My $4,500 Lemon: Taking the Feds Up on Cash For Clunkers


My $4,500 Lemon: Taking the Feds Up on Cash For Clunkers

It’s official: our minivan is a toxic asset.

The “toxic” part I knew already. Between the catastrophic diaper failure while touring Amish country circa 2004, and the projectile vomiting episode on the way to the beach in ’01, my family van has been a rolling Superfund site for years.
The news flash is “asset.” Thanks to the cash-for-clunkers program cooked up in Congress, our 2001 Honda Odyssey may actually be worth something — up to $4,500 if we trade it in on a new, more efficient vehicle. That works out to nearly a dollar per dent, scratch, stain and tear.
Being too rich for foreclosure, but too poor for derivatives, I had begun to think the government would never craft a bailout for me. However, prodded by crafty old John Dingell of Michigan, dean of the House of Representatives, Uncle Sam has selected me to stimulate the economy by buying a new car. This program will pay me to do it.
My first reaction to this news was shock. Sometime after I backed into a stump, but definitely before I clipped the neighbor’s garage—actually it was around the time the babysitter somehow creased a perfect inch-deep furrow along the entire passenger side, headlight to brake light—I stopped thinking of the van as having any monetary value whatsoever. I resolved to drive it for at least 10 years, or until I developed a capacity for shame, whichever came first. At which point I would pay someone to take it off my hands.
Now I see the van with fresh eyes. It’s no longer just a sun-bleached hulk with the rear wiper snapped off. It’s a wiperless hulk worth thousands. If this is socialism, call me comrade!
The idea, I realize, is to lure the Von Drehle clan out of our gas hog and into a phone booth-sized vehicle powered by switchgrass and meditation. Unfortunately, with four kids, all in grade school, we need a minivan. So is this program for us To find out, I took a ride on the information superhighway to www.fueleconomy.gov, which is an easy way to compare the efficiency of just about every car imaginable.
Within a few clicks, I determined that our current van averages 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg highway, which somehow averages out, according to the government, to 18 mpg. That’s right on the cut-off for the program, but let’s say they vote me in. Given our relatively light usage — around 8,000 miles per year — this translates to about 5.4 tons of CO2 emissions and 10.1 barrels of oil consumed each year. Could be worse, though in the category called “air pollution” the old van rates a pitiful 1 on a scale of 10 .
Could we do better We’re partial to Honda products, so I clicked on the 2009 Odyssey. The new model averages 20 mpg, two more than our clunker. And that is enough of an improvement under the Dingell plan to earn us $3,500. Upgrading would also cut pollution, shave half a ton from our carbon footprint and reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil by a full barrel.
Not to mention leather seats.
Maybe we should buy American, though. I summoned up the stats for the new Chrysler Town & Country — though not without trepidation. Back in the day, Chrysler invented the minivan and made a lot of money on them, but then they had a ’70s flashback and let themselves get creamed by the Japanese.

Apparently, they’re back on track. According to the Edmunds.com review, the new model of Chrysler’s top van is “a bona-fide contender for the Best-in-Class sash.” Which sounds good — but would the sash count under “receivables” in bankruptcy court The 4-liter T & C is virtually identical to the Odyssey in fuel efficiency and emissions, which means I could pick up $3,500 for buying one.

Of course, I’d still be paying a boatload for such a fine ride, but as a taxpayer, I’m writing regular checks to Chrysler anyway. What’s one more
To pocket the large money, the $4,500, I would need to find a buggy that averages five or more miles per gallon above our current wreck’s fuel intake. But that’s an easy search on this website. In a matter of seconds I discovered the Mazda 5 minivan, with manual transmission, which averages 24 miles per gallon, spews just 4.1 tons of carbon and sips a mere 7.6 barrels per year. It’s a van that a guy could proudly drive to a lunch with Al Gore and the Dalai Lama, with just one downside: evidently we would have to grease the kids before squishing them into the tiny backseat.
All in all, a tough call. On the one hand, I could get a new car, reacquaint myself with some of the tax dollars I so patriotically pay, and—who knows—maybe help out a polar bear or two. On the other hand, something about this past year has me feeling less than flush.
And there is such a thing as sentimental value. My clunker has loads of that. We raised three babies and a toddler in that old van, which means it was doomed from the start to be both filthy and loved. That trim we sheared off during our first family vacation. The crayon mural across the backseat. The permanent apple-juice glaze at the bottom of the cup holders. The energetic scribble engraved with mommy’s keys in the car door. The Cinderella stickers fused to the back window. We have stories, and memories, to match every disgusting inch of that van.
I guess it’s true what they say. It is hard to put a price on toxic assets.

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