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Bargains on a plate

OK, so it's getting near September. New car supplements are everywhere and up and down your street preparations are being made to welcome the latest flock of V registrations.

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We would all like to join in the fun, but what if the bank account is looking decidedly anaemic, the vet's bill is due any day and the kids say that if they don't get that holiday in Ibiza then they're off to join a squat? Easy. You buy a nearly new car at a knockdown price and then - if you don't want the neighbours to know - trick it up to look as though it rolled off the production line yesterday. The odd anorak will rumble you, but the chances are he will be planning to do the same, so any fear of exposure is groundless. Start by checking out what your nearest main dealers have on offer. Their stocks will be healthy once the trade-ins start to arrive, but even before that they will have some excellent ex-fleet or demonstrator models on the forecourt which will have to be shifted somehow or other. Think big. Those two to three-year old low-mileage, gently driven, luxury motorway cruisers with air conditioning, all-leather interior, electric everything, ABS, CD autochanger and even, if you strike it lucky, GPS satellite navigation system, can be snapped up for about the same price as a new small hatchback. Think extinct. How about an immaculate frog-eye Scorpio 2.9, 24V Ultima automatic, magnificently kitted out, just 24,000 miles on the clock and sitting on a P registration plate? It could be yours for #13,500 tops - or a couple of thousand pounds less if you haggle. Writing out a cheque for that amount should make you feel very good indeed as the previous owner will have forked out twice as much for the privilege of running it in for you. And as a bonus it will come with a good warranty and easily outlast and outperform most of the smaller, high-revving threshing machines that will emerge in September with V-plates attached. You could do even better by going for a Vauxhall Omega 2.0i, 16V GLS of the same vintage. These are still current, so don't worry about the anorak. They are fetching a top price of around #9800, which is ludicrous given their capability, driver appeal and equipment levels. Again get one from a main dealer and enjoy some high quality, trouble-free motoring. The quality German marques tend to be more expensive simply as there are no huge fleets of them in this country to be replaced every couple of years, but shop wisely and there are still massive savings to be had. Again the bigger the better. The BMW 3 Series cars hold their value because they are in relatively short supply. Younger drivers tend to snap them up as fast as they are put on offer, so go up the ladder a rung or two and have a long look at a big 5 or even a 7. A factory standard 728i 2.8 automatic can be picked up for #26,400. If that seems a lot of cash for a P-plater, take a look at the new price of #37,550. That's #11,000 to you, sir! Many people will baulk at paying anything much more than #10,000 for a used car, even if they can afford it, but they have no need to feel left out of things. There are some snips in the four-figure bracket that are well worth serious consideration. The Citroen XM and Renault Safrane models are the pick of this bunch, costing around #9500 for our benchmark year and mileage models. Both have solid reputations, smooth engines, plenty of street presence and lots of room for people and luggage.

Cheaper still, but possibly not quite as robust, are vehicles such as the Hyundai Sonata, (make sure it is a one owner, second owners tend to abuse them), which is definitely a bargain basement job at less than #9000 for the 2.0 litre GSi four-door. To put that asking price into some sort of perspective, it is worth pointing out that a new Mini now costs more than #9000. Of the even newer marques, how about a Daewoo Leganza 2.0 CDX 4-door automatic. Daewoo says it is not in the business of haggling and the P-plate versions I have seen are standing at around #8000, but it is possible - believe me - to get into the sevens and still drive away in a terrific machine. So there is plenty of choice, but tread a little carefully. Used sports cars - especially ragtops - and anything bearing a GTi badge should be treated with extreme caution, as should anything from those manufacturers whose products are best described as temperamental even when new. A quick glance at the most recent JD Power reliability ratings will pinpoint them. Now for the good bit. Having found the car that best suits your needs, mood and pocket, it can be disguised to appear brand new simply by a quick number plate change. Get in touch with the DVLA and arrange to buy a registration number, possibly an A or B, with a combination of numbers which include your initials and you are in business. A change of this nature can cost as little as a couple of hundred pounds unless you go for the more exotic number/letter combinations and, fitted to an immaculate car, will ensure your purchase passes for brand new provided you keep the prying eyes of neighbours away from the instrument panel. And it could even work on the Scorpio if you are prepared to fib a little. Tell anyone who asks that it was the very last car of this type ever produced and that you paid a little over the odds for it. They will be hugely impressed.

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