Cars have never been so inexpensive. Today, you can walk into a Kia showroom, and drive away a new car for a quid. Admittedly, you will still owe Kia a large percentage of the total price, but if you want get new wheels, buying does not get much simpler. And not just new cars are easier to buy.

There's a story, possibly apocryphal, of a bloke who bought a Vauxhall Cavalier for two quid from an auction as transport to a party. The day after it was dumped, because it was cheaper than a couple of taxi rides, but not for the local council that had to dispose of it.

But 25 years ago, bangers with months of MoT left and gossamer-thin sills traded for several hundred. Though most modern cars have barely rotted before they are binned, they have become throw-away commodities.

The Alliance and Leicester's used-car price index shows that in the past 12 months, the price of the average used car has dropped by 10 per cent, and family cars over three years old have sunk by more than 20 per cent. Car industry experts reckon there is at least 20 per cent over-capacity in European manufacturing, and the makers are caught in vicious cycle of discounting to keep factories churning.

The new car market is massively oversupplied. That has brought the average usage of a new car down from 7.3 years in 1997 to 6.9 years in 2002. Though this trend tends to be cyclical, governed in part by the health of the economy, the cars on Britain's roads are getting younger.

We may have scrapped 1.5 to 1.8 million cars annually over the past five years, but we have also bought about 2.2 million every year. With obvious results: in 1997, there were 25.6 million cars on the road, and in 2001, there were 27.8 million out there.

Of course, the availability of cheaper cars is a good, democratising condition, even if insurance, tax and fuel are as pricey as they ever were. And throwing away smoking old bangers is certainly better for air quality; soon, there will not be many cars left that do not have an exhaust-cleaning catalyst. Newer cars are safer cars, too. But there are downsides. The increasing cheapness of new and used cars discourages people from using public transport. And then there is the waste of scrapping cars with serviceable lives ahead of them.

Renault believes cars such as the Clio could eventually see no more than two owners and six years. So a fundamentally sound car would be scrapped after six, amazing, given today's standards of rust protection and durability

Does this matter? Well, yes it does if you care about the rate at which we are using up finite resources. There may be slightly more recycled material in new cars, but it is a mere nothing in the scheme of things and with the global car market growing apace, we will be smelting, stamping and moulding our way through more and more materials by the month.

This cycle can only accelerate, unless there is a wholesale change in our attitude towards the use of raw materials. Most modern cars are easily capable of 200,000 miles and 15-year lives. Few of them will ever see that.

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