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Dealerships seeing more interest in autos

The Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) is sending people into area dealerships. The sign held by Brent Trauger, left, and Al Saar proved to be unnecessary after consumers learned of the program. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Funding may be fizzling for the Cash for Clunkers program, but the program seems to be meeting one of its goals - stirring an interest in auto sales.

Customers were arriving in number at area car dealerships last week to unload gas guzzlers, manufactured in 1984 or later, and save $3,500 or $4,500 on a new, more fuel efficient car under the government's $1 billion program.

"It's working great," said Ted Thielen. "We're running out of cars."

But Thielen Motors quit selling cars through the Car Allowance Rebate System program Friday after frustrations with getting the rebates approved and learning the government may suspend the program after using up the $1 billion appropriated. "We're waiting to see what the Senate's going to do," he said.

Last week, the House approved a $2 billion extension. Members of the Senate were examining the issue early this week. Republicans are reportedly opposed to the additional funding.

The program was to run until Nov. 1 "or when funds are exhausted." By last Wednesday, nearly $96 million reportedly had been spent.

By Friday, the Thielen dealership had sold about a dozen cars via the program and people were calling and stopping by to inquire about a purchase.

Statewide, there were reportedly 3,500 transactions by week's end, "$14 million sold without a single approval" from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Thielen said. Dealerships were simply notified approval is "pending."

Thielen said the dealership was unable to access the site to complete paperwork Saturday, but was successful Sunday.

A sign advertising the initiative remained folded and unused at Thielen's, as of Monday.

"It stirred interest in the auto industry," Roger Anderson, sales manager at Park Rapids Chrysler Center, said. But the complexity of the program was frustrating, he added. "There are so many rules," producing significant paperwork for dealerships.

People were coming in with a van getting 18 or 19 mpg only to learn the car they hoped to buy didn't qualify for the rebate because of its mileage, 22 mpg, for example.

Under the program, car buyers are eligible for $4,500 if a new car is 10 mpg more fuel efficient than the older car. They are eligible for $3,500 if a new car is 4 mpg more fuel efficient than the older cars.

Some of the Cash for Clunkers wannabes were driving off in used vehicles, however.

"The good news is, the traffic's good," said Dan Piprude, dealer principal at Heartland Family Ford.

He said the dealership is using caution, taking deposits and holding cars, but "reluctant to disappoint customers.

"It's wonderful, but complicated," he said. "It's a great deal for those who are able to take advantage of it."

Some customers are leaving frustrated, because they couldn't buy the car they'd wanted, he said,

"We're taking reservation and seeing how it works out."