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Breaking down motoring costs.

Byline: By Jeremy Gates Wales on Sunday

Driven to distraction by motorway jams, urban speed traps and trigger-happy parking wardens, Britain's motorists have missed one bit of good news coming their way: cars are so reliable that breakdowns are getting rarer.

The August issue of Which? magazine, from the Consumers Association, says some car makers do a great job. Reliability levels of Ford cars have zoomed from poor to excellent since 2000.

Other stars, in a survey of 34,000 cars up to eight years old, include the Toyota Corolla (one breakdown out of 212 cars up to two years old), Hyundai Getz (no problem cars at all in a sample of 56) and the Mazda 3. Volvo's S40 and XC90 models are near-perfect too.

If cars are getting better, are we wasting money by paying too much for roadside repair and recovery services?

Finance website claims motorists waste up to pounds 1.5bn a year on breakdown cover - because the big three (AA, RAC and Green Flag) with two thirds of the market charge much more than dozens of smaller rivals.

Most offer cover at four levels: Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze. The best, Platinum, includes roadside repair, vehicle recovery to home or any UK destination, recovery for up to seven passengers, onward travel in hire car or train, or accommodation instead, and repair at home. Bronze offers either roadside repair or tow.

Platinum is invariably best value, says Richard Mason at but at that level, the RAC charges pounds 152 and the AA pounds 141, against cheaper rivals including Europ Assistance (pounds 36.25), Tesco (pounds 79) and More@THAN (pounds 78.62) which claim to offer much the same.

In two vehicle households, Mason calculates, prices are equally variable - from GEM Recovery (pounds 67) at one end of the spectrum to AA (pounds 165), RAC (pounds 179), Britannia (pounds 238.80) at the other.

Says Mason: 'It's nice to see an AA van when you're stuck on the M1. But in remote parts of the country, many breakdown firms use the same network of garages.'

Mason adds: 'I wasn't surprised the AA was sold by Centrica. I doubt they can keep charging what they do in the long term.'

However, AA spokesman Gavin Hill-Smith justifies higher charges - because of the AA's 3,000 strong patrol force, its use of satellite technology to find the quickest route to a breakdown, and by its repair rate of one breakdown fixed every 8.7 seconds - better than any other provider.

Price comparisons, says Hill-Smith, don't always compare like-for-like: Tesco, for instance, quotes per vehicle while the AA quotes are per person.

The AA also makes no extra charge for extra labour at the roadside, no matter how long repairs take. Some providers recover cars to a garage for motorists to pay for repair separately - making cheaper cover a false economy.

According to the 2005 JD Power Roadside Assistance Study, recognised in the industry as impartial, motorists still rank the AA as top of the tree - the fifth time they have done so in eight years.

Tesco's Head of Car Breakdown Cover Allan Burns says: 'As the choice widens, drivers need to be sure they will get high quality service. By linking with Green Flag, our call-out time averaging 40 minutes is on a par with, or better than, AA/RAC, and if we don't achieve it, we are ready to pay pounds 10 compensation.'

With 33,000 breakdown cover policies sold since November 2003, and widely available at its stores, Tesco is set to increase the number of stores which enable motorists to join during their weekly shopping. If they want cover in Europe, Tesco bolts it on as an optional extra for pounds 45 per car.

Even that is left far behind by More@THAN, says which adds European cover to its UK package free of charge.
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 7, 2005
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