I Got Suckered by Cash for Clunkers

I've spent a lot of time this fall cruisin' down the cobblestoned streets of Colonial Alexandria, Va., in my new slate-blue manual four-cylinder Hyundai Accent. (Hey, if it's good enough for Beck, it's good enough for me: "I said, lady, step inside my Hyundai . . .") I bought this testosterone-fueled chick magnet a few months ago with an assist from you, the American taxpayer, using the much-hyped Cash for Clunkers rebate. The hugely popular government-run plan gave participants a rebate of up to $4,500 if they traded in their old gas guzzler for a newer and more efficient car. That was the original idea, anyway, and nearly 700,000 cars were traded in, for about $3 billion worth of kickbacks in less than 30 days. (Click here to follow Steve Tuttle).

Just when parts of my old SUV were falling into the street, this manna from Obama fell from the sky. I was able to parlay my broken-down 12-year-old Cherokee with 220,000 miles into a brand-new compact that I bought for about $6,000 out of pocket, counting the thousands you gave me (thanks again, really) and a $1,500 rebate from the manufacturer. "Finally," I thought, "a government handout for me, even though I have a good job and didn't deserve it at all and would have bought a car anyway without it." The whole idea might have made me really angry if (a) I didn't desperately need a new car and (b) I wasn't eligible.

But, like most people, I am a hypocrite when free money is coming my way, and I was at the dealer on the second day of the program. The intent of Cash for Clunkers was to make the world a greener place, with the side benefit of injecting some life into our moribund car industry, which it did, at least temporarily. Thanks to the money I saved, it sure made my bank account a greener place, and it definitely injected some life into my moribund vacations. I usually spend my time off at a remote mountain cabin with no indoor plumbing, but this year I blew half of my Clunker cash on a trip to Paris, where I enjoyed copious amounts of taxpayer-subsidized wine every night, ate buttery croissants at cafés every morning, and had the good fortune of seeing only one mime in 10 days. So let's review: not only did I use your money to help me buy a Korean car, I spent my windfall in France.

As you can imagine, after Paris, I was feeling pretty good about my fleecing of America. But that was before a disturbing story from the Associated Press crossed my desk last week. It made me rethink what I had done. The news agency did an exhaustive study of the Clunker data and found some surprising, if not shocking, information. For one, the most common brand-for-brand swap was drivers replacing old pickups with new pickups that got barely better mileage: more than 8,000 people traded in a Ford F-150 for a Ford F-150, improving the mileage only one to three mpg over the older models. According to the AP, F-150 owners were 17 times more likely to make this trade than swap their vehicles for something like a Prius. Thousands more traded in Chevy and Dodge pickups for Silverado and Ram trucks.

After reading that and seeing how people clearly abused the system and got away with it, I was ashamed to realize that I might have done something wrong myself. I was stupid enough to believe that I had to get a fuel-efficient wimp-mobile instead of a snarling, chromed-out eight-banger with a grill that could julienne a moose. So now I feel remorse every time I scrunch down into my aptly named Accent (as cars go, it's more like one of those little squiggles on those French words I saw in France, where, you might remember from a few paragraphs ago, I spent your money).

Put it this way, I could have gotten a Hummer! That's right. According to the AP, "in at least 15 deals in nine states, owners of large pickups cashed in old trucks…toward new Hummer H3 SUVs that got only 16 mpg."

To be fair, the program wasn't all about big rigs. According to the government's Web site, the Toyota Corolla was the most-purchased car, so there's some solace in knowing that many other Americans got suckered as badly as I did. Honda and Toyota took six of the top 10 slots, and only two were held by an American company, Ford, with its Focus and Escape. Which raises at least one question: why didn't they make it so only American companies were eligible? I would have been happy to take government largesse to buy a Ford. I ended up picking Hyundai because of the price and the warranty.

At least I can tell myself that my new car gets 33 miles per gallon instead of 15, like my old one, so it is greener, which is what the Cash for Clunkers folks had in mind when they came up with the program. Which, when you think about it, makes me a great American. So if you see a slate-blue Hyundai redlining at 55mph down the right lane of I-270, feel free to lean out the window and yell, "Thanks, Steve, for being a patriot!" Forgive me if I don't shout back. My car has manual roll-down windows. But I will gratefully tip my beret to you and wish you a heartfelt bon voyage.