Farewell Virgin Cars - but there are still thousands of new vehicles out there looking for buyers. James Ruppert tests a range of low-cost outlets

It may have passed you by, but Virgin Cars is no more. In 2000, it seemed like a brave new motor retailing future with that cuddly Branson bloke setting up a caring, sharing car-dealer. But I did write that flogging cars was rather different to the record, airline or railway businesses.

The fact that Virgin Cars has ceased trading confirms that it's tough out there in car retailing. New car sales in Britain fell by 8.7 per cent last year, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. In theory, car dealers, brokers and supermarkets should be more eager than ever for the customers there are.

So we took a basket of four popular cars out there to see who could supply them at the best price. First, the Vauxhall Corsa. This will be replaced later this year, so dealers and brokers should be offering great deals. Second, the Ford Focus, the UK's most popular new car. For you executive types, the Jaguar X-Type diesel. Finally, something exotic - the Mazda RX-8, a sports car rarely discounted by main dealers and in short supply.

Online is where Virgin started and intended to stay. They initially imported cars from Europe, prepared them and delivered them by transporter to customers. Now, most low-priced vehicles are more easily sourced in the UK, with no issues over warranties or specifications.

So it was great to log on to DriveTheDeal.com's website for quick quotes. All prices included 12 months' tax and free delivery to my door. It also had competitive PCP finance packages at 7.9 per cent APR.

Supermarkets are where Virgin began to see their future, building one in Salford, before it shut in December. Others, though, have made a success of parking them deep and selling cheaper. Motorpoint.co.uk, with outlets in Derby, Burnley, Glasgow and Newport, had no new Corsa Lifes, but had a low-mile (3,349) example at £5,999 in red. For the Focus, it had several new unregistered examples in stock at £9,999. Read the small print; prices do not include road tax or first registration, and you should phone to double-check details. The Focuses were sourced from Malta and came with the balance of the original warranty, although you can pay for an extension. The specification was marginally higher than a UK car. On the Jaguar, it had a 12,000-mile example at £16,999; as for the RX-8, a 6,000-mile 231bhp model was £16,999.

So you can't always get exactly what you want at a supermarket. It was similar at another established outlet in Slough, Trade Sales; it could supply a low-mile Life at £5,999 and a very similar Focus at £9,999, also from Europe. Again, there were extra charges. The staff claimed alloys were part of the enhanced specification, but they are standard on the UK LX. At the time, there was no Jaguar or Mazda available.

Finally, I gave the old-fashioned dealers a chance. I was impressed with Pendragon Direct (08000 857 296) who listened and phoned back quickly with an offer from one of their dealers. If I registered the car before month- end, they would sell it to me for £7,999, or £8,195 if I dithered. Ford dealers were less eager to discount, and new franchise holders SMC in Slough were astounded by my target price. However, Ford garages usually offer these models at below £12,000.

At Stratstone Jaguar, I asked if they could supply a 2.0D SE for £23,000 or so, and they agreed, so there should be more movement if I went to the showroom in Bolton. And the Mazda RX-8? The dealer network has been told not to discount it, even though availability is good now. The nonsense of that is that brokers are offering them at a discount right now.

The new car marketplace isn't any poorer for the demise of Virgin, and it just highlights the fact that consumers have the upper hand. If you want to avoid the hassle of ringing up countless dealers and hanging around showrooms, take the UK broker route with a good company like Drive the Deal. Just make sure you find out where the cars are coming from and what the on-road costs are so you can compare more easily. With supermarkets, again there can be extra costs and always ensure you know the specification. There's less choice, but they can have great nearly-new bargains.

Traditional dealers are still with us, but they need to adapt, and to offer competitive prices and service.

So Virgin is dead - but long live all outlets where you can buy cars for less.

What's the difference?

Vauxhall Corsa 1.2 Life 5-door

Retail price: £10,265

Broker: £7,639

Supermarket: £5,999Ý

Dealer: £7,995

Ford Focus 1.6 LX 5-door

Retail price: £13,345

Broker: £10,635

Supermarket: £9,999*

Dealer: £11,700

Jaguar X Type diesel saloon 2.0d SE

Retail price: £24,995

Broker: £22,198

Supermarket: £16,999Ý

Dealer: £23,000

Mazda RX-8 [192]

Retail price: £20,500

Broker: £19,140

Supermarket: £16,999Ý

Dealer: no discount

ÝAlready registered, with mileage, at least a year old.

*European specification, balance of 12-month warranty, plus registration, car tax and other charges.

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