It's that time of the year - 1 September - when the registration plate shifts up a digit. So is 56 your lucky number? It could be. In theory, it has never been easier to get a new car for less - rising petrol prices and worries about higher interest rates have dented new car registrations. In July new registrations fell by 4.1 per cent compared with 2005, and 3.6 per cent in June. As a result, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has slashed its forecast for 2006 sales by 20,000.
Not surprisingly manufacturers want to get us into their showrooms and are offering various incentives. There are also dozens of UK-based brokers who can save you the hassle of negotiating with a dealer. And, if you are prepared to consider a car that has been previously registered with, say, an 06 plate, you can potentially save even more.
Traditionally manufacturers introduce revised models with new specifications towards the end of the year that they can show off at the motor shows. So you need to know what is being replaced and when (pay attention to our Last Chance to Buy). In September, though, dealers are relying on you wanting the latest registration above all else. So don't worry about getting delivery then. Wait a few months when the market goes quiet just before Christmas and buy yourself a real bargain.
BUYING NEARLY NEW
Depreciation immediately eats into the value of your car. But a vehicle that has been used for less than a year will still have the balance of the manufacturer's warranty and could have anything from delivery mileage to 10,000 on the clock. Although there are plenty of these cars at car supermarkets, you may also find them at a dealer.
September isn't all about new cars. Even with falling sales, the car trade is overrun with cars, auction halls are full and the classified ads are packed with private sellers. In theory you will be spoilt for choice, so you should be able to pay less. So be fussy and bargain hard.
Don't start negotiating early on, and avoid getting involved in financing issues. All you want to do is drive and find out as much about the car as possible. Once you have made a decision then start getting quotes from dealers, brokers and supermarkets. Play them off against each other, but make sure you find out what each is offering in terms of warranty, finance and specification. Just as you can negotiate on the price of a car it is also possible to cut a deal on the finance rates. Some dealers have good offers, but the deposit required may be large and the repayment period short.
Then there is your part exchange, which you should not bring up until the last minute. You need to concentrate on the cost of the new car and whether the difference between this and the part-ex figure is reasonable. You will get more by selling privately, but another dealer may give you a better offer.
Even new cars go wrong - under pressure, the dealer preparation may not be spot on. They should be able to supply a copy of the original PDI (pre-delivery inspection) checklist. If the fault is minor, like a loose piece of trim, then insist it is sorted out. If it is major, like an oil leak or incorrect colour, then reject it immediately.
The hot hatch
The Honda Civic Type R is on its way out, so this is your last chance to bag one of the best small performance cars of the last decade. Honda dealers have started registering them for bonus purposes and should pass savings on to buyers. Indeed, I found one being sold by a Honda dealer on Ebay. It is a well equipped one with air conditioning, which was not always standard. Their Buy it Now price was £15,995, but dealers should be able to negotiate a discount of at least £1,000 in the current climate. Lookers had the Civic Type R Final Edition at £16,499 - a saving of more than £1,800 - and have air conditioning as standard.
Smart no longer make the ForFour, but Mitsubishi's more conventional version in the shape of the Colt is still in production and is by far the better model. What's more, Mitsubishi have added free insurance and three years' servicing, cutting the running costs down to almost nothing. With a low-rate finance offer of just under £150 a month, you will get a CZ1 three-door that should return around 50mpg. However, these deals are supposed to run out on 31 August, so you had better rush.
The luxury car
Times are not good for Jaguar and their largest and prettiest model, the XJ, has been subject to a raft of incentives, with dealers being given several thousand pounds' leeway to make you an offer you can't refuse. You should not need an excuse to consider a Jag, but compared to BMW 7s and the Mercedes S Class they are pretty, great to drive and good value. If you are into haggling, then in the showroom you should be able to get around £3,000 off. Certainly, most brokers should be able to get a TDVi Executive down from £44,000 to £39,000, while Jaguar dealers on the Autobytel website were also offering good deals.
In value-for-money terms, it has always been hard to beat the Kia Sedona. A brand new one is in showrooms now andKia is rewarding the first 1,000 buyers with three years' free servicing. So the new, improved model starts at £17,495, seats seven and spoils them with Trizone air conditioning; but what about the old one? It was a large people-carrier with a compact people-carrier price and there are still some available. D C Cook is offering a 56-registered one at £12,999, saving more than £3,500 on the original retail price.
With a Formula One pedigree courtesy of McLaren's technical input, the Mercedes SLR has it all. The huge 5.5 litre supercharged V8 engine produces 626bhp and a maximum speed of 208mph. Certainly not congestion charge-free, this fascinating vehicle has one major obstacle to more widespread ownership: an asking price of £317,000. Depreciation is no stranger to supercars, however, and at least one has been spotted at an independent dealer for £229,500. Every one of these beauties is hand-built at the McLaren Technology Centre in Surrey.
The family car
The easy route would be to buy a Ford Mondeo with a big discount, but a Peugeot 407 has a lot of equipment as standard and you can currently get one on zero finance or with a £2,000 discount. There is no hatch, but the boot is big enough for most and there is a SW estate model if you need more room. The 407 certainly looks distinctive, but it is one of those vehicles best bought once depreciation has taken hold. A 2004 2.0Hdi with just 27,000 miles was on offer privately for £9,495; it cost £18,000 two years ago. The Car Giant supermarket in west London have a 2005 SE version at £9,599.
The compact executive
Whereas the new small Mercedes and BMWs don't make you feel that special, the latest Audi A4 does. And if you buy a saloon or Avant estate before the end of the year, you'll get an SE badge, which means cruise control, a leather steering wheel and a driver's information system. So a 2.0TDI 170 at £24,455 will be upgraded for free, but I notice that the broker Carfile has an SE model at £22,321. As ever, it pays to shop around.
The small family car
Ubiquity is the key here, and the Vauxhall Astra is around in large numbers at some very tempting prices. The Astra is good fun to drive and feels stable; best of all, it is refined, with a solid interior. From your local dealer you can get four years of 0 per cent finance on an Astra Active 1.4. Or order online and save around £1,500 on a five-door. Also, the dealer group Lookers is offering more than £2,000 off on a variety of models. Motorpoint has a registered Astra 1.6 Club at £9,999, saving you £4,000.Reuse content