The wise buyer knows, however, that when it comes to reducing costs over a car's life, the discount is of only secondary importance: the thing that really counts is keeping depreciation low. All cars lose value as they get older and accumulate mileage: there is no getting away from it. But some hold their value very much better than others.
Take the cases of a pounds 22,000 Ford Granada 2.0 Scorpio and a pounds 21,000 Mercedes-Benz 200E. They are similarly-sized executive saloons, but the their value loss is vastly different. In two years' time, when both have accumulated 30,000 miles, the Mercedes will be worth around pounds 16,000, and the selling dealer will be happy to have it back for used car stock; the Ford may be worth pounds 12,000. The Merc driver's cost of two years' ownership is pounds 5,000; the Ford driver has had to absorb pounds 10,000.
As models change, depreciation champions change as well. Eighteen months ago, for instance, diesel cars were losing value very much more slowly than their petrol counterparts; now, although they are still stronger, it is by a smaller margin.
This year, many more buyers are expected to splash out on a new car than for several seasons past; so here is our selection of proven new-model depreciation fighters.
BMW 318i four-door
BELIEVED by many critics to be the pick of the BMW 3-series range for its fine combination of performance and economy, the 318i is very keenly sought as a second-hand car. Apart from the fact that BMWs have a reputation for lasting well, this model is only a couple of years into its lifespan (probably eight years) and its showroom price of pounds 16,100 looks very good value.
Citroen ZX 1.9D Avantage five-door
ANOTHER class leader, this quiet car has a level of ride comfort that would have rivalled a Jaguar a few years ago. The showroom price of pounds 10,495 is relatively low against the competition, too, which means second-hand value will look good in a couple of years' time. We chose the diesel both because prices of used oil-burners remain strong (if not as strong as in 1991) and because Citroen-Peugeot diesel engines are particularly refined and easy to drive.
Ford Fiesta 1.1LX three-door
CARS of this size all hold their value better than bigger models from the same manufacturers. Where a Ford Granada loses as much as half its value after two years/30,000 miles, a Fiesta loses only about 35 per cent. The reason? Used-car buyers actively chase small hatches when they are a couple of years old. Once they've lost some of their shine, executive cars have a much harder time finding homes.
Honda Accord 2.2i Aerodeck
YOU MIGHT not think it from the name, but this model is a roomy estate, imported in small numbers from a plant Honda has in the United States. It sells for pounds 16,995. Hondas, always in short supply in Britain, have always been exemplary for keeping their value; estate cars are also more keenly sought by ever-practical used-car buyers than saloons. Put the combination together and you have a car almost in the Mercedes class for resale value.
THIS is the champion. Mercedes-Benz cars do not sell in great numbers; they have a fine reputation for lasting for huge mileages; dealers do a great deal of repeat business and dealer-supplied used cars tend to be the best on offer. When you're talking about a roomy estate from the middle one of Mercedes' three lines, a good reselling price is guaranteed if you look after the car.
Mitsubishi Shogun 2.5
turbo diesel five-door
A WELL-MADE and comfortable pounds 21,600 off-roader, this has almost everything going for it: more demand than supply, the market's increasing interest in 'civilised' 4x4s, a three-year/unlimited mileage warranty which transfers to subsequent owners, a reputation for toughness and a traditionally strong resale value.
Morgan Plus 8
THE Malvern-built traditional British roadster, costing pounds 24,500, is a bit of a freak. Enduring popularity, a five-year waiting list, plus the fact that most owners do minute mileages and cosset their vehicles in garages, ensures any Plus Eight a high price when it is offered for sale. The myth, sometimes fulfilled, is that, however long you keep your car, you'll get back what you paid.
Nissan Primera 1.6LX five-door
CARS like this one in the Cavalier class are not known for good resale values. There are too many of them always available, the market thinks, and they are all much the same. But the Nissan Primera does best of the group for several powerful reasons: with Ford's new Mondeo, it is still the best in its class; compared with Cavaliers the supply is fairly short; and the car comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty.
Renault Espace 2.0 RT
THIS is the model that made seven/ eight-seat 'people-carriers' desirable, and demand has always climbed in an indifferent market. Our choice, the 2.0 litre RT, costs pounds 17,000. Resale values are extremely strong for two key reasons - the model's looks have changed little in seven or eight years (and it still stands out in a crowd), and its combination of galvanised steel chassis and rust-free composite body.
Toyota MR2 GT
A pounds 17,000 sports two-seater (also available at pounds 18,400 with a lift-out roof), it has built a reputation over five or six years as a high-performance car with reliability equal to a saloon's. Sports cars used to be temperamental, but not this one. It comes with excellent Toyota build standards, a three-year/60,000- mile warranty and it is much, much cheaper than Italian or German makes that people often mistake it for.
So those are the best bets. Just remember the central issue is to minimise depreciation if you really care about keeping motoring costs low. Picking the right car is relatively easy, too. They tend to be models from the best makers, with high assembly standards and long warranties. They are rarely in easy supply - and hardly ever discounted - and you'll find that a large number of people aspire to owning them. But do survey plenty of second-hand prices before you write that cheque. It's the only way to be sure your chosen car is a good investment.