By on June 17, 2009

What is a clunker? Various dictionaries I consulted used terms like “a decrepit machine, especially an old car” or “an old or badly working piece of machinery” or “a noisy, dilapidated automobile.” Apparently there’s a new definition, courtesy of Congress: “any vehicle rated at 18 mpg or less.” The Detroit News has a link to a database to let you find out if your car would qualify for the “Cash for Clunkers” program that has passed the House and is headed for the Senate. The first thing you notice: the database has nothing to do with the condition of the vehicle in question.

Nope, the only deciding factor in determining clunkerhood is fuel economy. Forget about mufflers dragging the ground, doors and trunks bungee corded shut, mismatched tire sizes, rusted floorpans, broken windshields and crumpled bodywork. If you can manage better than 18 mpg, you’re not officially driving a clunker. At least those Arnage, Murciélago and F430 owners can sleep easy, knowing that their clunkers are worth $4500 should they want to trade them on a Chrysler Sebring. But this must really annoy drivers who opted for fuel efficient automobiles.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

32 Comments on “A Clunker by Any Other Name . . ....”

  • avatar

    I know so many people waiting to buy a car after this passes (if) so they can reap a windfall on their cars and trucks. The byzantine rules are going to make it tough to qualify, nothing new there, but in the end drivers of gas guzzlers are having the last laugh.

  • avatar

    People also need to know that when they bring in that ‘clunker’, it will be taken to the salvage yard and destroyed, engine and all. They also have to show proof that they have owned this ‘clunker’ for a year before turning it in. This is to prevent people from running out and buying a POS and turning it in 3 days later.

  • avatar

    My friend with a newish hemi charger will get 4500 towards damn near anything, i have a decrepit 95 vw golf, i get nothing.

    this is one of the stupidest ideas EVER.

  • avatar

    Part of me dislikes this proposal, but part of me also sees some good coming out of it (partially). If the MPG targets were actually a bit higher, as well as a provision added to fish up seriously older vehicles then this would be a good idea. Sometimes what is good for us in the long run (collectively) may not be sweet to swallow short term. If the idea is to get low MPG (less dependance on foreign oil) and polluting cars (cleaner air) off the road (this would be considered a “good” thing), then fine. But the mileage targets are not that much better than some cars that would be traded in. But this will be more for keeping the automotive companies floating by means of artificially propping up new car sales. Sadly, while my 2003 Liberty qualifies MPG-wise, the $4500 is less than the trade or sale value. But I won’t whine about how unfair this is. It won’t help me, even though I’d like a more fuel efficient vehicle. Maybe I’ll just trade it on the 2007 Toyota Corolla I looked at last night and be done with it.

  • avatar

    I’ve been wondering, myself, why this isn’t somehow tied to condition, or tailpipe emissions. If they truly wanted to do this under the guise of being green, it would make more sense to connect the program to emissions testing. Texas has a clean air program that gives credit (up to $3,500 I believe) to owners of qualifying vehicles that won’t pass inspection. Once again, a poorly planned government program is born. Hopefully the Senate boots it.

  • avatar
    Gary Numan

    Once again in recent USA history. Rewards being offered to the Irresponsible decision makers.

    And….all while we hear the words about “Responsibility” being read from the teleprompter in speech after speech.

    Propaganda is a powerful thing when select words and images are chosen to be broadcast……

    Now to the bigger question, will this money vaporizing scheme help GM & Chrysler more than Ford? …..and another question, do we really believe that EVERY single one of these vehicles traded in will be scrapped? Really? Will 2003 Jeep Libertys be crushed and melted down? Is this really gaining the “greenies” support? Hmmm….

  • avatar

    I can see the point of using MPG as a measure, the idea is to get old unefficient cars off the road, and replace them with new ones. But using the fuel efficiency of the car when it was new doesn’t seem right to me. If I bought a car that got 19 mpg in 1970, and now it’s barely limping along, and only getting 14, that would be a prime car to turn in for a new one, but wouldn’t qualify under this program.

    I don’t know if there is a fair, and easy way to measure the current efficiency of a car, but I think you could just leave that requirement out entirely, and the bill would still be able to achieve it’s goal.

    If you just had the requirement that the new car had to be fuel efficient (get 30 mpg combined or something) then 99% of the people trading in cars would see an increase in their efficiency, and the newer cars would undoubtably produce less ploutants.

  • avatar

    GS650G, you’re exactly right. My wife and I are ready to get a new/newer car, but the bill the House passed would make us chumps if we bought now.

    And I think it’s a shame that a lot of pretty decent vehicles will have to be crushed. I sure think that before handing over the keys to either of the two 18 mpg “clunker” we drive I’d arrange with the dealership to strip or swap out marketable parts–tires, rims, battery, trim bits, etc. Heck, is there anything in the law to prevent yanking off a front clip, rear fascia, air bag or other “crash parts”? The car has to be crushed, so the dealer won’t care, will it? For that matter, would the “clunker” even have to be drivable at the moment it’s turned in? I can envision sharpies signing over stripped out carcasses that were registered, insured and in driving condition that morning.

  • avatar

    But this must really annoy drivers who opted for fuel efficient automobiles.

    I’ve pointed that out before. It’s rewarding bad behavior. Stupid. Will you damn craven politicians just tax fuel already, instead of coming up with more stupid ideas?

  • avatar

    They also have to show proof that they have owned this ‘clunker’ for a year before turning it in. This is to prevent people from running out and buying a POS and turning it in 3 days later.

    Yes. It seems to me that if you want a new car it’s still technically possible to:
    1) Find a person with a clunker.
    2) Get that person to turn it in, get the voucher, and buy a new car.
    3) Buy the new car off that person, splitting the value of the voucher.

    I doubt that that many people would set this up on their own, though a few might know a friend and be able to do it. A middleman might be able to set up a lot of these transactions, being able to take care of the financing end. It’s certainly not as hard as CDOs or securitization in general.

  • avatar

    My cubicle neighbor owns an 02 Aztec and over the last year, it’s started falling apart. A real POSmobile if there ever was one.

    Nope, not a clunker either.

  • avatar

    This program disgusts me, but it must be emphasized – If you take the government money that’s it, you get nothing else for your trade in.

    There are a lot of people with vehicles that get combined mileage of less than 18 mpg, and that are worth less than $4500 (10 mpg improvement with new car) or $3500 (4 mpg improvement with new car), but not a late model SUV or luxury car.

    For example, the above mentioned late model Hemi Charger has a trade in value of at least $5K, so its owner will get no benefit from this bill.

    Apparently how long you must own the car for is something being left up to regulators, which is scary for taxpayers.

    Also, I couln’t find anything on what vehicle age range was finally agreed to, hopefully classics won’t be culled.

  • avatar


    Now that is an interesting loophole. I don’t see why a car with no doors, no bumper covers, no fenders, no trunk or hood, no stereo, and only a driver’s seat isn’t “driveable”.

    You better drive it to the dealer that way though. Even if you find a dealer that’s willing to get involved in evading cash for clunkers he isn’t going to do it for free.

  • avatar

    I think my Volvo 760 will slide under this…17 MPG city rated.

    I’ll definitely make more than it’s worth!

  • avatar
    Jonathan I. Locker

    The main problem with the cash for clunkers program is the math.

    The program assumes two things:
    1) That you drive a car that gets under 18 mpg and is worth less than $4500 (or $3500 or whatever Congress picks).

    2) That even if you are driving a low MPG vehicle that is worth less than $4500, you have the means and ability to purchase a new vehicle.

    So if your “clunker” is worth $3000 as a trade in normally, this program would only give you an extra $500 or $1500 off a NEW car.

    And if you clunker is worth $500, are you really going to be able to afford a new car to take advantage of the $3000 or $4000 that the government will give you?

    How about a poll of the TTAC community. Who here has a “clunker” and can actually afford a new car now?

  • avatar

    The American public would get a lot more bang for our buck if we conducted safety and emissions tests on vehicles over 10 years old, and LOANED THE OWNERS the money to repair the vehicles. (We loan people money to go to college, why not loan them the money to get a safety hazard off the road?)

    A scrappage incentive could be given for vehicles that were not repairable or that could not meet emissions criteria even after repair. This credit could be given in cash, and the owner could use it for a new car, used car, or no car at all.

    Chrysler, GM and others could bid on a project that utilizes an idle factory by replacingt the engines of otherwise sound vehicles under this program. How many times have you seen an old Chevy Silverado tooling down the road generating a cloud of blue smoke?

    The program’s cost could be recovered (eventually) by an increase in the gas tax. There’s no reason to be covering road transportation expenses out of general revenue and debt when we need a higher gas tax to discourage consumption anyway.

  • avatar

    One wonders how many people will be buying $500 “clunkers” that are on their last leg anyway, trading them in on some cheap-o econobox, and then selling said econobox. Even if they do take a loss on it, they end up with a few grand in their pocket courtesy of Uncle Sam being stupid, yet again, with other people’s money.

  • avatar

    Locker: I do, on both accounts…although I tell the wife we can’t afford it! The Volvo is definitely worth less than $1000.

  • avatar

    Jonathan I. Locker :
    How about a poll of the TTAC community. Who here has a “clunker” and can actually afford a new car now?

    Under the rules of this program, I have a clunker – a 1999 Tahoe 4×4. It passes all emission tests, is in tip-top shape mechanically and (when I wash it) looks like it just came off the dealer lot. I probably could afford a new car, but there’s no way I’ll part with it for $4500. If they upped the ante to $10k, I’d give it some serious thought, but I’d replace it with something else just as big that I could use to pull a trailer or haul a load of lumber.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I have an ’89 F150 which will likely qualify. The paint is horrible, but mechanically I have kept it in excellent shape. Private party sale wise I would be lucky to get $2k for it, so the proposed C4C deal would be worth a few grand. We put less than 2k miles on the F150 last year as we have other vehicles for daily driver duty. But, I did consider using it as a coupon with which to upgrade the daily driver fleet. A trailer would replace the truck for most of how we use it.

    Unfortunately, California’s 9.25% sales tax on the full retail price of a new vehicle along with the annual registration fee of 1.15% would quickly eat up the value of the federal voucher.
    Say we traded in the truck on a new $25k Prius. (Never mind that the Prius would be useless for the dump runs and other chores we have the F150 for in the first place). Sales tax on the Prius: $2315 up front. Value based portion of the registration fee: $288, and I get to keep paying that every year less a small annual depreciation credit! Then there is the extra insurance cost of a new vehicle.

    All of which adds up to, don’t bother. The German C4C program is much simpler and more effective than this POS.

    BTW, the Detroit News’ so called database is not useful. It doesn’t actually list the qualifying vehicles, but simply hooks into the database to look up the fuel economy for the entered vehicle. They didn’t bother to add the calculations to tell you if the vehicle qualifies or not. You can do exactly the same thing on the website. Typical worthless modern “news” organization doing a half baked job on the cheap.

  • avatar

    Jonathan I. Locker :
    How about a poll of the TTAC community. Who here has a “clunker” and can actually afford a new car now?

    Yes I have a clunker-89 jeep grand wagoneer(11mpg,owned 7 years) that is still registered, runs ok and has insurance. I had planned on keeping it and fixing it up and because I have three kids, my wife said she would feel better if I toke avangage of the clunker bill and trade it in on something new and more dependable.
    1.The family 2004 Toyota Sequioa is paid off and my wife said I can use it when it snows in place of my Wagoneer.

    2.Yes I can afford/obtain a loan for a new car. I HATE how Everyone thinks that only the poor/bad credit/in debt people can take avantage of this upcoming Clunker bill.

    3.I do think the government should relax the mpg requirement for cars. I know of about 4 or 5 people who have older cars they would love to trade in but don’t qualify because their vehicle has 20 ish mpg.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    No Bondo = No clunker.

  • avatar

    trlstanc :
    June 17th, 2009 at 9:19 am

    I don’t know if there is a fair, and easy way to measure the current efficiency of a car


    There is: the meter at the pump.

    Use gas tax. Tax actual gas consumption, instead of using an uneducated guess by Obama.

  • avatar

    Why is 18 mpg so special? Why isn’t 19 mpg qualified? Did Chairman Obama lose his virginity when he was 18?

  • avatar

    AKM :
    June 17th, 2009 at 9:22 am

    But this must really annoy drivers who opted for fuel efficient automobiles.

    I’ve pointed that out before. It’s rewarding bad behavior. Stupid. Will you damn craven politicians just tax fuel already, instead of coming up with more stupid ideas?


    It’s not stupid. It’s carefully designed to benefit the D3.

    This program is aimed to help the traditional D3 buyer demography (low mpg, low resale). Even though they don’t have to buy another D3 car, they are more likely than anyone else.

    With gas tax, the market will shift even closer to small cars. Then the D3 will have a even harder time to survive.

    So, the objective is actually very clear and consistent.

  • avatar

    John Horner:

    You can get the sales tax refunded for a new car purchase on your 2009 federal income tax. Its part of the Obama/Pelosi stimulus package.

  • avatar

    Sad. I would actually use this to buy a BMW 335d (which is about $2-3k overpriced) and gets about 36 mpg highway. But unfortunately my “clunker” Mercury Mystique gets 19 mpg combined, not 18 mpg. So I will most likely go with a 335i coupe that gets less gas mileage.

    The point is that it should be a sliding scale. If my clunker got 19 mpg, but I’m getting a new car that gets 10 mpg higher than the requirement, I should qualify.

  • avatar


    It’s a deduction, not a credit (which would basically be a refund). Generally (depending on bracket) it will give one about $1 off income taxes for every $4 in sales tax, so a $500 reduction in income tax for spending $2000 in sales tax.

  • avatar

    My 1993 Escort that broke down every Friday (without fail) got 29 MPG. So it wasn’t a clunker, I guess. Try to tell that to Bobby (my transmission mechanic) who had it in his shop more then 20 times while he tried to figure out what was making the gears slip.

  • avatar
    Johnson Schwanz

    Jonathan I. Locker,

    My clunker is a 1997 Honda Passport. It qualifies under the list as aggregated by the database, and is currently worth about $800. I can afford a new car right now, since after I paid for my 2002 Accord Coupe in 2005, I continued to make the $400/mo payments to myself in a separate savings account. I now have approximately $22,000 saved in my “new car” fund, and coupled with the credit from the government, I could definitely afford almost anything I want.

  • avatar

    My ’89 Ford Club Wagon definately qualifies (combined 14 mpg) but I would want something like an F150/250 to replace it. That would be too expensive now for a new buy. I don’t call it a clunker, it runs and drives fine and I know how it’s been maintained since I’m the original owner (smells a bit inside from hauling animals, but not bad). It would hurt my feelings and be a big waste to think it would be crushed when it is perfectly usable for someone that needed it. I’ll just keep it, thanks Mr. O.

  • avatar

    It seems so obvious to me, somehow. If you’re poor, you’re not going to buy a new car because of this. If you’ve got a decent car worth anything reasonable, you’re not going to buy a new car because of this. And, if you’ve got an older car (possibly a POS) that still gets decent gas mileage, you’re not going to buy a new car because of this.

    But, if you have an old American, big car or truck (remember, most old foreign cars get better than 18mpg) and you have been hanging onto it not because you’re poor but because you love your big, American car or truck (POS or not), this will probably push you over the top to buy a new American, big car or truck (most of which get more than 18mpg.)

    Not that there are tons of people out there like that, but considering the limited funding, there doesn’t need to be. And what are the dealer lots most full of? Big, American cars and trucks. By that measure, this bill is aimed perfectly.

    Just think of it as a government-funded $3500-4500 rebate on big American cars and trucks meant for those who love big American cars and trucks the most.

Read all comments

Recent Comments

  • Jeff S: @Lou_BC–Your persistence paid off. I have experienced the lazy salespeople as well. My salesperson at...
  • Jeff S: @Lou_BC–Regulations are still part of the reason but not as much as they use to be. Return on...
  • Jeff S: @Lou_BC–Congrats on finally finding a diesel Colorado. Are you going to keep your F-150 as a backup or...
  • FreedMike: $4.50 for premium here in Denver. Still silly. I’ve actually been using the start stop feature on my car...
  • Greg Hamilton: No more Chinese Teslas for you. It looks like China is transitioning to a war economy:...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber