Posted: September 01, 2009

Rundles wrap-up: Clunkers with cash

You've got to read the fine print

Jeff Rundles

What with all the “Cash For Clunkers” hoopla raging, and my particular interest in cars as an automobile reviewer for more than 25 years, I have been looking with interest at car prices. When I see car ads in the classified section of the newspaper, I almost get giddy. But then there’s the fine print.

A recent advertisement went something like this:

MSRP: $15,999
Dealer Discount: $4,999
College Grad: $500
Military: $500
Your Cash: $3,000
YOUR PRICE: $7,000

What? My cash is listed as an incentive? Hardly anyone really qualifies for all the fine print items, so the bottom-line price is nearly a ruse each and every time. But my own cash? Doesn’t this car cost $10,000?

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I suppose you could argue that it is, for the most part, truth in advertising, but it is nevertheless disingenuous. And it should be illegal. If you put a price up in big red letters, no matter what the fine print says, that should be the price.

I would even let slide the little items, like recent college grad, military, owner loyalty, or, like one I saw recently, “farm bureau, affiliates, business links;” no single person would really have a shot in hell at qualifying for all that stuff. But not cash. My Cash is part of My Price regardless of all the other semantics.

So OK, the federal government has this wildly successful Cash For Clunkers program that is, apparently, bringing in the car buyers in droves. (It was scheduled to end Aug. 24.) I’m all for that. After doling out billions to the nation’s banks only to see them buy other banks, tighten credit restrictions and pay themselves huge bonuses, it’s about time one of these government “stimulus” deals actually did some stimulating down in the trenches of real life.

And, of course, now that we taxpayers are in the automobile business – we own some 60 percent of GM, and Chrysler is in hock up to its sunroof to us, too – we ought to get a little insider trading discount.

And while I know there are reputable car dealers out there, and some very fine deals on cars right now, there is also some stereotypical car-dealer behavior going on as well. We’ve all had, or known someone who has had, the smarmy-car-dealer treatment where once they get you in the door the high-pressure begins and the price just creeps up and up.

I’m calling this current manifestation Clunkers with Cash: The disreputable sorts know ripe, low-hanging fruit when they see it, and they are obviously betting that many people in the general public are clunkers with cash.

The false, misleading, deceptive and downright dishonest ads – the hooks, if you will – will get unsuspecting buyers on the line, and we all know some car dealers are very good at reeling in the prospects. They’ll get the government Clunker voucher, Your Price, and Your Cash then, as the saying goes, laugh all the way to the bank.

In other words, the “as low as” price is available if you both just graduated from college and joined the Marines, work part-time on a farm and part-time at a car dealer, happen to be trading in the very same make of car you wish to buy, have a spare $3,000 in “cash” that you don’t really look at as “money,” are willing to suspend disbelief, and are, in the simplest of terms, a moron of the first order.

If you can’t qualify for all of that – not just a part of it; all of it – and you still buy a car from one of these dealers, then you are below moronic; you’re a Clunker with Cash. And judging by the activity in showrooms, you’re a member of a big club.

If the authorities can go after the fly-by-night roofers who seep out of the sewers following major hailstorms, then surely they can view an otherwise worthy Cash For Clunkers program as a scam artist’s playground as well.
Go ahead, buy a car. Stimulate the economy. Just make sure you take “your cash” to someone who will treat it with respect.

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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