices and have been engineered for low-cost repairs.

Always ask the salesman if he knows the cost per mile of the car he's trying to sell you; if he doesn't, the motoring organisations will. Five pence per mile difference between two cars will cost you pounds 500 per year over 10,000 miles. The cheapest car to run in Britain is the Perodua Nippa, a Daihatsu Cuore built in Malaysia. It costs 13.1p per mile to run; in complete contrast the most expensive is the S600 Mercedes at 123.9p per miles to run.

The final part of the planning process is deciding where to get your new car.

New car dealers are tied by the franchise agreement they have with the importer or manufacturer as to how much leeway there is in their prices. If the margin is between 6% and 8% - as it is for most models - then forget any discount.

However, when times are tough manufacturers give dealers big bonuses to shift the cars and that's when discounts become much easier to obtain. Finding a good deal is simple: get nationwide list of dealers for the car you want and telephone them all to find the best price - then go back to your nearest dealer and start negotiating.

Going to a broker is another option, but it can be a path fraught with dangers, the biggest being the grey import. A car that is legal in Japan or the USA may have been built to different standards than those required by Britain. Vital components including brakes, seat belts and lights as well as transmission ratios, thickness of glass and emissions are likely to be of a different standard to that required in Europe and that could be highly dodgy, not least when you try to sell the car later.

A reputable broker will obtain a car with UK specification for you, often for a very good price and merely charge you a commission. But why be idle? If he can get a discount, surely you can too.

There are no bargains in the new car market. If one car is significantly cheaper than another identical one, there is a reason for the discrepancy and it is unlikely to be you who benefits. The new car market in Europe is the most regulated and competitive in the world. Pre-purchase planning is the only way you can hope to survive. And don't forget: the salesman is not your fairy godmother and he does not really like you, he just wants you to buy a car.