Honest John: what is the best way to pay for a car?

Our consumer champion suggests a way out of a car-buying conundrum, along with advice for maintaining your car if you're still quarantining

Man holding twenty Pound - £20 - banknotes.
Is cash king when it comes to buying a brand-new motor? Credit: Alamy

If your car has developed a fault, or for consumer advice, turn to Honest John by emailing [email protected]

Hard decision

My daughter-in-law's hire purchase agreement ends soon. She spends just over £300 a month on a Mazda MX-5 2.0. Mazda advised her that the equivalent new one would increase her monthly costs to £500, as the 2.0-litre is now only available in a much higher specification. The dealer also has a 2019 MX-5 hard-top and suggests she could have that for a similar monthly payment to her current car. I advised her to wait until her change date is nearer, as hopefully by then dealers will be keener to do business and she would be in a better position to barter. Are there any hard and fast rules that suggest whether Hire Purchase, PCP or bank loan is best? I think she is spending a lot of money over three years with nothing to show if she goes down the PCP route, whereas a bank loan and paying cash would mean she has an asset at the end of three years. Which option would suit her best? JR

If the dealer will sort her out now with the 2019 car, it’s probably best to take that option. I can't tell you anything about the finance options because the details change all the time, sometimes by the minute, so sound advice today might not be such sound advice soon after. I can tell you that as soon as the lockdown was lifted, there was an explosion of nearly-new and mass-market new cars that appeared for sale at sensible prices (like the deal she is being offered on the 2019 MX-5 hard-top). Once these have gone, cars will not be cheap again in the UK. Expect transaction prices to rise by 20 per cent for more desirable cars such as MX-5.

Polo position

I have a five-year-old VW Polo automatic with 38,000 miles, kept in the garage and driven once a week during lockdown for 10-15 miles. I lock it with an alarmed key fob, leave the handbrake off, putting a brick behind a rear wheel, and turn the interior light off. I’m still self-quarantining, so should I just use the key to lock it and no alarm, leaving two windows slightly open, or carry on locking and putting the alarm on with the keyfob and therefore windows closed? AS

You're doing the right things. You could restrict your essential drives to 20-30 miles every two or three weeks. Switch off the interior light and lock the car completely. Just locking the door and leaving a window open could leave something operating, such as the Bluetooth searching for its paired phone.

Drats and cogs

Moist annoying: Fiat 500X gearbox issues have been joined by keyfob gremlins

My 2015 Fiat 500X 1.4 Multiair Dualogic automatic has done 26,000 miles from new. It had been reliable until fairly recently, when I was unable to select Drive and a warning light came up showing a cog and an instruction to “check transmission”. The engine starts and I have only been able to engage drive by using the manual selector, but not reverse. I have been told that it could be a case of reprogramming the computer. I tried several garages that supposedly repair autos, but it seems that nobody wants to touch a manual-assisted gearbox. Are there any garages that you know of in my area that could deal with this? Just to compound my problems, both key fobs are playing up. The one I normally use will start the car but not lock it. The spare, which has rarely been used, is dead, even with new batteries. Any ideas? HS

Take your keys to a branch of Timpsons in a Tesco foyer or car park and have them replace the batteries, then reprogram the dead key from the live key. The Dualogic is an automated manual transmission, not a “proper” automatic; you need to contact a Fiat dealer or independent specialist. The very best automatic transmissions in small cars are the torque converter EA8 units in new Citroëns, Peugeots and Vauxhalls. 

Cosmo noughts

Why are Rover P5 saloons half the price of equivalent coupé versions?

I am considering buying a classic Rover P5B and find that the saloon price is less than half the price of the coupé. Given that the difference between these models is cosmetic, why the disparity in value? MR

That cosmetic difference is the reason. A P5B coupé is “cool” and is cherished, whereas the saloon is just another classic British saloon used by Labour prime ministers. The value of classic cars has nothing whatsoever to do with practicality. In the USA, two-door ’50s, ’60s and ‘70s classics are always worth a lot more than four-doors. And, of course, if the top goes down, the price goes up. But if you find a perfect, original P5B saloon for the same price as a badly patched-up coupé, go for the saloon. And always remember, bills for restoring a big saloon are a lot higher than those for restoring a small, open-top sports car.

Lynx course

Terminal: do the batteries of modern cars have a slight drain that means they take longer to charge?

I use an Airflow conditioner/trickle charger to maintain the battery on my 1936 Riley Lynx and it has worked effectively, with the battery maintaining full performance over many years. The built-in battery voltage check indicates full charge after a few hours of charging during a run. I purchased a second charger to maintain the battery on my 2020 Skoda Octavia 2.0 TSI petrol estate. After connection it has taken two full weeks of charging to reach the “conditioning” state, so could there be some very small drain on the battery in modern cars? AM

Modern engines with stop/start engines require a different type of battery: either an EFB (Enhanced Flooded Battery) or a more powerful AGM (Absorbent Glass Mat) type. A traditional lead-acid battery, such as that in your Riley, is not suitable. You are probably using the wrong type of battery-conditioning smart charger for an AGM or an EFB stop/start battery on the Skoda. You need to use a specific type of charger, such as a CTEK CT5. 

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