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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


For some, ‘Clunkers’ are a better deal

I’ve never thought of my 1991 Dodge Dynasty as being a “clunker.” She’s been referred to as a “grandpa” car, a “drug dealer” car even, but certainly not a clunker. Then, the muffler and every inch of piping to the rear of the catalytic converter fell off as I was driving to a movie Friday night. 

Cars swerved and honked behind me as the wreckage bounced to a stop in the middle of an intersection that connected a residential street, two freeway onramps and two off ramps.

That’s about when I began to seriously consider cashing in the Dyno for a $4,500 voucher good towards the purchase of new more-fuel-efficient car as part of the increasingly popular “cash for clunkers” proposal. 

The bill already passed in the House on May 5, and a slightly different version is under review in the Senate. If all goes well, any “clunker” that gets 18 miles per gallon or less will qualify its progressive-minded owner to receive up to $4,500 for a new car that gets 4-9mpg more than the old one (1).

Hmmm, considering that my muffler was nowhere to be seen after the four hour rush hour subsided, I began to poke through just how viable a plan turning the old girl into government scrap metal might be.

As it would turn out, a 1991 Dodge Dynasty, void of a hubcap, muffler, and the ability to be driven through a school zone without arousing the attention of a neighborhood watch did not meet the standards to help with the purchase of a fuel-efficient new automobile. 

According to Kelly Blue Book, the Dynasty racks up an impressive 20/26mpg, well above the 18mpg needed to bring home the voucher. Adding to the problem, the loss of the muffler reduced the resistance on the exhaust flow, most likely increasing the efficiency of the 3.0L V6 even further above the acceptable benchmark. 

Kelly also informed me that a mint condition Dynasty of that year retailed for about $1,625-$1,800. Considering the performance enhancing modifications listed above (missing hubcap = weight reduction + the yellow racing stripe courtesy of a Highway 12 guardrail), we’ll say my ride is worth a solid grand to a person with a poor sense of smell. 

Is this not a clunker? Once the sparkplugs crap out I can get 18mpg, I promise!

Unfortunatley, even if I were to somehow finagle the maximum $4,500 prize out of the feds, realistically, the cheapest new car I could buy would still start at a bare bones minimum of 8-9K and get a maximum of about 35 mpg highway. In the time it would take the fuel savings from the new car to make up for the difference I paid out of pocket for it, I would probably be looking for another car, or living in a Chevy Aveo. 

Catherine Holahan of MSN Money summed up the common dilemma in her own dissection of the bill:

“The obvious winners would be the owners of virtually worthless older cars who had plenty of cash or the ability to obtain financing. Though the bill would do little to free up financing for strapped buyers, it would give relatively affluent consumers the push they might need to feel comfortable about purchasing this year.”

Despite the current elitism of the bill, the Dynasty and cars like it will indeed be considered a legitimate burden on society in the years to come as President Obama recently announced a national program to cut new vehicle carbon emissions and raise mileage by 30 percent. (2) In all likelihood, it will make the cars of the future, well, signifigantly better than the cars of the present. 

Cue futuristic music. 

In the future (if the plan comes to pass), it will be required that an automaker's fleet of cars and light trucks get an average minimum 35.5 mpg. By 2016, cars will be expected to ramp up efficiency to 39 mpg, light trucks will need to jump to 30 mpg (2). 

"The status quo is no longer acceptable," Obama said at a White House ceremony. "We have done little to increase fuel efficiency of America's cars and trucks for decades."

"As a result of this agreement, we will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles sold in the next five years," Obama added. "And at a time of historic crisis in our auto industry, this rule provides the clear certainty that will allow these companies to plan for a future in which they are building the cars of the 21st century" (1). 

Great. But what does this mean to a guy who considers it a cost-saving measure when his muffler falls off? 

Cash for clunkers, increased fuel economy requirements for new vehicles, it's all pushing in the right direction, but for those of us who still couldn’t afford to buy a new fuel-efficient car even with the aid of a $4,500 government voucher, the idealized push towards the cars of tomorrow loses more than a bit of its luster.




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