As pressure grows for EU-enforced price cuts, superstores may increase their interest in the motor market.
IF YOU want to buy a new or used car, the last thing you should be doing is shopping at the conventional dealer showrooms. Britain's car- buying landscape is changing rapidly and it is no big secret that the cheapest cars aren't necessarily to be found on these shores.

Consumers are turning to the Internet, supermarkets (of the grocer variety), and grey importers and dealers in Europe for their next car. So the June issue of What Car? came with a free supplement on buying a car abroad. Top Gear issued a pocket-sized booklet, The Definitive Guide to Importing a Cheaper Car, and Auto Express has another guide on the subject.

In theory, cars are cheaper to buy abroad - not that some manufacturers make it easy. European Commission inspectors recently raided Renault's Paris headquarters, the offices of its Irish importers and several dealers, after British buyers were barred from purchasing in the Irish Republic.

Last year, Volkswagen was fined pounds 67m for banning Italian dealers from selling cheaper models to German and Austrian customers. And the EU is investigating DaimlerChrysler for allegedly preventing its dealers in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Spain from selling Mercedes to non-residents.

Bizarrely, Volkswagen also banned dealers selling through the Internet. Although VW claims not to be against competition, or comparison selling, its chiefs feel dealers should not spend money on a site when the company has its own.

Here, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report on new car prices is due by year-end, and the Consumer's Association wants an investigation, pressuring for an EU probe of uncompetitive practices.

Now Tesco has entered one of the fastest-growing sectors: scooters. Last year more than 22,500 of theses 50cc machines were sold in the UK and that figure is expected to double in 1999.

Their appeal is that car-licence holders can switch to two wheels without a test. John Gildversleeve, commercial director at Tesco, says: "Scooters have a reputation as a fun and low-cost transport. Even so, many customers feel they arecharged too much. We are determined to bring prices down in a range of products by challenging existing distribution networks."

Its package is an attractive one. The price of pounds 1,200 for Tesco's "Fun 50" scooter includes free home delivery, a year's road tax, one month's insurance plus a litre of oil and lots of money-off vouchers for accessories and clothes.

Some observers believe if Tesco's marketing strategy proves a winner, the company will soon be selling cars. But last week Tesco stopped selling scooters, a spokesman describing the sales as "just a trial". He said Tesco may re-enter this market, although industry sources said pressure from the scooter's official importer led to Tesco's decision.

The grey import market from Japan is fascinating, too: it is easy to see why buyers want exotic, otherwise unobtainable models at low prices. And though there isn't enough room here for a blow-by-blow account of how to buy abroad, there is more than enough information available on newsagent shelves; more significantly, there is plenty of free information, too.

How to Permanently Import Your Vehicle in Great Britain is published by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions and available free from your local Vehicle Registration Office (which you'll find in the phone book). It contains good basic information presented in a clear manner. Also, in May and November the EC publishes a comparison of car prices across the European Union, so that buyers can quickly compare the figures.

If you don't want any hassle there are brokers who will do all the paperwork for you. In theory, buying abroad is simple. In practice, comparing specifications between those cars sold in the UK and what can be ordered in Europe can be difficult.

Not all brokers are competent and you may still have to travel to Europe to collect the car. And you'll need to do your sums to allow for telephone calls, travel and currency exchange charges.

But why bother buying a new car, even if it is cheaper, when there are so many nearly-new examples available at huge discounts in the UK? The depreciation is already accounted for and specification is certain, with the savings shrink on a European car equipped to UK standard and the cost of an R or S plate model some 50 to 60 per cent of the on-the-road price. There are lots of alternative ways to buy a car, but sometimes the tried and traditional methods still work. So why not shop around?

DETR website http://www.roads. For a comparison of European car prices, call 0171-973 1992, Tesco Customer Information: 0800 028 3726