Friday 31 August 2012

Importing cars

Of all the problems we hear about at Consumer Watchdog, one of the commonest is with used cars. We all know that buying a second-hand car can be a nightmare. The main problem is knowledge. Most of us don’t know more than the basics about how a car works so we can easily find ourselves taking the wrong decision on impulse or find ourselves being deliberately deceived.

One of the main deceits you’ll encounter is about specially imported cars and that they can be a good idea. I don’t think they can. I’m not necessarily talking about cars that have already been imported, I mean the import web sites you visit that show you a car that’s currently in a far-flung land at a knock-down price. You can see adverts for them in the newspapers, on Facebook and even emails that just turn up in your Inbox advertising the services of the companies that ship the vehicles.

The main problem must be the simplest. When you buy a car, particularly a second-hand one, you always take it for a test drive. You always get a chance to see if it works properly, if it’s comfortable, if it just feels like the right car for you. You also get a chance to inspect it’s condition. Is there oil leaking from it, does the gearbox seem ok, are there any weird noises coming from the engine?

None of this is possible when you buy a car online. You really do get no more than a picture on a web site. Can you trust that?

The answer is, of course, that you can’t. A few months ago a reader asked us for advice on cars he’d found on a Japanese web site. All were 12-15 year old Toyotas, all models that you and I have never heard of and all were incredibly cheap. One was available for $600, the other two for $950 each. The total bill for buying them and shipping them all from Japan came to $4,950, about P40,000.

The details they’d sent him were extremely specific, even giving the chassis numbers of the vehicles they were selling. That just stimulated the detective in me. Within minutes I found the very same vehicle with the same chassis number also on sale in Georgia, 8,000km away from Japan. How can the same car be available from two different places?

Even if you do buy a car online, even if it does turn out to be mechanically sound, is it even worth it? The one advantage importing a car from overseas appears to have is price. They seem to be incredibly cheap. But are they really?

Rather than try and work this out for myself I consulted an industry expert. I won’t name him but rest assured that if anyone knows about these things, he does. He got in touch with one of these companies in the UK and this is what he told me.
“I requested a price for a 2004 VW Touareg and they came back with a basic price of £8,400. On top of that was £850 for shipping, £400 port costs, £350 delivery to Gabs, £1,400 for duty and tax, a total of £11,400. That’s about P137,370 or R145,612.

The trade price for the same vehicle in pristine condition from SA would be R154,800. Chances are it would be some R15-20,000 less. So expect a trade price of R134,000 or P124,200.

If you buy from the UK company you’ll actually pay more for something you haven’t seen and with no guarantee whatsoever. The bottom line is that it is NOT that cheap and, to me, based on this pricing not worth the risk.

In addition, once landed, the owner is going to have problems getting spare parts. They are NOT the same in every region and there are many subtle differences that we are unaware of. UK weather is very different to ours, which can mean some changes to deal with cooling issues. Radiators may well be smaller and control modules may also have different settings. European cars also often have very different specification to cars built for Africa. One common difference is the lack of rear electric windows that can alter the internal wiring of the car.

This is the same issue with Asian imports. This has caused many problems in the past as these parts are sometimes special orders and non-returnable, so if the local dealership gets the wrong part, it became the dealers problem. That’s why many local dealers will refuse to service imported vehicles.

I certainly would not want to be doing 4x4 off-roading in an imported Touareg in the desert on one of our 40C summer days with a radiator designed to cruise chilly UK motorways!”
So let’s make this clear. Buying a car online is remarkably risky. You don’t get to test drive it, you don’t get to inspect it, it comes with no guarantee, it might be impossible to service it, you have to pay the entire cost up front and it’s not even a cheap way to buy a car. Why on earth would you consider doing such a thing? Isn’t it making an already difficult situation even more difficult?

If you’re confident about the risk then good luck to you, but please, before you take that risk, do some research. Check the prices available from local dealers or their cousins in SA and then do the maths. You might just find that the safer option is also the cheaper one.

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