'Clunker' consumers not buying gas guzzlers, study finds

Americans participating in the 'Cash for Clunkers' program are buying new cars that get, on average, 9.6 miles per gallon more than their trade-ins.

Jim Mone/AP
A sign promoting the federal government's "cash for clunkers" incentive program hangs off a clunker Monday at Mankato Ford in Mankato, Minn. Lured by the government's cash for clunkers campaign, car and truck buyers started returning to showrooms last month, as Ford Motor Co. reported its first US sales increase in nearly two years and other major automakers said sales showed signs of stability.

The "Cash for Clunkers" program has been successful in getting gas guzzlers off the road, according to new data released by the Department of Transportation.

The program, also known as Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), had been criticized for permitting consumers to trade in clunkers and replace them with cars, trucks, or SUVs that received only modest improvements in fuel economy.

The Transportation Department reports that consumers chose cars that on average received 9.6 miles per gallon more than their previous vehicle – a 61 percent increase in fuel economy. The data is based on 80,500 new-car sales, or roughly one third of the total number of cars estimated to have been sold in the program’s first week.

The improvements in fuel economy are “quite impressive,” according to Therese Langer, transportation program director at American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “Is it as great as it could be? No, but I’d say it’s quite a strong showing.”

Cars purchased under the program also boasted a fuel economy 18 percent greater than the average cars of all new cars currently on the market.

Still, Ms. Langer notes that with an average of 25.4 miles per gallon, the new vehicles purchased under CARS fall short President Obama’s stated goal of 35.5 MPG by 2016.

“Bottom line: The original intent of the ‘clunkers’ program was to encourage people to buy more fuel efficient vehicles,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California in a statement released after she had reviewed DOT data. “The data so far tells us that's exactly what’s happening. So, I believe the right decision at this time is that the program should be extended.”

The Transportation Department released the data primarily in response to public requests by Senator Feinstein and Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who had said that the Senate could not approve an additional $2 billion in funds for CARS without first knowing more about the kinds of cars purchased and surrendered through the program.

But Ms. Langer would like to see the DOT make more even data public.

“It’s important to know not just the summary data, but who’s trading what for what,” she says, noting that dealer applications for voucher reimbursement are all submitted electronically and could be easily transferred to an online database for public viewing. “It’s not that the sample is too small, it just that there’s no telling if this is representative.... It’s extremely important to make the data available in an online database on a record by record basis.”

“It’s heartening that on average people are making good choices,” says Ann Mesnikoff, director of the green transportation campaign at the Sierra Club.

But just because on average there are improvements in fuel efficiency, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all consumers are making the right decisions or that they will continue to do so if Congress provides additional funding to extend the program, she says.

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