Car buyers pay for dealers' dirty tricks

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CAR DEALERS are giving misleading advice to British consumers to deter them from going to the Continent to buy a cheaper car, a consumers' organisation claimed today.

The Consumers' Association said buyers were being told it was impossible to buy a right-hand drive model in Europe and would be difficult to obtain spare parts.

It contacted dealers across the UK asking how to import cars from Europe, where they are up to 60 per cent cheaper. Posing as a consumer, researchers asked about importing a Mazda, a Mitsubishi and a Subaru from Holland or Belgium. It said they were given "misleading and plainly wrong information".

In a report in Which? magazine, published today, the association said tricks used by dealers, included claims that:

t The customer would have trouble getting any work done on the car or getting hold of spare parts, even though dealers are obliged to honour warranties across the European Union;

t The car could fail its three-year MOT test because cars bought outside the UK had different emissions standards, although all cars sold in the EU must meet the same standards;

t It was impossible to buy a right-hand drive car in either Holland or Belgium - a blatant untruth;

t Any warranty work would have to be paid for up-front and the money claimed back from the European dealer - something that would be in breach of EU regulations.

The association said several dealers had tried to confuse its researchers by talking about the different rules that govern "grey imports" - cars originating outside the EU.

The association said it had sent a dossier of evidence to the European Commission, which oversees the rules covering dealers. "It's bad enough that UK car buyers have either to pay over the odds, or go to the trouble of importing a car. But it adds insult to injury when car dealers so clearly mislead car buyers about their rights," said Helen Parker, editor of Which?. "Car buyers could make considerable savings by buying abroad but car dealers are trying to put them off."

The Retail Motor Industry Federation said many manufacturers had set up consumer helplines. Chris McGowan, chief executive, said: "I am genuinely taken aback at these answers which sound like they thought they were being asked about grey imports. We have worked hard to make sure that consumers know where they can go to buy a car."

Mitsubishi attacked the report as "misleading". Stephen Dixon, managing director of Mitsubishi Motors in the UK, said the association should concentrate on the selling practices of dealers in the grey import market.