Got a clunker that gets dismal gas mileage?
Drive the jalopy down to a car dealer, and you might be in luck.
The federal government's $1 billion cash-for-clunkers Car Allowance Rebate System is set to kick off today, aiming to steer gas-guzzlers off the road and drive new sales for the sputtering auto industry.
If all goes as planned, nearly 250,000 new vehicles will be on the road by the time the program expires Nov. 1, and an equal number of road-weary cars will go to the scrap heap.
If you own an operable vehicle less than 25 years old that averages 18 miles per gallon or less and has been registered and insured for the past year, you might qualify for a credit of up to $4,500 on the purchase or lease of a new vehicle priced up to $45,000, according to the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act of 2009.
For qualifying vehicles, buyers will get a $3,500 credit for a new car that gets at least 4 mpg more than the trade-in. The credit rises to $4,500 if the new vehicle has a combined fuel economy value that is at least 10 mpg higher than the trade-in vehicle.
The final rules and parameters come out today and they might be tweaked a bit, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is ready to begin registering car dealers and rolling out the program, spokeswoman Karen Aldana said.
Local car dealers didn't know all the details of the program Thursday, but most expect the program to drive customers into showrooms, whether or not they end up qualifying or buying immediately.
They also expect some prospective customers to be disappointed when they learn they don't qualify.
But they expect the program to stimulate the market nevertheless.
"People will come in and start a relationship, and some will find out they don't qualify and they will go away," Hendrick Honda general manager Sears Sauls said. "But some will get the scent. It will start them thinking about a new car. It's kind of like, 'I wasn't hungry, but darn those peanuts smell good. I'd like to have some.' "
He added, "We have had a number of people leave partial payments pending things go as we anticipate.
"The biggest reservation we have is getting dealers' money involved in red tape. On paper it sounds good, but it still has a lot of uncertainty."
Like Sauls, Bucky Morris, a partner in Morris Nissan on Savannah Highway, praised the idea but questioned its execution.
"We haven't gotten all the ground rules yet: What to do with trade-ins? Where to send them? What do we have to do to prepare them?" he said.
Saturn and Subaru of Charleston expects the program to rev up sales.
"We are optimistic this will give us a final push here, finishing off July and going into August," said Ken French, marketing director of Saturn and Subaru of Charleston. "Saturn and Subaru have some nice incentives to put people into vehicles even if they don't qualify for the cash-for-clunkers deal."
Chrysler one-upped the competition Wednesday. The automaker announced it will match the incentive to lure customers into its showrooms or offer zero-percent financing for six years on most of its 2009 models through Aug. 31. That means a customer could get as much as $9,000 off a new Chrysler.
"As long as you meet the criteria, this is a tremendous deal," said Keith Roberts, general manager of Hoover Dodge Chrysler Jeep of Summerville. "I think it's going to do a lot for the economy and for us. It has the makings of a promotion that is truly believable.
"There is nothing false or misleading. Customers are going to get $3,500 or $4,500 from the government for getting rid of a gas guzzler. I think it will drive a lot of customers in here."
A dozen customers committed to trading in their cars at Morris Nissan have been waiting for the new program to launch, Morris said. But he wonders if, because the government let the public know about the deal early on, some interest might have waned since then.
Morris Nissan received an approval number Wednesday, but Morris expects the program to begin working a bit after today's official launch.
Despite details that remained in limbo Thursday, Morris still hailed the idea.
"It's a great program," he said.
Some local car dealers expect to add to their gains last month through the federal incentive.
Roberts said local Chrysler dealers saw a surge in sales in June, primarily because dealerships that closed or merged as a result of the Detroit area automaker's financial problems discounted vehicles to move them off the lots.
Hendrick Honda also showed an increase in June sales compared with the past six months, but figures were still down from a year ago, Sauls said.
"The true need for the automobile is more now," Sauls said of the uptick in sales. "People might have gotten more stabilized and have more confidence in the economy."
The federal program will help, he said.
"If it all goes like it is on paper, it will be a stimulus to the industry," Sauls said.
A rundown of the requirements and other details of the government's cash for clunkers program:
• Vehicles must be less than 25 years old on the trade-in date. • Only purchases or leases of new vehicles qualify. • Generally, trade-ins must get 18 mpg or less (some very large pick-ups and cargo vans have different requirements). To determine the mileage, go to . • Trade-ins must be registered and insured continuously for the full year preceding the trade-in. • Dealers will apply a credit at the time of purchase. • Expires Nov. 1 or when the funds are exhausted, whichever comes first. • The program requires the scrapping of your eligible trade-in, and that the dealer disclose an estimate of the scrap value of your trade-in. The scrap value, however minimal, will be in addition to the rebate, and not in place of the rebate.