These clunkers aren’t gas guzzlers

Cash for ClunkersThe $1 billion ” Car Allowance Rebate System,” known by most everyone as “cash for clunkers,” pays consumers between $3,500 and $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? While participating dealers are definitely seeing an upturn in business, a tour of several local 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 at a much faster rate than anyone expected.

How so? Well, 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.

There were, for example, 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, a Cadillac with a V-6, two midsized Dodge Dakota pickups, two six-cylinder Jeep Cherokees, a full-sized Dodge conversion van with a V-6. A Ford Ranger extended-cab pickup with a V-6.

There were no Chevrolet Suburbans, Lincoln Town Cars, Ford Crown Victorias, Chevrolet Caprices. No full-sized 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 ? and Sun State Ford, for instance, has done only one $3,500 deal, with the rest being for $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 red Mustang convertible.

That fate being, of course, that the dealer will pour 2 quarts of sodium silicate, essentially liquefied sand, into the oil crankcase and start the engine and run it until it seizes up. Then the whole vehicle will be loaded onto a trailer, or towed behind a wrecker, 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: A clean extended-cab Dodge Dakota with custom wheels has transmission trouble, as does a Ford Explorer next to it. Ian Riding, sales manager for Sun State, said the Explorer belonged to a mechanic who worked there, who would have had to install an $800 transmission to keep the Explorer running. But instead, he got $4,500 toward a new car.

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, which looks like it should be waiting outside soccer practice to transport the team, will be crushed and recycled.

But wasn’t this supposed to happen to lane-blocking, gas-guzzling, smoke-belching old land yachts that get single-digit gas mileage?

Guess not. If the purpose of CARS is to keep sales for auto manufacturers and dealers moving along, and to get more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, then I suppose it works. But I’d just as soon not be there when that red Mustang convertible meets the crusher.

(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.