New-car sales in Poland have plummeted in the past four months because the country's consumers are buying used cars from western Europe.

According to Automotive News Europe, a Polish newspaper even offers used car package tours to Germany and Belgium for would-be car buyers. Participants are offered a complete assistance package including legal and logistical help to bring the cars back to Poland.

Poland's new car sales last month were down by 32.14% to 20,571 units, the worst September result in five years.

Used-car imports for the first eight months of 2004 were more than 400,000 units - over 10 times the total level for 2003.

The trend has alarmed car companies such as Fiat, Toyota and Peugeot, which have all seen their new car sales plunge in central Europe's largest auto market.

"It is a disaster for us," said Fabrice d'Arche, head of sales in Poland for Fiat, which is the country's No. 1 new-car retailer.

"Our market share in September is a clear demonstration of how bad it is."

Fiat sales in September were down nearly 58% to 2,586 units.

"The number of imported used cars is appallingly high," said Jan Okulicz, a Toyota Poland spokesman.

He said many buyers were choosing used cars such as a five-year old BMW instead of a Toyota Yaris. Toyota's September sales were down almost 47% to 1,984 units.

Why are Polish consumers buying used cars in western Europe? Because they can.

Before the country joined the EU in May, Poland protected its domestic auto industry by imposing a 65% tax on any imported used car more than three years old. But the Polish government had to scrap the tax to comply with EU fair-trading regulations.

Many Polish consumers also have been hit by price increase on goods since the country joined the EU and cannot afford new cars.