According to a survey of new-vehicle buyers who participated in the recent Cash for Clunkers program, more than 17 percent now harbor “some” doubt or “serious” doubt about letting a government subsidy convince them to go further into debt. CNW Research of Bandon, Oregon, a firm specializing in automotive marketing research, conducted the survey in late August.

Buyer’s remorse is not a new phenomenon as anyone who ever opened an envelope containing Visa’s autopsy of that Spring Break trip to Margaritaville can tell you. The significant revelation of the CNW survey, however, is that under normal conditions only 6 to 8 percent of new-car buyers suffer the shouldn’t-a-done-that syndrome.

That means that over twice as many C4C participants as normal buyers are worried about the negative impact a brand spanking new payment book with $275 printed on each of its 72 pages might have on rent and Hamburger Helper expenditures. (The actual C4C numbers were an average loan length of 49 months and an average payment of $317.) No wonder. I’m surprised that the survey didn’t find half of the C4C spenders sitting up nights watching Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey re-runs.

If you are someone other than the owner of a Treasury Department printing press, you might be allowed a mild case of regret over adding $20,000 or $30,000 to your household debt during what can be called a time of economic uncertainty.

Three revealing line items in a separate CNW survey noted that the drain on the family coffers would be offset by reducing the pay-down of credit card debt, deferring home improvement and removing money from non-targeted savings. About one-fifth of buyers surveyed cited each of these categories as the number one source of their car payment bucks.

Leaving aside the prospects of leaking roofs or empty savings accounts, just consider the act of slowing up on reducing those credit card balances on which you are paying 19 percent interest or worse. Thinking about that in the cold light of early dawn could do more than induce buyer’s remorse; in a clear-thinking head of household able to do basic arithmetic, it could result in thoughts of panic.

When the government set out to stimulate auto sales, do we think its minions intended to pile more debt on the American public? And if so, were they aware that our country’s revolving consumer debt, according to the U.S. Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, has reached a staggering $950 billion, almost all of which is credit card debt and does not include mortgages?

Not Saving Much Fuel

Call me a naysayer, but I do not think adding individual household debt will lead us out of the financial wilderness. Nor will it, as applied in the C4C experiment, do much to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. Quicker than you can say, “Holy statistics, Mr. Wizard,” the numbers nerds ascertained that the new vehicles sold under C4C will use more—not less—fuel than the beaters that were turned in and destroyed.

How can that be? Think of it on a personal level. Suppose you had a 10-year-old particulate belcher that, as the euphemism goes, needed work. Even if you lived in an Orlando suburb, you’d still be less than excited at the idea of piling the kids into it and lighting out for Disney World. But that new Malibu that gets a hell of a lot better mileage is a different kettle of green. You trust it; it’s economical; you drive it more. A lot more, according to another piece of research.

CNW surveyed drivers involved in the purchase of the first 239,000 C4C vehicles. The average intended annual mileage was 10,894, up from the actual clunker mileage of 6,162. For those of you without a calculator falling readily to hand, that’s nearly double.

But what about that miles-per-gallon improvement we were promised? Well, we got it. The average fuel economy reported by C4C buyers rose from 16.3 mpg for Old Dobbin to 24.8 for the new carriage. A monster step in the right direction. Add to that the over-90-percent reduction in tailpipe excretions and we’re still looking good, right?

Research More New and Used Products

Not as good as we might. The new car, because it’s new and fun and green and clean and smells good, will be given some 61 additional gallons each year by its grateful owner. For those first 239,000 C4C vehicles, that’s 14.6 million gallons that the clunkers wouldn’t have gobbled up. The approximately 700,000 total vehicles moved under the program will therefore use an additional 42 million gallons of fuel annually during the first years of ownership.

As Rick Blaine might say to Captain Louis Renault in a remake of Casablanca, “It seems that the Law of Unintended Consequences has taken a hand.”

One can, and we can be sure that the government will, argue that the program at least generated showroom traffic, sold cars and helped dealers reduce inventory. Cars for Clunkers did all that, and when the noise abated, most of the critics had to content themselves with claiming that the program did little more than pull a large number of sales forward and get some old cars off the road, many of which were already on their way to the crusher.

Other critics groused that Cars for Clunkers took $2.8 billion from the general roster of 300 million citizens and handed it tax-free to a small group of 700,000 citizens.

To those negative conclusions I would add my own concerns about giving the consumer incentive to ladle more debt into an already reeking punchbowl. Program proponents point with pride to the disproportionate number of young buyers who bought C4C vehicles. I worry about their already disproportionate debt.

I admit that from the outset I was suspicious of the scheme. Its very name, the Car Allowance Rebate System, occasioned seditious thoughts. Exactly how many fresh-faced little bureaucrats did it take to devise such an overwhelmingly clever acronym (CARS)? Why couldn’t they have just called it Cash for Clunkers like the rest of us? Or used the ubiquitous C4C, and alphanumeric doubtless created by the thumbs of a creative texter within minutes of the program’s announcement?

Better still, why didn’t they call it P2P, as in robbing Peter to pay Paul?

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