Motoring: More metal for your money

The used car trade has got the January blues, and if you can afford to, now is the time to take advantage of those poor lonely blighters shivering on the forecourt. James Ruppert shows you how.

The car trade is highly seasonal. From the buoyant early spring it goes through to a strong summer and a gentle running down as autumn turns into winter. Then, come November, things get a little bit chilly. On the run-up to Christmas spare cash is being diverted to other spending. Not only that, but kicking tyres on a sub-zero forecourt is hardly a popular pastime.

Canny used buyers with about pounds 3,000 to pounds 5,000 to spend know that this is the time to go shopping. Welcome to the January used-car sales.

Superminis: If any type of car is going to defy the seasonal downturn, it will be the smaller hatchback which is perennially in demand. Everyone wants an economical, practical and reliable small car. One car which surprisingly fits the bill is the Fiat Punto. It's a thoroughly modern supermini which has led the company's Nineties renaissance. The Punto is well built and cheap to buy and run. Prices start at pounds 3,000 for a high-mileage, 1994, three-door 55S.

Hatchbacks: The second group of cars least likely to be on special offer will be in the so-called Golf class. Once again, practical and reliable cars never go out of fashion. VW Golfs aren't that cheap. Even the arrival of the all-new Golf means that only a high mileage and underpowered 1992 1.4 would be within budget. However, a Seat Ibiza 1.4 is effectively a rebodied but lighter and perkier version, built to VW standards. You can even afford a 1995 model.

Off-roaders: In theory 4x4 vehicles should be by far the strongest sector at this time of the year. Snow, ice and torrential rain are ideal conditions to show off. That was a few years ago, when they were fashionable. Sluggish performance, poor mpg and top-heavy handling has put them out of fashion.The only reason to buy a 4 x 4 is for work. Try a handy-sized 1992 Daihatsu Fourtrak, or, if you want loads of room, then a Nissan Patrol is cumbersome, but brilliant value at less than pounds 5,000.

People carriers: The Espace was the first and arguably best of the breed, in 1984. An early one would still cost pounds 3,000; pounds 5,000 puts a 1988 model within reach. Trouble is, they're not always in perfect nick. Toyota took the van-with-windows concept and applied it to its reliable and capacious eight-seat Space Cruiser; pounds 5,000 buys a well-cared-for '90 model.

Executive cars: Any time of the year is a bad time for big cars. Middle- management drivers traditionally opt for Ford Granadas and Vauxhall Carltons, but there is a classier alternative. The Saab 9000 has all the luxury trimmings. The absence of a BMW or Mercedes badge makes all the difference; high-mileage examples can be bought at giveaway prices right now: 1992 2.0 CD saloon models with automatic transmission, air conditioning and an unfeasibly big boot, cost an easy pounds 5,000.

Luxury cars: These depreciate heavily, even with a BMW badge on the bonnet. While 3 and 5 series seem to defy gravity, pounds 50,000 spanking new 7 series tumble to used-car reality at an alarming rate. Of course, lots of expensive things could potentially go wrong, but one that has been maintained regardless of cost by a plutocrat should not let you down. Try a 1990 735i for size.

Family cars: The size of the fleet-car sector means that it is sensitive to oversupply all year round, and even more likely to yield bargains at this time of the year. Best medium-sized hatch and saloon of the Nineties has been the Ford Mondeo, and they make great used buys, cheap to run and nice to drive. Cheapest is a '93 1.6, nicest a '95 2.0.

Sports coupes: Not the time of year to go looking for a frivolous sports car. So a good time to find a Nissan 200SX. Naff badge, but it looks the sports car part. Has good 2+2 accommodation, is very quick and utterly reliable because it is built by the same company that makes Micras. Underrated, fun, and a 1990 model is yours for less than pounds 5,000.

So when you go shopping this January, bear in mind that dealers are eager to do deals during their bleakest months. Also, any private advertiser is going to be pretty desperate to sell. Get a price guide such as Parker's from the newsagent and haggle around the trade (not retail) valuation.

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