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Keep the showroom sharks guessing

Ignore 1 August and new car snobbery, the best deals come later. By James Ruppert
The weeks leading up to 1 August are a feeding frenzy for sales staff at car showrooms. Customers come in waves and the staff have little else to do than bank the money which is thrown at them. The eagerness to be seen behind of the wheel of a brand new car with the latest registration number is, apparently, all-consuming.

Unfortunately, it seems that buyers have not learnt that the one-letter progression up the alphabet is little more than an exercise in snobbery. Customers may feel superior for a couple of weeks, but after that they have to live with their mistake for several years. The truth is that a car bought on 1 August is quite likely to be out of date and overpriced. It may depreciate faster, could be difficult to resell and may even be dangerous.

Let's start with safety - an obsession with manufacturers' marketing departments which endlessly promote safety cells, air bags and crumple zones. Trouble is, the frenzy of activity in dealerships before the 1 August rush can lead to some items being overlooked. The PDI (pre-delivery inspection) is a double-check and once-over of cars before sale. On the whole, dealers are thorough about preparation, but occasionally you hear tales of new cars being de-waxed (cleaning off the protective bodywork covering) and delivered without the merest mechanical health check. In the late Eighties, when new car sales reached 2m, those stories were more widespread. But without becoming too alarmist, at smaller dealers, where 20 or more deliveries on 1 August constitute a 200 per cent increase in turnover, it is not surprising that they might overlook the odd item.

Getting a problem, however minor, sorted out in August will not be easy. The sales staff, too, will be in a rush and the subtleties of the controls may not be fully explained. More importantly, you might not be able to inspect the car carefully for faults or damage. Once you drive off the forecourt it becomes almost impossible to reject a car, or prove that any damage was down to the garage. So take your time and shop for your car in a less busy month.

When it comes to cash, 1 August is also the wrong time to buy. Discounts can be hard to come by. Because the showrooms are full of customers, there is little pressure on the sales staff to entertain much of a deal - although they are more flexible than a few years ago.

Shopping out of the selling season is by far the best way to make big cash savings. During the dark months of winter, showrooms are empty and you stand to get a better deal. Dealerships need the turnover, especially in the run-up to Christmas and the new year lull, when money is being spent on other things.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation about a 1 August car is that it may be out of date. For many manufacturers, this is their last chance to sell out old stock before the new models are introduced in the autumn, hence the raft of bizarrely named special editions at this time of the year. At the moment you can choose between several special Ford Fiestas: the Azura, Quartz and Frascati. All have good levels of equipment and a snazzy logo, but wait until the winter and a heavily revised Fiesta will have all-new suspension and bodywork. Similarly, there will be another all-new supermini from Citroen as the AX is revised, although the special edition of the moment happens to be called Memphis.

Do not expect the sales staff to stop you reaching for your chequebook just because there is a new, improved version on the way. Often they are kept in the dark about upgrades and revisions so that they concentrate on selling the models in hand. I rang round a few Fiat dealers to talk Tipo and none spilled the beans about its October replacement, the Bravo.

Even if manufacturers are not going to replace a model, they usually upgrade the specification by the autumn, in time for the motor show season and as a way of giving marketing impetus to their new, improved 1996 models. Buyers waiting until now will be rewarded with extra equipment and other upgrades, sometimes at no additional cost. If you can wait just a month or so more, get your new model registered in January, which will boost the value of your car in the future by several hundred pounds - simply because it is regarded as a 1996, rather than a 1995, example.

Avoid new-registration blues by waiting for the model you like to be upgraded. Order in November/December and get a good deal, and specify delivery (and registration) in January. The showroom sharks will not see you coming - and, as it is not 1 August, will not be expecting you, either.