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Trading Up or Slumming It With Me

Posted by | August 1, 2009

Those of us limping down the road in late-80s or early-90s cars, vans and pickups can be forgiven if we think the deal sounds too good to be true.

The government is offering many of us up to $4,500 to trade-in the clunkers we are driving (see official information at Under the “cash for clunkers” program, all we have to do is buy a spanking-new vehicle that gets better gas mileage than our old heaps.

People who take the government up on its trade-in offer will see their old wheels sent to the crusher, never to guzzle gas again. The overall idea is to conserve energy and help the automobile industry, all at the same time.  Everybody wins (except maybe folks like my mechanic, to whom I often tithe to keep my ’87 truck rolling.)

As regular readers of this column know, I’m a fan of modern engineering and efficiency, like pickup trucks that shut down half of their V-8 cylinders when cruising on a highway with no load. The cash-for-clunkers program would give me a good bonus to turn in my ’87 pickup ­– which gets 12 mpg on a good day – for a new one that might double my fuel efficiency.

It takes a lot of energy to make a new vehicle, of course. Mining iron ore (or processing scrap metal), making steel, forming the parts, running the assembly line – it adds up. But, from all the calculations I’ve seen on the topic over the years, more energy is consumed by cars and trucks in their lifetimes on the road (in gasoline and diesel) than in making them.

So, at least at first glance, it looks the nation really would conserve energy if I turn in my beloved old truck on a new and much more efficient one.

And my truck and I do qualify for the cash-for-clunkers deal.

My truck qualifies because it’s less than 25 years old. (I’m not, but that’s another matter.) My truck also qualifies because I’ve owned it for many years (1 year is the minimum). And the truck has been insured in my name for that time (1 year is also the minimum).

So should I trade up with a good boost from the government, save gas for the rest of my natural life, and help the American economy at the same time?

It looks good, and I’m considering it.

But my ‘87 truck is not a necessity of my everyday life. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s extremely useful. My friends borrow it to bring in firewood from the woods. I used the truck to move into my house a couple years back. I still use it to haul trash to the dump, to tow my 1972 travel trailer (kindly wipe that smirk off your face), and to tow my rowboat on its 1965 boat trailer (ditto).

The good ol’ ’87 truck is also invaluable when I am hauling home wet and filthy dogs – and even my own wet and filthy self after I’ve been swimming in the Snake River at high summer.

But I only put two or three thousand miles on the truck each year.  I have day-dreams, of course, of taking the truck and visiting every National Park in the West on an endless camping trip. But, in fact, I work two different jobs and rarely make it out of the county – and am happier in this life than I’d be endlessly camping.

I think I’ll keep my clunker.

Most decisions about vehicles are as much about emotions as about arithmetic. If you are driving a heap like my truck – or a sedan of that vintage – and would love the financial boost to get into a new vehicle, check out the government’s website.  And if you really need to replace a car for commuting, this might be quite a good time to turn in your old clunker on a much more efficient ride.

Best wishes for good bargains – and especially for the possibility of doubling or tripling your fuel economy if you make a clear move toward engine efficiency.

Just show some respect when you pass me and my truck.