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'Clunkers' traded in not exactly what government intended

Some parts can be salvaged from vehicles traded in under the “cash for clunkers” program, but dealers must destroy their engines and send them to the junkyard.

Associated Press

Some parts can be salvaged from vehicles traded in under the “cash for clunkers” program, but dealers must destroy their engines and send them to the junkyard.

The $1 billion Car Allowance Rebate System, known by most as "cash for clunkers," pays consumers $3,500 to $4,500, depending on the fuel mileage of the new vehicle, to trade in their old, presumably gas-guzzling and polluting vehicles.

Is that what's happening? A tour of several car dealers suggests that the vehicles being traded in don't fit that "gas-guzzling, polluting" stereotype. And that could be one big reason why the CARS funds are being depleted much faster than anyone expected.

Looking at more than 20 "clunker" trade-ins, most could not be classified as "guzzlers," even though they had to average 18 miles per gallon or worse to qualify.

They included two Chrysler minivans with V-6 engines. A very nice Ford Windstar minivan with a V-6, full leather interior, a six-disc CD player and what appeared to be brand-new tires. Three Ford Explorers with V-6 engines, two midsize Dodge Dakota pickups, two six-cylinder Jeep Cherokees.

There were no Chevrolet Suburbans, Ford Crown Victorias. No full-size pickups. No land-yacht station wagons.

There was, however, a nice Ford Mustang convertible, red with a white top and white leather interior.

So what's going on?

The government's contribution of $4,500 is pretty generous. And granted, of the 20-odd "clunkers" I looked at, none was worth more than $4,500. Even the clean, Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo with the 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine is worth less than that, regardless of its new set of Michelin tires, which probably cost at least $500.

So even if you could sell a vehicle for $4,000, you'd still come out better trading it in and getting $4,500. That seals the fate of even the Mustang convertible.

That fate being that the dealer must pour 2 quarts of sodium silicate, essentially liquefied sand, into the oil crankcase and run the engine until it seizes up. Then the vehicle will be hauled to a junkyard, where it will be crushed or shredded. The junkyard can sell parts off the vehicles, but how many will bother to do that is unknown.

Granted, some of the vehicles on the "clunker" lots have problems. Still, it's a little heartbreaking to know than within the next few days, the coveted 5.0-liter engine in the Mustang will be reduced to a smoldering, unsalvageable chunk of metal.

And that Windstar Limited minivan with the leather interior and the luggage rack will be crushed and recycled.

Wasn't this supposed to happen to gas-guzzling, smoke-belching old land yachts that get single-digit gas mileage?

Guess not. If the purpose of CARS is to keep auto sales moving and to get more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, then I suppose it works. But I'm glad I won't see that red Mustang convertible meet the crusher.

'Clunkers' traded in not exactly what government intended 08/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 9:38pm]
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