Clunkers Nets Big Fuel Economy Boost

Cash For Clunkers

The Cash for Clunkers program has exceeded the positive expectations of even its most ardent supporters. Not only did more consumers take advantage of the program than anyone anticipated, but the cars they chose to buy were far more fuel efficient than anticipated. The average fuel economy of a clunker was 15.8 mpg, compared to 25.4 mpg for the car that replaced it—a 61 percent improvement.

In addition, hybrid car sales in July increased by 35 percent, while conventional vehicle sales rose by about 15 percent. Prius sales increased by a whopping 47.5 percent for the month and were up 29.7 percent from July 2008. The July hybrid market share hit 3.55 percent—a record for the United States. The message is clear: Drivers in the United States have wanted fuel-efficient cars for some time, but have been waiting for the right time to buy.

In the Senate, which has been considering an extension of the program since Friday, critics are sitting on their hands and skeptics are turning into supporters. The program’s most virulent enemies like John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) are no longer threatening filibuster, and other Republicans like Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) are rumored to be considering joining Senate Democrats in support of it.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have dropped demands that any extension of the program come with higher fuel economy standards. Feinstein, who as recently as Friday joined together with other environmental advocates in the Senate to insist the program be further studied before it was extended, has issued an unequivocal endorsement of its results. “American consumers are choosing vehicles with much higher fuel efficiency than is required,” she said. “To date, it has proved to be both a stimulus and a fuel efficiency program.”

Feinstein did add some words of caution regarding the source of the $2 billion dollars required to extend the program. The House extension, which passed on Friday, called for the money to be taken from a renewable energy loan guarantee program, a point that bothered many who supported the legislation primarily for its environmental benefits. “We would hope that we could work with our colleagues in the Senate and the House to find another source in the stimulus or to ensure that the funds are repaid,” said Feinstein.

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  • RandalH

    If they really wanted to reduce oil consumption, they would have taken the billions used on this program and combined it with the income from an increased gasoline tax and used the results to fund mass transit.

    The effect of increased fuel efficiency is the same as a drop in the price of gasoline and will simply result in more miles driven if not accompanied by a simultaneous increase in gasoline prices.. Studies quoted on this very site have shown this to be the case.

  • moishe k

    To RandalH

    can you carry a 5 bags of cement via mass transit ?

  • moishe k

    Fuel tax should pay for more carpool benefits toll discounts highway carpool lanes & a BIG subsidy for the 1st hybrid & or diesel MINIVAN

  • Mr.Bear

    Clunkers has to be about the most wasteful program ever because all the cars traded in have to be destroyed.

    The most environmental thing anyone can do is Reuse, because it preserves the energy used to create something. How many years do these new cars have to be on the road “saving carbon” to make up for the cost of producing a bunch of cars to replace cars that didn’t need to be replaced because they were functioning perfectly?

    Window dressing and political payback, that’s all this program really is.

  • Mr. Fusion

    In the image above, in the dumpster is a 1990-1992 Geo Prism. Depending on the engine/transmission configuration it got an EPA that was at worst 23/30 and at best 28/33.

    According to CARS, this vehicle is not qualify for the rebate program because it’s combined EPA is not 18 MPG or less.

    I’ve had enough old cheap cars to know that even though they may not pollute through bad gas mileage, they do pollute through everything they leak…oil, antifreeze, trans fluid, R-12…

  • Sullivas6

    If the program gets more Americans into smaller cars and they learn that they do not need a truck, SUV, van or suburban to commute places, then maybe the program can help bring lasting culture change, which will result in benefits well into the future.

  • Boom Boom

    I have to admit, I was not a fan of this program for a number of reasons. But there is no way to spin the hard facts. The cars traded in got an average 61% worse mileage than those purchased. That is a pretty impressive improvement. Cash for Clunkers has achieved what it set out to to (increase fleet fuel economy) at a pretty low cost (1-3 billion is a fraction of of the money put into alternative transit every year…). The cars traded in were all worth less than $4,500, which means they were old and nearing the end of their life. They would have been replaced in a few years without this program and would not have had the incentive to get a more efficient car. My mind has been changed.

  • Samie

    Agree w/ Boom Boom but I feel that bad behavior could comeback meaning if we only fund this until say the originally planed 4billion is spent great, but if you extend this again and again you will see the improvements in fuel mileage decrease as car dealers try to get people to trade in a Hummer for a Hummer or other silly low mpg models. Lets keep this temporary & bring it back every few years in a way that does not promote holding onto cars & dependence on this program.

  • Anonymous

    Does the 61% increase factor in the change in EPA mpg tests since these older cars were tested? The old EPA tests returned significantly greater mpg correct. So the actual mileage improvement required for the program is actually greater than the listed requirement.

    How does 25.4 mpg compare to the the national average mpg for passenger vehicles. Anyone have any data?

  • Boom Boom

    All of the EPA numbers have been scaled to reflect the new system, so there isn’t anything hidden in those numbers. If you go on the EPA website and look at older cars, you can see the old ratings (and see that they’re always higher), but the CARS program used the new numbers to determine the vehicle qualifications and the MPG differences above.

    Based on the numbers above from the BTS, the 2006 average MPG was 22.4 for passenger cars. (They don’t have newer data.) So the average CARS trade-in got better than that.

    We have to remember the bottom line here: We want to use less gas. (This is the goal if you want to reduce global warming or reduce foreign oil dependence.) The fact is that the people who cashed in on the CARS program are using 61% less gas.

  • Scott Z

    I must admit I am luke warm at best for this program. I see two large problems with it.

    First it appears to me that the clunker program rewards people who made very poor choices the last time they purchased a car. If I owned a hummer and went to buy a new Toyota I would benefit from the program. But if I was smart the last time I purchased a car(say 25 MPG) and wanted to get a new one with this program I would not qualify.

    Second as someone has already stated this does not help the environment much. Reusing is often the best thing we can do. I know if someone ditched a large truck that was getting say 16 MPG and purchased a Prius they would off set the CO2 created to produce the Prius in about 18 months but lets face facts. How many people are moving from a 16 MPG car to a 50 MPG car?

    I for one want to see larger CAFE numbers and an extra fed tax on gas which would get sent to things like battery and hydrogen R&D.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Anonymous, Boom Boom is correct. If you go to you will find both the newer and older EPA / DOE ratings for mileage on older cars (example: Toyota Celica, 1994, 2.2L, automatic).

    My only initial concern with “Cash for Clunkers” was that the required mileage difference between the old car and the new car was too low. Obviously, everyone that participated “went for the gusto” mileage wise, saving themselves the most money in the long run. 61% increase says the buyers definitely when for more than the minimum increase in mileage. I expected the figure to be closer to 45% and take a month or two to use up the money. This shows that a lot of people want new cars; they are just having a hard time affording them.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Scott Z, you are right that someone with a 25 MPG car is shutout of this program. I am one of these people. But the only way to change it so everyone can use the program is to require a percentage difference between the car one owns now to the car that one wants to buy. If one uses the “61%” as an example, trading in a 25 MPG car would require an increase to 40.25 MPG. The cars in this mileage range are sustainably more expensive. This might somewhat defeat the purpose of getting more cars off the road that are using more gas than the one replacing it.

  • MJ77

    Using my own calculations with the data confirmed from the Cash for Clunk programs, we will save around 85 million gallons of gas a year. That is with the program funded only to 1$ billion.

    That’s about 20% of 1 day’s worth of gas in this country. It’s a start.

    1. Hybrid Tax Rebates
    2. Cash for Clunkers programs (there will be more in the following years)
    3. Increase the CAFE standards
    4. Increase the GAS tax to around $1 per gallon

    Obama has a plan and he is executing it.

  • Gerald Shields

    Mr. Bear, you said:

    “Clunkers has to be about the most wasteful program ever because all the cars traded in have to be destroyed.”

    Reselling used cars is like people who recycle porno magazines. It may or maybe not still be good, but that depends upon “the condition” of the vehicle. In other words, lemons, should belong to the scrap heap!

  • TD

    The clunkers will also be recycled.

    And given that there is a 61% fuel efficiency increase the new car’s carbon footprint will be repaid in 3 to 5 years depending on the model of the new car. Many Americans own their cars for more than that time period so the net will be less carbon in the air than if we kept the clunkers on the road.

    It’s a start and I am heartened that people are mainly going for the 10+ mileage improvement range rather than the lower range.

  • steved28

    Scott Z, I traded in a pickup. It was not a “bad decision” when I purchased my truck. It was exactly the vehicle I needed at the time. It has towed and hauled more tonnage than I care to remember. It built decks, sheds, and camps in Maine. It hauled pellets, loam, bricks, pavers, lumber, ladders, tools, machinery just to name a few loads. Please stop insinuating everyone who ever purchased a truck made a poor decision. It was traded via this law for a Nissan Versa. 2.5 times the mileage, but only because I am done building and no longer need a truck as I did (although I will miss it’s abilities, I am sure).

  • RandalH

    @Anonymous: “can you carry a 5 bags of cement via mass transit”

    What if you want to carry 50 bags? By your logic, we’re back to driving monster trucks and SUVs because we might have to haul something occasionally. I would bet that 95% of car trips don’t involve hauling anything but our a**es. On those occasions when you do need to haul something, use your car (just because the government puts money toward mass transit doesn’t mean YOU can’t own a car). Or if you don’t want to own one, rent one; or better yet, have the cement delivered.

  • jimhenry

    That is correct, Only purchase or lease of new vehicles qualify


  • schanie

    There is a slight hidden bonus in the EPA numbers. Those numbers are for when the car was new. Older cars tend to slowly lose efficiency over time so the true gain is probably slightly more than the reported 61% amount.

  • Scott Z


    I don’t consider people that do work with a vehicle the problem. When a vehicle is purchased to do work the utility of the car or truck is paramount not the MPG. I am speaking to those that buy vehicles like a work truck and drive it back and forth to the office. I know many people that fit this description. I am sure there are not many people like yourself that can trade in a work pickup and grab a car.

  • BoilerCivicHy

    I can’t even believe you printed this article, the finding so far are that for 1 billion dollars, it neted a reduction in about 1 hour per year of carbon emissions in the US. It resulted in the reduction in gasoline that would be used in the US in 5 hours in one day. So to get to the new CAFE standards using this method it is estimated to cost around 14 Trillion dollars, now that is government efficiency for you.

  • BoilerCivicHy

    Oh, and the other great thing about this program, it really helped out the American car companies. 4 out of 5 of the cars that were brought under this program were foreign models. At least we helped out Ford.

  • kevin2121

    Cash for clunkers is a good idea not a bad one.Yes the program does need some refinement.Taking a car that gets 15mpg off the road and putting a car that gets 25mph on the road,is great,not just for the consumer but for the enviroment.I am concerned about those clunkers and how they are dealt with.I recently saw on the news ,some dealers were pouring liquid glass into the engines so they can’t be resold.What better way to increase jobs like the american auto industry,auto salvage and recyclers.Auto salvage companys don’t always strip the cars down completely and just crush them.I should start a total clunker recycle center where all the cars are stripped by hand and totally recycled.Since the dealers are getting these for free if this was done annually,which it should be not only will it help us become less dependent on foriegn oil,it will create jobs.Anyone agree?

  • kevin2121

    Just wanted to make one more note.I have a full size chevy truck that get 17mph,2001 silverado.Love the truck and will only buy american cars.However I also have a 2008 suzuki c50 boulevard street bike which gets 55mph.I ride my motorcycle to work(about 15 miles) everday I can.Not only does it help save me money.It saves wear and tear on my truck and keeps 2 more gallons at the pump for that poor guy still driving that suv to work everyday and spending $50.00 a week n gas.I’m also not that hot about mass transit.I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a full size bus going from stop to stop with only one or two riders,maybe they need smaller buses in larger numbers?.

  • qqRockyBeans

    Lotus just introduced a Purist Edition of the Elise, just in time for the Cash for Clunkers program!

    The MSRP is $43995, about $1000 under the maximum price allowed

    You know SOMEBODY will buy an Elise under the program!

  • qqRockyBeans

    oh btw, the Elise is rated at 23 mpg city/highway