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Cash for clunkers program frustrating consumers and dealers alike

Sara Kostar, 26, was disappointed to find out that her 1992 Chevy Cavalier that spews carbon monoxide but officially gets 20 mph doesn’t qualify for the federal “cash for clunkers” program. 

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Sara Kostar, 26, was disappointed to find out that her 1992 Chevy Cavalier that spews carbon monoxide but officially gets 20 mph doesn’t qualify for the federal “cash for clunkers” program. 

Sara Kostar recently stopped driving her 1992 Chevy Cavalier because of its chemical smell, poor emissions and overall bad shape.

So she was thrilled when she heard about the new federal rebate program dubbed "cash for clunkers." The law, which took effect July 1, promises up to $4,500 to people who trade in qualifying used vehicles and buy new, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

But 26-year-old Kostar, like many others with so-called clunkers, won't benefit. Her Cavalier gets 20 miles per gallon — too efficient by government standards for the cash for clunkers program.

"I mean, if this isn't the textbook definition of 'clunker,' I don't know what is," she said. "I've literally gotten sick from driving this car."

What appears to be a well-meaning program aimed at improving the environment and boosting the auto industry is causing more than a little confusion and frustration among those trying to use it — car dealers and customers alike.

Many who think they should qualify are finding they don't. And for those who do qualify? Good luck finding a dealer that will let you drive your new car off the lot before the program's rules are finalized.

The bill, officially named Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save (CARS) Act of 2009, was signed by President Barack Obama for a July 1 launch. But the details of the $1 billion program, which runs through November or until funds run out, won't be final until July 24.

Because of this, many car dealers are skittish about cutting buyers the $3,500 or $4,500 break, fearing the rules might change and they'll lose that money.

"Frankly, we're somewhat confused," said Frank Scarritt of Scarritt Lincoln-Mercury in Seminole. "Why would they come out with a program when it doesn't have all the rules in place?"

Scarritt's dealership won't participate in the program until July 24, though it tries to negotiate similarly valued deals with customers who come in asking about it, Scarritt said.

"I don't know that this plan has done anything for us yet," Scarritt said.

But at Friendly Kia in New Port Richey, sales have been picking up the past two weeks because of the program, said owner John Gilliss.

Friendly Kia is negotiating and preselling new cars using the program's guidelines — the trade-in vehicle must be no more than 25 years old, have an official combined city/highway fuel economy of 18 mpg or less and be traded in for a new car that gets 22 mpg or more, among other stipulations. But no sales are final until July 24.

"That gives us both a way out if there's something thrown in at the last minute," Gilliss said.

This was good enough for 71-year-old Tom Cleary, who was already thinking about buying a new car when the new law "sort of put it over the top," he said. He and his wife wanted to trade in their 1996 Buick for a prepurchased Kia Optima from Friendly Kia, but the Buick's gas mileage was too high. So they traded in their 18 mpg 1998 Ford Explorer on Thursday and will pick up their new car in a couple of weeks, assuming the federal guidelines don't change.

And they could change, said Patricia Swift-Oladeinde, a public affairs official for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees the CARS program.

"Everything's still up in the air," she said.

Kostar, who called the CARS hotline to complain about her Cavalier not making the cut, was even told by an agency representative that the rules could change again in November, perhaps making her car eligible. The representative told her to contact a member of the U.S. Congress. Instead, she contacted state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

"We're going to go ahead and forward this to local congressmen and U.S. senators, and I suggested she do the same," Fasano said. "The system that the federal government has created is truly unfair."

Kostar realizes the government needs to have clunker guidelines so people don't take advantage of the program. But she imagines her disappointment is shared by others like her and her husband who just want to be able to afford a greener, more efficient vehicle.

"It's really sad because it's affecting the middle class. This is an area filled with low-income families who could use this help," she said. "It just feels like another bump in a rocky road we're all going through."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Cash for clunkers program frustrating consumers and dealers alike 07/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:46pm]
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