Motoring: A new car? You might as well wait until September

IF YOU bought a car this month, you will probably have paid less and received a better-prepared vehicle than if you had waited until August. You will probably get a better first service, too. Mechanically, the cars are likely to be identical. They may even have come down the production line on the same day. Yet, thanks to a letter on the number plate - and nothing else - July's car is a very different proposition from August's.

The August plate change started back in 1967, after bleatings from the motor industry that it needed help in the summer, when car sales were at their lowest. The Government, ever keen to help the car lobby, naturally obliged. It was a silly decision. And, as the years roll by, it becomes more stupid.

Now, almost a quarter of all cars sold throughout the year are shifted in August. For some smaller garages, which deal almost exclusively with private buyers (as opposed to fleet buyers, who are less concerned about the plate change), the figure is nearer one-third. The result is garages, staffed to meet the average needs of trade throughout the year, are stretched to breaking point (often beyond) in August.

Some cars do not get pre-delivery inspections (PDIs) at all. Which means they go straight from the factory to the customer without any check. They simply get cleaned.

As so many cars go out at the same time, they come back for their first service at similar times. If you collect your car in early August, you're likely to get a more rushed, and thus inferior, initial service.

The August buyer will pay more, because dealers know there's kudos in the new registration letter, and, naturally, the buyer pays for it. Whereas a July buyer can expect a 10 per cent discount, the August buyer will do well to receive half that. Don't expect too much pomp and politeness about buying in August either; the salesman just doesn't have time to indulge in forecourt foreplay. He wants to tie up a deal fast.

There's a quid pro quo, of course. Come trade-in time, the newer number plate (no matter that it's affixed to a car of similar vintage) will yield more than the older one. The values reflect those of the number plate, rather than those of the car. Which is patently absurd.

Finally, despite what the number plate says, August cars are often outdated. When the car companies return from their summer breaks, they usually start to build vehicles revised for the coming model year. In some cases, it may be a brand new car. More often, there are trim revisions, possibly new engines, maybe a facelift. The new models start to filter through to the dealers in late September or October - a far more sensible time to buy than August.

Given that the August number plate change is bad for the car maker, the dealer and the buyer, you kind of wonder why it's not scrapped. Maybe the Government is simply waiting for the motor industry to tell it what to do. If only it would listen to common sense instead, we'd all be better off.

IF THE foregoing isn't enough to deter you, let me give you some tips for the August sales spree:

City Car/Small Car: Fiat Cinquecento ( pounds 4,990). It's not only fun to drive - sticky gear change notwithstanding - but is easy to park, outstandingly roomy for its size and cheaper than a Mini.

Fiesta class: You can't beat the new British-built (but don't be fooled, Japanese-designed) Nissan Micra. Prices start at pounds 6,890. It is delightfully easy to drive, looks cute and is well made.

Escort class: The Citroen ZX (from pounds 8,445) is a superb all-rounder: roomy, comfortable and well made. Pity it looks so anonymous.

Mondeo class: The Ford Mondeo (from pounds 11,200) could do with a little more leg room in the rear, but it is refined and has tremendous on-

road composure.

Executive class: You just can't do better than a Jag. For only pounds 26,200, you get a different motoring experience: gorgeous cabin, silken ride, distinctive styling. A recent US quality study rated Jaguar above BMW. If you have lots more to spend - pounds 46,600 - try the V12

version.

Estate car: The world's best estate is undoubtedly a Mercedes TE (from pounds 23,400). If that's out of your range, try a Mondeo estate (from pounds 12,200).

Off-Roader: I'd recommend the good value, characterful, well-

equipped and tough Jeep Cherokee (from pounds 15,995). It's a lot of car for the money.

Sports car: Mazda MX-5 ( pounds 16,490) if you want an open roof, Volkswagen Corrado VR6 ( pounds 20,695) if you don't, and Porsche 911 Carrera 2 ( pounds 50,450) if you're rich and simply want to have fun.

Fast hatch: A class that's on the wane now, thanks to the twin (and not dissociated) efforts of both joyriders and the insurance companies. The class best is the VW Golf VR6 ( pounds 18,740). If that's too much, try the Renault Clio 16V ( pounds 12,725).

Mini van/people carrier: The original is still the best. The Renault Espace (from pounds 15,785) has had some recent revisions that have taken it even further away from Japanese imitators. It's roomy enough for seven, looks great, and gives a commanding driving position.

(Photograph omitted)

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