'Cash for Clunkers' Isn't Just for Junky Old Cars

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Washington's wordsmiths are at it again. A new federal program seems to have changed the very definition of the word "clunker."

A vote, a stroke of the pen, a desire to get Americans buying cars and a mandate to shrink greenhouse gas emissions have turned a fleet of old Audis, BMWs, Acuras and other luxury cars into clunkers overnight.

The Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act of 2009 -- also known as "Cash for Clunkers" -- will offer vouchers of up to $4,500 for car owners who trade in their old fuel-slurping cars for new models that can really stretch a tank of gas.

But if you imagine a clunker as that old, rusted piece of junk that can barely accelerate on the interstate, think again. The list of potential clunkers includes a zippy 1997 Lexus SC 400 coupe and even a luxury 1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport-utility vehicle.

Mileage is key to identifying a clunker. To qualify, cars and trucks cannot get more than 18 miles per gallon for combined city and highway fuel economy. Industry watchers say vehicles made in the mid-1990s are among the most gas-guzzling cars and trucks on the road. The trade-ins must also be drivable and built in or after 1984.

But how to scrap a 1992 BMW 8 Series that's still purring?

"No, that's a classic at this point," said Robert Ogust, general manager at BMW of Fairfax.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is weighing how to pay dealers and prevent fraud, will complete the final rules and jump-start the $1 billion program around July 24. But the current requirements create a surprising list of cars and trucks.

"Some are even fairly new," said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, which has compiled a database of qualified makes and models. "They're not at all what people think of as clunkers."

And many are valued much higher than the $3,500-to-$4,500 rebate.

Owners of vehicles with limited production runs, such as the Buick Regal T-Type Turbo, will clearly pass on the program. So will collectors of exotic vehicles. Who would crush the legendary 1987 Porsche 911 Carrera?

"I don't think anyone would turn in a classic car," said Buddy Burness of Bowie, member of the Asphalt Angels of Maryland Car Club. "That's something someone wants to fix up. It's not a piece of junk."

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