Nine things you need to know before you buy a car in 2017

Don’t cross the threshold of a dealership before you’ve read the following guide

New cars  at the National Vehicle Distribution in  Baldonnell, Co Dublin. Timing is everything when buying a  car. Photograph:  David Sleator

New cars at the National Vehicle Distribution in Baldonnell, Co Dublin. Timing is everything when buying a car. Photograph: David Sleator


1. A falling market is a buyer’s paradise

Since 2013, for the most part, the Irish car trade has been having something of a purple patch. While new car sales fell to a nadir of just 65,000 sales in 2009 following the full effect of the financial crisis and resultant recession, since 2013 they have been recovering strongly.

Double-digit growth every year, in fact. That could be about to come to a shuddering halt, however. While 2016’s figures of a 19 per cent rise in new car sales compared with 2015 looks good, it doesn’t include the fact that most of that growth was in the first quarter of the year, and things have been declining since.

In fact, after the July second-plate sales rush, the rest of the year’s figures have been generally down on 2015’s tallies, suggesting a distinct softening in the market.

Now, most industry experts are expecting sales next year to be pretty static, holding at about the 145,000 to 150,000 level. Some, though, are expecting worse. Senior staff at one major Irish car importer, which asked to remain nameless in print, suggested to The Irish Times that the market could actually contract by as much as 15 per cent next year.

While that would be worrying indeed for the trade, it will release a slew of bargains for you, the buyer, as dealers and importers look to shed stock whose value is falling. So don’t be in any rush in January – wait and see the lie of the land before committing your cash.

2. Timing is everything

Whether the market falls, rises or holds, there is always an element of timing to getting the best new car deal for yourself and with the second number-plate change in July, there are more opportunities than ever to get yourself a nice car for less money.

The key dates are these – January 31st (when dealers and importers are desperate to hit their first-month numbers and collect their sales bonuses), March 31st (end of the first quarter and another round of potential bonuses if the registration figures are kept up) and June 30th (last day of the 171 number plate, last day of the first half of the year and a date upon which you can guarantee that some dealers and importers will be slapping number plates on to anything that’s not moving in an effort to boost their figures).

As long as you’re not too fussy about colours and optional extras, you can bag a serious bargain by waiting for these key end-of-period dates and sauntering into a dealer to see what they need to get rid of, fast. 20 per cent discounts are not unheard of and as much as 40 per cent can be found at times.

3. Diesel or petrol?

This has become the defining debate of our motoring era. Until 2008, and the changing of the motor tax and vehicle registration tax system, we were a petrol-loving nation simply because diesel engines tended to be bigger, and we were taxed according to the engine’s swept capacity.

The change to Co2-based tax saw an unseemly rush for diesel as we all tried to get cheaper tax bills. Now, many of us are regretting that choice. Some of us are regretting it because we are reading headlines about the damage being done to city centre air quality by diesel fumes and the nasty, toxic legacy of carmakers cheating on their pollution exams, claiming to sell us “clean diesel” models that were nothing of the sort.

Some of us will also be looking at other headlines, such as proposals to ban diesel cars from the city centres of Paris, Athens, Madrid and Mexico City by 2025. London is looking as if it might follow suit and if that happens, can Dublin be far behind?

Then there’s the maintenance issue. More than a few have been tripped up by diesel engines’ need for both mileage and maintenance. The complicated filter traps which are supposed to eliminate the emissions of cancer-causing black soot need careful care, and most of all need lots of long heat-generating motorway miles to work properly.

Townies who bought diesel have too often found that they’re facing massive repair bills because low, slow miles in urban traffic are death for diesel. Plus, you’ll spend years and long miles running your diesel engine to claw back the extra that you had to pay up front for it in fuel savings.

There’s also the resurgence of petrol power. Skoda, for one, can now sell you a 1.0-litre Octavia with a turbo petrol engine that performs like an old 1.6, has a sense of refinement and silence entirely alien to a diesel and which can still return better than 50mpg when driven gently. It’s even cheaper to buy than the equivalent diesel model, and most carmakers now have similar downsized petrol models on sale.

The short answer is to look at your mileage. If you’re constantly pounding up and down the major arterial routes, then diesel is still your friend, and at least you’re not gassing city centre pedestrians. If you live and drive in town, buy a petrol. If you are planning to keep your new car for many years to come, then you may need to consider something else again . . .

4. Is it time to buy electric yet?

Probably. Nearly. Maybe. It’s kind of tough to say, mostly because none of us critics want to get caught in situation of recommending LaserDisc six months before DVDs come out. Or recommending Blu-ray just as downloading becomes the norm.

That’s where electric cars are right now – on the cusp of being usable for a majority of us, but with the threat of a newer, better version just around the corner. Take the Hyundai Ioniq Electric as a perfect example.

Here we have a well-made, spacious and pleasant to drive car that can run for a claimed 280km on one charge and which can easily get from, say, Dublin to Belfast with only a short stop half way for a fast-charge.

It’s as painless an electric car as we’ve yet tried, and it has the sort of range and performance to easily suit most of our driving lives. The worrying thought, though, is that there’s better coming soon. That worrying thought is right.

Renault is about to launch a 400km Zoe and VW a 300km e-Golf.

And Tesla is finally coming to Ireland this year, and while prices kick off at north of €75,000, you can get a Model S with a one-charge range of more than 600km.

Electric motoring is most definitely the future, but it’s a fast-evolving one with hundreds of all-electric models, each one boasting a longer range than the last, due on sale between now and 2020. Buy one now, and it could be obsolete in months.

5. So I should buy a hybrid, then?

Possibly, but here again there be dragons waiting in the detail. A hybrid car should, theoretically, represent the comfortable middle ground between embattled diesel and unproven electric. You should be able to get the frugality you need balanced against the longevity you want.

A nice idea, but it doesn’t always work out. Plug-in hybrids are doubly confusing because their fuel consumption claims are so dramatically overblown. If you really think you’re going to get 85mpg out of a hulking great BMW X5 40e plug-in hybrid then you’re laughing.

Yes, you can plug it into the mains and get 50km on silent, zero-emissions electric power, but after that you’re using a turbo 2.0 petrol to lug a big 4x4 and its batteries around, so good luck getting better than 30mpg.

Equally, you won’t get the claimed 94mpg out of a Toyota Prius, but at least you should get a relatively-saintly 60mpg out of one without too much hassle, and the same (albeit at a slightly lower rate of closer to 50mpg) goes for the plug-in BMW 330e and VW Passat GTE, probably the best plug-ins on the market right now.

The problem with hybrids is that they’re generally very expensive and require a change in your driving technique to get the best economy from. Mind you, Toyota tells us that it gets huge numbers of inquiries about the Prius and other hybrids from people who have recently become grandparents.

According to its research, the Japanese car company says it’s because these buyers are experiencing sudden pangs of conscience about what sort of world their new grandkids will inherit. Perhaps if that’s the case, then maybe we should all be buying hybrids…

6. To PCP or not to PCP?

Well, if the Irish car buyer is anything to go by then the answer is to PCP. The introduction of personal contract purchases to these shores is credited in large part to driving the rapid recovery in car sales since the end of the recession, and it’s not hard to see why.

Anything that brings the monthly repayments down on a new car is bound to be tempting to a majority of buyers, and never mind that airy-fairy “bubble payment” at the end. Sure, you’ll be trading in by then, won’t you? Aye, there’s the rub.

To sleep in PCP land, perchance to dream of a trade-in in three years? Or to take arms against a sea of potential falls in used values? The problem with a PCP is that you’re not actually buying a car at all – you’re renting it, or leasing it at any rate. You have to keep its condition up to an agreed level at all times, and if you go over your (surprisingly strict) mileage limits then there will be charges come trade-in time.

On top of which, you are exposed to the vagaries of used car values even when you think you’re not. You see, one of the touted benefits of a PCP is that the used value of your car is guaranteed. Great, except that guaranteed value is supposed to be well below the actual projected value, leaving you with equity to roll over as a deposit for your next car. Also great.

But what if the projection is wrong? Or if the market dramatically shifts, say because some bunch of idiots decide to vote to leave the European Union? Your current car’s value is guaranteed but it’s only guaranteed to cover the closing cost of the finance package, so if the market moves, you could be left with a dusted and done PCP and no new car, or at least no deposit for one. So, don’t be blinded by the sparkle of those low monthly repayments, do your sums properly and carefully consider whether PCP is the right product for you.

7. What about an import?

Importing a car into Ireland is an often byzantine process that means getting involved with the tax man (or at least that section of the Revenue Commissioners that deals with imports) and wading through reams of paperwork.

On top of which, you’ve got to at minimum go to Northern Ireland or catch a plane or ferry to Wales to go and find the right car, pay for it and bring it back. Hassle and muddle. Worth it? Oh yes, simply because you can save thousands, and now that’s true even if you’re buying a cheap car.

Previously, the sterling-euro exchange rate meant that it was only those looking to spend €30,000-€40,000 on a car who would benefit from buying in the UK market, thanks to its greater size and overall lower prices.

Now though, thanks to the Brexit effect, sterling and euro are much closer together meaning that even those looking to buy sub-€10,000 family cars can make a killing by buying in the UK.

Partly that’s because the UK market is bigger and therefore has more choice and therefore that drives prices down, partly it’s because Irish used-car prices have been artificially inflated because of poor supply from the years 2009 to 2012 and because of the effectively-protectionist effect of high-valued sterling in those years.

Some Irish dealers are savvy enough to price their cars accordingly, or even to source stock from the UK and to offer it at bargain prices, but you will almost always (depending on the model and the individual deal) find a bigger saving at the other end of that ferry ramp.

8. There’s a warranty war going on

The two big Korean brands, Kia and Hyundai, have become synonymous with lengthy warranties in the past decade, vastly increasing their appeal to the buying public. Kia’s seven-year warranty, with its mileage limit and Hyundai’s five-year unlimited mileage version have been major factors in the dramatic rise in sales for those two firms in Ireland, not least Hyundai which took the top sales spot this year.

Now though, others are rising to the challenge. Mitsubishi already had an eight-year warranty in place but now Ford has become the first of the big-hitters to raise its guarantee game, matching Kia with seven-year cover capped at 100,000km.

A Ford spokesperson told The Irish Times that “the vehicle does not need to be serviced within the Ford dealer network in order to maintain its warranty. However, where a vehicle is not serviced by a Ford-authorised dealer, all parts and fluids must be genuine Ford items along with the service/maintenance operations need to be carried out in line with Ford specifications.

“For peace of mind we would advise that all service/maintenance work is carried out within the Ford dealer network. The warranty remains with the vehicle until its expiry date so is transferable to a second owner if within the seven years.”

While there is an undoubted marketing rationale behind the introduction of the new, longer warranty Ford has denied that it’s a short term sales gimmick and that the seven-year warranty will be retained “for the foreseeable future.” It puts Ford Ireland ahead of its opposite number in the UK, which continues to offer a mere three-year warranty with optional extensions to four and five years. Will Ford’s move push others into offering longer warranties (Renault is already offering five years and 200,000km, while Peugeot will give you four years’ cover)? Almost certainly.

9. Grab a run-out bargain

As is always the case, 2017 is going to see the introduction of a number of new models which should lead to some bargains being offered on the cars they’re replacing.

While there is a faint risk of increased depreciation in buying an outgoing car when its replacement is just arriving, generally speaking as long as you’re not trading in again in a year’s time, the effect should be minimal.

And the savings can be significant, especially if a dealer has stock of the old model to clear before the shiny new one arrives.

New cars due in this year include the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Stelvio, Alpine Coupe, Audi A5 and A5 Sportback, Q5, A6 and A8, BMW 5 Series and X2, Citroen Grand Cactus SUV and C3 hatchback, the aforementioned Ford Fiesta, a new Honda Civic, the Hyundai i30, an estate version of Jaguar’s gorgeous XF, the Jeep Compass, Kia Rio and Picanto, Land Rover Discovery, Lexus LC coupe, Mazda CX-5, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, E-Class Coupe, updated S-Class and X-Class pickup truck, the Mini Countryman, Nissan Micra and Juke, Peugeot 3008 and 5008, updated Renault Captur, new Koleos seven-seater and Alaskan pickup, Seat Arona (a small SUV brother to the Ateca) a new Ibiza, an updated Skoda Octavia and Skoda’s big Kodiaq SUV, a new Suzuki Ignis and Swift, the Toyota C-HR crossover and a plug-in Prius, an updated VW Golf, a new Passat CC and all-new versions of the Polo and Touareg and from Volvo the V90 Cross Country and an all-new XC60.

Not all of these new models have direct predecessors, it’s true, but those that do will make the run-out models significantly cheaper so be prepared to drive a hard bargain for yourself.