Motoring: You'll be so glad you used good judgement

It's a good time to buy a used car, but take care what you get, and where
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Indy Lifestyle Online
COULD THIS year be the one when used-car buyers can say with certainty that they have picked up a genuine bargain deal? Let's gaze into Arthur Daley's pre-owned crystal ball for some answers. But before we do that, let's look back at what happened in 1998, because clearly that will influence what happens in the coming months.

Last year was a traumatic one for the used-car business. Sales were down, used-car values dropped and a chronic oversupply of models didn't help either. Wavering consumer confidence was another important factor as buyers became cautious, fearing a worldwide recession. Obviously, bad news for the motor trade is fantastic news for consumers. So will the turmoil continue? Which cars should and shouldn't you buy? When should you buy?

The first thing that becomes clear is that there are still too many cars on sale and not enough customers. Just take a look at the classified section of your local paper: dealers big and small are cutting prices and offering incentives on a scale not seen since 1991.

However, anyone who pays the price on the windscreen would be mad. Getting a sizeable discount is all about confidence and with dealers desperate to clear depreciating stock they ought to listen carefully to your offer. But where will all these cars be?

Plenty could be at your local used-car dealer, but the biggest glut of ex-rental and fleet cars (those bought at a sizeable discount by large companies and fleet operators who run cars for less than a year) will be at huge car-supermarket sites.

Generally their pricing is very competitive, but it pays to shop around and although there may be dozens of models at the same price, each will be different. One thing is for certain, the large numbers of nearly- new cars won't go away in 1999, especially as manufacturers choose to pre-register cars to boost sales figures.

You might think your local franchised dealer is the place to find otherwise brand-new, but registered cars on sale. Compared to the supermarkets, though, they may be pricey and anyway, many dealers would rather you bought a new car.

Manufacturers have been piling on the incentives to buy. For instance, Ford offers a range of easy finance packages on its Ka. Also, Renault managed to launch the new Clio last year for pounds 1,000 less than the old model.

Probably the most interesting thing which will happen in 1999 is the introduction of twice-yearly registration plate change in March and August.

The industry view is that it will mean that no premium will be attached to the later letter. So a '99 on a T and a '99 on a V will be judged on condition as the registration letter becomes less important. It seems that the same automotive almanac will operate, so that used cars will be cheaper in winter months, firm up in price with spring, dip slightly in summer and tail off in the autumn. Whatever time of the depressed year you go looking, used cars are definitely out there, but which ones should you buy?

First of all, here is a group of cars to be wary of - so-called "grey", or unofficial imports from Japan. There was a surge of interest and more than 100,000 came to the UK last year. Not surprising, considering what good value they represented.

This year is likely to be the time when those bored with their "greys" try to sell. With insurers charging higher premiums for these specialist cars, some spare parts proving difficult to get, and official dealers reluctant to service them, a hastily bought "grey" could become a liability.

The off-road market has been in the doldrums for the last year, and the biggest and brashest examples of the breed, like Range Rovers, Ford Explorers and Toyota Landcruisers, are suffering. Demand is low and so are prices, so it's a great time to buy.

Big cars will continue to be penalised with rising fuel prices and taxes. In particular, Jaguar XJ saloons are very cheap and good value, but choose a 3.2, rather than a 4.0 litre. When it comes to mainstream models, Ford Mondeos and Escorts, Vauxhall Vectras and Astras, will never be cheaper, as leasing companies reorganise their fleets. Everyone wants a supermini and nearly new Fiat Puntos and Peugeot 106s are thick on the forecourts.