Cash for clunkers causing concerns

Aug. 1, 2009
As someone who owns a mini-fleet of high-mileage vehicles, I get excited when I hear and in the same sentence. Apparently, I'm not alone. When we covered

As someone who owns a mini-fleet of high-mileage vehicles, I get excited when I hear “cash” and “clunkers” in the same sentence. Apparently, I'm not alone. When we covered the new federal Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) program in a recent eNewsletter, a couple hundred of you clicked on the link ( to learn more.

Here's the gist of “Cash for Clunkers.” The idea is to help consumers pay for new, more fuel-efficient vehicles when they trade in a less fuel-efficient car or truck. Under the rebate program, buyers stand to receive up to $4,500 toward the purchase or lease of a new car or truck that meets the criteria. For passenger automobiles, the car to be traded must be drivable, have a fuel economy rating of 18 mpg or less, and be registered and insured for the full year prior to trade-in. To get a rebate, the new car must be priced at $45,000 or less, and to receive the maximum rebate of $4,500, the new car must have a fuel economy rating of at least 10 mpg greater than the old one. To receive an incentive of $3,500, the same car would be traded for one that gets at least four mpg better mileage. The program runs through November 1 or when the Dept. of Transportation exhausts program funding, whichever comes first.

We have five cars, all of which have driven more than 100,000 miles, none worth more than a few thousand dollars. You'd think our clunkers would be a perfect fit for the program, but it's not that simple. We can immediately rule out the two Hondas and the Mazda based on fuel economy. None of them gets anywhere close to the lousy 18 mpg needed to qualify as trade-ins. Then there's the Lincoln, which seems promising. The mileage isn't very good and we could easily find something new that gets 10 mpg better. The problem here is that we haven't owned and insured it for at least a year, as the rules stipulate. Sadly, that only leaves our baby.

We have an '84 Mercedes 380SL, what some automotive writers have called “cheap sophistication” and an “affordable classic.” Its mileage is bad enough to quality for the rebate, and we're right at the cutoff as far as age — 25 years or less. But the decision would be painful. Not only is this our summer fun car, trading it in as a “clunker” would send it to an early, undignified death. Rebate rules dictate that trade-ins must be destroyed.

Keeping me awake at night are other concerns: Do I really need a car payment? Do I want to pay full-coverage insurance on a new vehicle? Then the justifications mount: I'd be helping the auto industry recover, and supporting our sagging economy. It'd be really nice to have a new car again and not worry about repairs. I work hard and deserve a reliable, comfortable car. Sound familiar? For the rest of the summer, we'll enjoy our shabby chic convertible and consider the pros and cons of junking it. Let us know if you're able to take advantage of the rebate.

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