The week the clunker law went into effect, we found out that the EPA had suddenly changed the MPG ratings of many cars and trucks sold in the years which would make them eligible for the so-called “clunker program” (vehicles not more than 25 years old).

The result is a hodge-podge of new ratings, but, most importantly, some cars and trucks you thought were on the list are now off — and some of you might have checked last week and saw that your cars were ineligible, but as of this week they are eligible. Washington giveth and taketh away, but much more quickly than in biblical days.

Check the (current) status of your car at www.cars.gov, and if you’re interested in the program and your vehicle is now eligible, get down to a new car dealer fast, before DC steps in again to “help” or “clarify.” If your car or truck was eligible and now is not, write your congressperson — and see if you get a reply before the program ends.

This is very important: Every new car dealer, import or domestic, is participating in the clunker program. There are no “official” or “sanctioned” dealers. All new-car dealers can help you with your trade-in and voucher. Some car companies can just afford more advertising than others, hence the confusion, where some car-makers infer their dealers are “clunker specialists,” as if they have more experience or training in dealing with this brand-new program, explained by a 136-page law. The truth is, it’s new to everyone involved, and dealers are handling it as best they can.

The program is funded with only $1 billion and is slated to be in-effect for just four months. That’s not a lot of time, and, especially, not a lot of money. I don’t think there’s much doubt the program will run out of money before it runs out of time. Again — if your car or truck is eligible and you want to participate in the program, don’t wait any longer than you must to get to a new car store and make a deal.

Your trade-in clunker will indeed be crushed; it’s not going to show-up at some wholesale auction (if it does, your dealer will face federal charges; and I’m sure we’ll see one or two cases of this happening). So be sure you want to participate in the program before you go shopping and make a deal. This isn’t a situation where you trade-in your old car for a new one, have problems with or just don’t like the new one, and think you might be able to get your trade-in back from the dealer. Nope. Once you trade it in and it’s a clunker, it’s gone, forever.

What’s the bottom line? A pretty good one for customers, meaning a voucher for either $3,500 or $4,500 depending on the year and mileage of your trade-in clunker compared to your new car or truck.

Chrysler seems to be running the most-aggressive, customer-friendly campaign for this program, promising to match the government voucher with their own, equal discount in addition to whatever rebates and discounts were already in-effect for that model. Worth checking out, at the least.

Ford and Toyota are also, not surprisingly, forceful with their clunker program promotions; they both have advertising dollars to spend (heck, Ford even showed a profit this past quarter … not enough to get them out of the hole they’re in, but if things continue in that direction, by the end of 2010 they could be truly profitable and paying a dividend).

Finally, understand that even if your car or truck is an eligible clunker under the latest NHTSA and EPA rulings (and these could change on a daily basis), you won’t get the voucher unless the new car you’re buying is rated as getting a certain MPG above your clunker. So, don’t think trading-in your 1993 high-mileage Honda Civic on a 2009 Cadillac Escalade is going to get you that $3,500 or $4,500 government pay-out. It ain’t.

Be careful, follow the rules, check www.cars.gov before you start new-car shopping, study the advertising and see which dealers are matching the voucher amount or giving other special incentives and go out there and do your best. You’re helping the environment, but most of all, helping the beleaguered auto industry. Trust me, they appreciate your business, now more than ever.

 

Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winner who has covered the world’s auto industry and motor racing for over 35 years. Parker hosts live one-hour automotive and motor racing call-in radio shows each Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m. on www.TalkRadioOne.com. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues Web site at www.SteveParker.comm or follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/autojourno.