WASHINGTON - The most common deals under the government's $3 billion "cash for clunkers" program, aimed at putting more fuel-efficient cars on the road, replaced Ford or Chevrolet pickups with new ones that got only marginally better gas mileage, an Associated Press analysis of new federal data found.
The single most common swap - which occurred more than 8,200 times - involved Ford F150 owners who took advantage of a government rebate to trade their pickups for new Ford F150s. They were 17 times more likely to buy an F150 than, say, a Toyota Prius.
The fuel economy for the new trucks ranged from 15 mpg to 17 mpg based on engine size and other factors, an improvement of 1 mpg to 3 mpg over the clunkers.
Owners of thousands more large old Chevrolet and Dodge pickups bought new Silverado and Ram trucks, also with barely improved mileage in the middle teens, according to AP's analysis of sales of $15.2 billion worth of vehicles at nearly 19,000 car dealerships in every state.
Those deals helped put the Ford F150 and Chevy Silverado - along with Ford's Escape midsize SUV - among the Top 10 most-popular vehicles purchased with the government rebates.
In scores of deals, the government reported spending a total of $562,500 in rebates for new cars and trucks that got worse or the same mileage as the trade-ins - in apparent violation of the program's requirements. The government said it is investigating those reports and said, in some cases, they were probably entered incorrectly by dealers or based on outdated fuel economy figures.
The new data include details of 677,081 clunker trade-ins processed by the government through Oct. 16. More than 95,000 vehicles purchased under the program - or about one in seven - got less than 20 mpg, data showed.
"If we're looking for the environmental story here, we're going to be disappointed," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive at Edmunds.com, an analyst firm. "It might have started out from the perspective of improving the environment, but it got detoured as a way to stimulate the economy."
Popular high-mileage commuter cars including the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, and Ford Focus were among the Top 10 most popular new vehicles bought under the four-week program, with 105,280 sold for about $2 billion.
The $3 billion program, known officially as the Car Allowance Rebate System, ran from July 27 to Aug. 25 and generally required that new vehicles get better mileage - at least 22 mpg for cars and either 15 mpg or 18 mpg for trucks depending on class - and that trade-ins get no more than 18 mpg. The trade-ins were required to be destroyed in exchange for either $3,500 or $4,500 rebates.
"The value that the customer got for a lot of these vehicles was just a gift, no question," said Scott Pundt, sales vice president for the Dorschel Group of Rochester, N.Y., with 592 vehicles sold under the program. "We were appraising 220,000-mile vehicles that were really rough, and they were getting $3,500 or $4,500 for them."