Cars are pounds 3,000 dearer in Britain

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CARS ARE, on average, pounds 3,000 cheaper on the Continent than in Britain, according to a motor survey published yesterday. The report, by What Car? magazine, came as the Government is set to announce that restrictions on cars bought on the cheaper "grey" imports market - mainly from Japan and the Far East - will be lifted gradually from next March.

But, to the anger of traders who sell the cars at up to 35 per cent discount, the market will not be fully open until 2001. In the latest survey of dealers in Europe, 700 were contacted in France, Belgium and Holland - all within a two-hour drive of a major Channel port - and new vehicles were on offer at vastly reduced prices.

Buyers could save an average of pounds 3,108 on 20 of the UK's top-selling cars. The biggest saving was pounds 4,622 off the pounds 34,105 British price of a Porsche Boxster bought in Belgium. The survey found savings even on right- hand drive cars built to full UK specification, with at least one-year's warranty, VAT, road tax, and the registration fee included.

What Car? deputy editor, Steve Fowler, said: "There really is every reason for a new car buyer to hop on a ferry and take a look for themselves. We were not only amazed at just how low the prices were across the Channel, but also at how easy it can be to negotiate with foreign dealers and complete the necessary paperwork to bring your car back to the UK."

But researchers found language barriers were a stumbling block and getting hold of right-hand drive cars was difficult. Among the deals was a Ford Puma 1.7 offered for pounds 11,796 by a Calais dealer, pounds 3,159 cheaper than in the UK. However, nearly all foreign Ford dealers refused to give quotes to British buyers. The British-built Land Rover Freelander could be found well below the UK price of pounds 18,425 from a dealer in Holland, offering a pounds 3,500 saving on the 1.8i five-door vehicle. A Volkswagen Passat 1.8 was available in Holland for pounds 13,858, a saving of pounds 2,247, and the VW Golf 1.6 at pounds 11,037 was pounds 2,943 cheaper than in Britain. The Renault Clio 1.4 was available for pounds 7,661 in France against pounds 10,505 here, although dealers with right-hand drive models were hard to find.

The DVLA has produced an information pack which includes a fact sheet on how to import a car and all the necessary forms. Once a dealer has been found, buyers must ensure the vehicle conforms to UK standards. It must then be registered in the UK. Alternatively, import agents can be hired to buy cars.

Meanwhile, a complete relaxation of restrictions on"grey" imports is not expected until January 2001. They can be much cheaper than those bought from franchised dealers, although some firms, like Mitsubishi, Toyota and Mazda, claim they are potentially unsafe. Currently, the number of individual models that can be brought to the UK under regulations is 50 a year.

The Transport minister, John Reid, is expected to raise it to 1,000 next March, 2,000 in April, 3,000 in May and, finally, to drop restrictions altogether. Imports will still be subject to a pounds 165 special vehicle approval test to confirm they comply with European Union safety and emissions rules. It is thought that as many as 50,000 "grey" import vehicles will be sold each year in the UK when restrictions are lifted.

The whole question of the way cars are supplied and sold in the UK is the subject of a current Competition Commission inquiry. What Car? has passed on its own findings to the commission.