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29 May 2020

Car showrooms in England to reopen on 1 June; is now the right time to buy a new car?

Find out how car retailers are keeping staff and customers safe as lockdown measures ease, plus our car industry insider's advice on getting a good deal

Monday 1 June will see car dealership showrooms start to reopen in England. But those in need of a new motor should expect a car-buying experience like never before.

Plastic screens, one-way routes and solo test drives are just part of a raft of safety measures that showrooms will be implementing to adhere to government advice when reopening.

With car sales falling through the floor in recent months, dealerships will be wanting to make up for lost time. But an industry insider told us that won't guarantee fantastic deals from day one.

Read on to find out:

If you've been waiting until showrooms reopen to buy a new car, go straight to our guide on the best cars for 2020to see what our independent tests recommend.

Will all showrooms actually open on 1 June?

Not every showroom will be open on the first day, but there have already been a number of announcements from dealerships advertising the fact that their doors will indeed open from Monday.

Sue Robinson, director of the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA), told us: 'Most franchised dealers are willing to reopen on 1 June or as close to that date as possible.

'A number of businesses may reopen gradually as they plan to ramp up operations over the summer as demand returns to the showrooms.'

Showrooms in Northern Ireland are set to open from 8 June. At the time of writing, dates for Scotland and Wales had not yet been confirmed.

What are dealerships doing to protect staff and customers?

Thanks to weeks of work and comprehensive guidelines put out jointly by the NFDA and SMMT (Society for Motoring Manufacturers and Traders) on how to adhere to the government's rules while functioning as a dealership, it looks like the risks are being as well managed as possible.

For starters, there won't be an abundance of cars cluttering up the showroom. Instead, there will be a limited number of vehicles on display inside the showroom, and one-way systems will be put in place to guide people from an entrance, past the cars and to an exit. Where in use, waiting areas will be divided up to make sure people can still socially distance.

All the cars on display will be locked. People should still be able to view the interior of the car, but on request or by appointment.

After being viewed, each car will be cleaned and disinfected, with particular attention paid to touch points such as door handles, the steering wheel and the gear stick.

Other precautions being taken include:

  • COVID-19 risk assessment must be done
  • Protective screens at desks
  • Children's play areas will be closed
  • As much business as possible to be done outside of the showroom, in the fresh air
  • No newspapers and magazines in waiting areas
  • Sanitising stations throughout
  • Lots of cordoned-off areas for customers to wait.

Read all of the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?, from how to shop safely to how the outbreak has affected finances

Can I take a test drive?

Yes, but test drives will be a bit different to normal, in the following ways.

  1. You'll be alone, or just with members of your household. Normally a representative would be in the car with you, but that's not going to happen during the pandemic.
  2. You may be required to keep windows open to allow for proper ventilation, and potentially be asked to wear a mask and/or gloves while inside the vehicle.
  3. You may be asked to follow a pretty short route. Car dealership company Sytner Group, for example, has advised its dealers to set a test drive route designed to last no longer than 15 minutes. Previously, Sytner dealers allowed you to take a Mini away for a 48-hour test period, for example.

Sytner Group, which operates dealerships for premium manufacturers, such as Aston Martin, Audi, BMW/Mini, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo to name a few, has published its advice for dealerships online, including how to conduct test drives.

Synter Group's documentation also shows that 'certain high-value or high-performance' vehicles will be excluded from being test driven. So, for now, you can rule out posing as a potential Aston Martin customer in a bid for a thrilling, albeit brief, test drive.

Will I get a better deal on a new car straight after lockdown?

Whether buying a new or used car from a newly opened showroom, an industry source told Which? that it would be a mistake to assume that dealers will be offering better-than-normal deals from day one.

While dealers will likely need sales more than buyers need new cars, dealers may initially hold off on cut-price deals while they weigh demand against supply.

That said, we think this 'weighing-up' period will be short and great deals will be put in place sooner rather than later. But if you hit the showrooms next week and can't get a deal you like immediately, try leaving it a few weeks to see if things change.

Don't accept a poor part-exchange deal

Our source also warned about the possibility of less scrupulous dealers trying to offer lower part-exchange values for your current car, by claiming COVID-19 has caused a drop in car values. This isn't the case.

If you want to buy a car based on part-exchange, shop around for deals on the car you want and see what different dealerships will offer you for your existing car. Don't accept a bad deal 'because of the pandemic'.

Top tips for getting a great deal on a new car

  • Be open-mindedIf possible, try to have a shortlist of cars you would buy rather than just the one. This will help you walk away from a dealer who won't offer a decent discount.
  • Do your homework Try to read up on a car and decide what trim level and options you want prior to visiting the showroom, including what you will and won't compromise on. You don't want to rush into a deal and then develop a case of buyer's remorse because you forgot to add smartphone integration via Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
  • Don't be afraid to haggleThe sales team nearly always has some room to manoeuvre on price, so push hard for a discount.
  • Your perfect car may take timeIf your car specification requirements are such that the car is not in stock with the specs you want, and instead has to be made and shipped, be aware that delays may be a bit longer due to the pandemic.

As an example of this last point, the UK's most popular car, the Ford Fiesta (2017-), has a mind-boggling nine different trim levels (all of which have additional optional extras). The Fiesta has an 18-week lead time for cars that aren't already in stock.

The Fiesta's bigger brother, the Ford Focus (2018-), has an even longer 22-week lead time for out-of-stock cars thanks to delays caused by COVID-19.

A final tip - call the dealership ahead of time. This isn't a buying tactic, but more to help dealerships manage their capacity. Even if dealerships aren't operating an appointment system, calling ahead should make it easier for them to manage numbers and therefore the risk of coronavirus infection.

For more tips on how to buy a car, including how to haggle effectively, see our guides on how to buy a new car and how to buy a used car.

Is now the time to buy an electric car?

There's a good chance you've seen stories about our air being cleaner and emissions dropping in recent months; one of the few positive side effects of lockdown.

As an example, the journal Nature Climate Change recently reported that daily global CO2 emissions had decreased by 17% as of early April 2020 compared with average 2019 levels.

According to a survey we carried out before the pandemic, 14% of prospective car buyers are thinking of going electric for their next car, while a further 28% are considering a hybrid. These figures may have increased given the current situation and effect on our environment.

Chart: what type of car are drivers thinking of buying next?

The pandemic and environmental news might just encourage a few more owners to ditch traditional petrol or diesel cars in favour of a hybrid or completely electric car.

Our guide on how to charge an electric car explains the basics of running and charging an electric car, or take a look at our expert reviews of the best electric cars and best hybrid cars to discover the best you can buy right now.

Below, we've highlighted two alternative-fuel cars we've tested recently.

Honda CR-V hybrid (2019-), £29,428

2019 brought us the first ever hybrid version of the long-running and popular Honda CR-V.

When we drove the hybrid before it landed in dealerships in the UK, we were blown away by how good the hybrid system felt to drive and were left with the initial impression that it was more capable than its petrol-only counterpart.

Since then, we've fully lab tested Honda's CR-V hybrid and are quietly confident its popularity will continue.

We contacted Honda to see what sort of delays new CR-V customers might have to endure from 1 June when showrooms open again, but were assured by a spokesperson that there is 'plenty of stock of all grades and all colours - petrol and hybrid.'

Are you going to join the CR-V convoy? Find out by reading our full reviews of both the Honda CR-V Hybrid (2019-), and the regular Honda CR-V (2018-).

Renault Zoe (2019-), £26,886

If you're ready to go fully electric, the Renault Zoe might make your shortlist.

A claimed range of 245 miles for a car that costs less than £30,000 is incredibly good value. Such a range puts it on par with much more expensive vehicles from Tesla and Jaguar, and in doing so removes two barriers to owning an electric vehicle: range anxiety and the cost of the car itself.

The latest Zoe is a bit more appealing than its predecessor, too. The interior has been completely redesigned and feels more upmarket, plus its incredibly easy to drive.

Renault told us they have a large number of Zoes in stock around the UK and have just launched a tool that allows prospective owners to reserve their Renault of choice.

All Zoe buyers will also get a free wallbox for quick charging at home. Renault has confirmed that after a brief, unavoidable hiatus due to the coronavirus crisis, its supplier is currently installing wallboxes again.

Find out if Zoe is the one for you by heading to our full lab report on the all electric Renault Zoe (2019-).