There she was, throbbing away on the driveway. Polished, cleaned and ready for a test drive. Nearly two grand's worth of super-economical Volkswagen turbo-diesel estate waiting for me to make my mind up - should I buy or should I walk away? The backstreet car dealer smiled with glee as he realised another mug was ready to part with hard cash.
It was a crucial moment of stupidity - one that came back and haunted me as the wretched thing coasted to a halt on a French motorway for the second time in three days, spewing fuel onto the baking hot blacktop. The car was finished, and my pregnant wife, eldest daughter and I were stranded in France with no money or credit cards in a heatwave with no water or hope of rescue.
That's the sort of trouble you get if you buy cars in haste from a disreputable source. So with new car websites flashing up on the web every week, can you be sure that you won't get ripped off by the digital equivalent of the white-socked wideboy purveying pranged Capris?
Sites for sore eyes?
A quick websearch will reveal a number of different types of website waiting to tempt car buyers. I decided to test the sites by seeking out my dream car, a Saab 9-3 Cabriolet. Attention was paid to getting extra discounts for ordering online and also the possible pitfalls of buying a car over the net.
The first places I looked at were straightforward dealership and manufacturer sites. A glance at Top Gear's racy web space will reveal a screenful of links to these. You click through the specs, choose a car, and press buttons to order a test drive and brochure delivered to your door. You may get a small saving on list prices by making this initial contact online.
Drive the Deal (formally newcarsdirect.co.uk) offered me a UK dealer-sourced Saab for £24,548 - a saving of £1796 on the list price. A simple but helpful site, with lots of reassuring information If you are worried about resale values of imported vehicles this might be the site for you.
While Autobytel has been selling cars online for more years than most and should be reliable. The company's smoothly designed screen was quick, but the price for my Saab was not impressive - at £27,515 it was more than UK list by a quite a few hundred pounds. I started to wonder if there were really any big savings to be made.
In the money?
UK car buyers have been griping for months about high showroom prices - a complaint recently given weight by a government report. Now keen dotcoms are launching sites that specialise in taking your order, then sourcing a car from Europe. This gives penny-conscious buyers savings of up to 40 per cent on UK prices.
The newly launched Virgin Cars Import site offered my super Saab at the list price minus 10 per cent. The site looks inviting, is laid out in a logical manner, and is written in clear and concise English. Virgin also makes a big fuss about after sales service, customer satisfaction and security, which is important because buying a car is a big deal.
Carbusters is a new initiative from the Consumers Association, the people behind Which? Magazine. The association has been lobbying the government for several years about the cost of buying a new car in the UK. This should really be a site to trust, with the backing of all those consumer champions in place. I was quoted £22,149 for the Saab - a great saving on the list price of £26,345. This was getting better.
The import sites seemed to be able to offer good discounts, but the small print crunch was waiting lists: five months quoted by Virgin, and three months from Carbusters. Can't anyone do it quicker?
Enter Showroom4cars.com . The company triumphantly promises on its largely orange page that some cars can be shipped from the continent within 48 hours, at great prices. They nearly equalled Carbusters with a price of £22,519 for the basic Swedish topless model. I think I'm nearly there.
Then reality hit me - small print on the Showroom4cars page warned that the fluctuating value of the euro might cause the quoted price to rise. So the lesson here is to check your quote and watch currency moves on the net.
The human touch
But what about the non-digital alternative? Can old-fashioned customer contact do the trick? I phoned my local Saab dealer, Mann and Woodland, in Shoreham by Sea. A salesman picked up the phone, gently chatted about the cars in a non-pushy kind of way, then offered an immediate test drive and a tour of the dealership.
I said I had been looking for a 9-3 ragtop on the net, but the salesman miss a beat. He immediately pointed out the advantages of personal contacts with your local garage, getting to know the staff, building a relationship of trust and so on. Crikey. all my fears about being ripped off returned, but this time I was frightened of buying online - so much could go wrong. I was impressed by the attitude Mann and Woodland's staff displayed. It would take a lot to persuade me that a low price alone is reason enough to buy online.
What if you aren't in the market for a £26,000 motor? What about secondhand? Companies such as Autotrader have had a searchable net presence for several years. I went there and found a simple site that loaded quickly and worked well. You can register (it's free) but I was in a hurry, so quickly typed in my requirements. You choose car make, model and engine size. Type in your postcode and within seconds a screenful of new and nearly new local cars will appear.
I felt this was a really useful site. It gives you the bonuses of the web - searchability and so on, and the chance to buy private if you dare, or from a dealer if you want the reassurance of legal backup. There were a number of secondhand Saab convertibles, and now there was the choice of buying new for 26,000 smackers or buying used for as little as four or five thousand.
My dream car is sadly still a dream, but good deals are there to be had in cyberspace. If you keep your wits about you and patiently surf the import sites you could find a real bargain - as long as you keep an eye on the value of the euro.
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