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Motoring: About to buy a new car? Don't

There is one simple key to clever car buying. It holds true whether you're buying a Mini, a small hatch, a family saloon, an executive car, a sports machine or a big estate. And it's this: never buy a new car. More and more Britons are preferring the more sensible option of buying manufacturer-approved used cars.

New cars, of course, have never made sense. We all know that the moment we leave the showroom we lose anywhere between pounds 500 and pounds 5,000, in what is the most expensive drive of our life. (Small hatches depreciate the least, large executive cars made by the small hatch makers are the worst.)

Yet over the years we've kept burning those pound notes. The emotional tug of a new car - its shininess, its covetability, its unsullied history, its "this year's model" appeal, the envy it incites - is just too great a temptation. (I have fallen foul of it three times in the last 15 years, and will no doubt give in to temptation again.) It is a typical case of want ruling need. And given that such profligacy is the basis of our capitalist system, the car makers have never lost much sleep at the lack of logic of it all.

Until now. The private car buyer - from whom the car maker has made most of its profit, even if in Britain the company buyer is responsible for most of the sales - is going away. Five years ago, private buyers accounted for 65 per cent of all new car sales. Last month it was 43 per cent. Short of some drastic action, he or she is unlikely to come back.

And why should they? Approved used cars, sold by franchised dealers, now have warranties which are as good as those once offered only with new cars. There is complete peace of mind, once the sole dominion of new cars. All major dealer franchises are at it, from Vauxhall, which popularised the concept with its Network Q scheme, to Ford, Rover, and most of the major importers.

These manufacturer-approved used cars are usually in pristine condition, sometimes run from new by one of the fleet companies to whom the car makers give such generous discounts. They are much cheaper than new cars, of course. Or rather, much cheaper to a private buyer. These used cars often cost private punters more than the same car cost the fleet buyer new, such is the continuing iniquity of Britain's company-car dominated market.

The car makers have only themselves to blame. The company car culture which they have helped to nurture is finally delivering its long overdue comeuppance. New cars are now usually too expensive, as car makers put through increases over and above inflation, partly to subsidise their pals in the fleet firms. The private buyer is no longer willing to pay pounds 16,000 for a well-equipped Mondeo when a near-identical car, two years old, will cost only pounds 9,500 with the same warranty from the same dealer. Cars also last longer. They're more reliable, better made. Ironically, by improving their products car makers have hurt their own sales.

"Big-step" new cars are now rare, though - which makes it difficult to justify spending thousands more for the latest model. Equally, car makers are starting to run out of "new-idea" cars to excite the public. The last one was the Renault Espace, 12 years ago, the first seven-seater MPV "people carrier" in Europe. Before that, it was the Range Rover, the world's first luxury 4x4. Both have been widely copied.

I foresee two possible likely-to-be-imitated industry saviours on the horizon - the Mercedes A-class, due late next year, which will mix Mondeo room with Fiesta road space (by having the engine under the body), and the new Mini, scheduled for the year 2000. If properly executed, the latest Mini should rekindle our interest in small, minimalist eco-friendly cars, 37 years after its predecessor showed the potential.

Only by giving much more or charging less will the car makers tempt us back. Increasingly imaginative ads (if only the same creativity was put into cars), bombarding our TV screens with images of embryos enjoying the ride comfort of Rover 400s and jilted Latin lovers enjoying Puntos and pretty French girls in Clios will not do the trick. While the car makers want to engender lust in us to buy, we're regressing to good old- fashioned common sense to resist. Given that the car industry invented the modern consumer society, thanks to Henry Ford's mass production, who knows where this back-to-basics mood might end.