Driven by clunkers

The applicants sat on the floor, propped themselves against the walls and sprawled across the reclining seats of the showroom cars. The "cash for clunkers" program has turned the car-dealing jungle upside down. Now the gazelles are stalking the lions.

I'm thrilled to have driven out of that jungle Saturday with a new Kia Spectra, CD player and AC included, for less than $7,000 after my $4,500 clunker rebate. Even if it meant tackling innocent car salesmen before another customer could get to them and waiting five hours to close a simple cash deal.

Our 1989 Mercedes 300 SE brought us there, the last place it would bring anyone. We bought it three years ago for $3,100 as a first car for our son, a solid, elegant vehicle that would keep him safe. But under the unsubtle hands of a teenage boy new to the wheel, and after 30,000 additional miles, the aged beauty began to fall apart. The power windows quit one by one, then the door locks, the air conditioning and the stereo. At nearly $1,000 for each repair, and gas mileage that averaged 16 mpg, the best option appeared to be donation to charity for the $500 tax deduction -- until the clunker law sent us hunting at new car dealerships.

At a Honda lot, the one salesman we could find made it clear that he wasn't going to budge on the price of a Civic. "Guess we should go over to the Hyundai dealership," I cagily threatened. "Good idea," he agreed. At Hyundai, we watched a family leap into an Accent for a test drive after two other cars were snatched out from under them. We never did find a salesman.

We changed tactics Saturday, armed with a newspaper ad in which 48 Spectras were offered for $5,995 each. At the Kia dealership, we found a crowd of others clutching their newspapers, though many were sent home, near tears, to search for all the documents required. We nearly walked out when the dealership imposed a $500 fee on us because we were buying outright rather than financing. "Do you want to give up $4,500 for your car that's worth $200?" the salesman asked, his insult to our clunker making me angrier than the three hours of waiting.

As we drove out in a serviceable Kia that gets 27 mpg, we passed the old Mercedes, a beautifully manufactured relic of the past, awaiting transport to a scrap heap. "Even with 200,000 miles and no working windows, you're twice the car this one is," I promised her, and then turned toward the freeway.

-- Karin Klein

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