Last weekend for Cash for Clunker deals

Some dealers will stop Cash for Clunkers deals early, but others prepare to rake in all the deals they can.

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by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

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NEW YORK ( -- If you're hoping to make a last-minute Cash for Clunkers deal, you'd better call your car dealer first to make sure he's still doing them. Also, make sure there are cars left to sell on the lot.

While some dealers say they'll participate in the Clunker program right up to the bitter end, others say they've stopped because they don't want to risk giving a $4,500 discount on a car and not be reimbursed by the government.

AutoNation (AN, Fortune 500), the country's largest dealership chain, will not be doing any Cash for Clunker transactions past Friday. AutoNation has completed almost 11,000 deals, according to spokesman Mark Cannon.

"It's been a great run," Cannon said.

The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association reported that about a quarter of its member dealerships had already dropped out of the program because of uncertainty over getting paid for their deals.

Many of those that are still doing deals will probably stop well before the Monday deadline, said Don Hall, president of the association.

"By Saturday evening, they'll cut it off," he said.

Dealers have until 8 p.m. Monday night to file claims for any deals.

But in a statement released late Friday, the National Automobile Dealers Association said that the deadline for submissions should be extended until August 31 due to computer slowdowns that could result from "overwhelming demand" on Monday. The government has yet to rule on whether to extend the deadline.

Under the Clunkers program, which launched July 27, vehicles purchased after July 1 are eligible for refund vouchers worth $3,500 to $4,500 on traded-in cars with a fuel economy rating of 18 miles per gallon or less.

Car buyers trading in a vehicle must prove that the vehicle has been titled to them for at least a year and, in most states, that the car has been insured for a year. Dealers have to provide copies of that paperwork, among other things, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in order to get their rebates.

The Virginia auto dealers' group reports that dealers have been reimbursed for only about 3% of all the deals that have been done in that state. Hall described the submission process as challenging, with frequent problems and rejections.

"It's been ugly, ugly," he said.

Geoff Pohanka, who heads the Pohanka Automotive Group in Maryland and Virginia, said he'll decide on a dealership-by-dealership basis how long each of his 15 dealerships will continue to accept Clunker deals.

So far, he said, his dealers have 500 deals entered into the system and only 10 have been paid. He expects to have 800 entered by the program's end.

"Eighty percent of them haven't even been reviewed yet," he said.

As he was speaking by telephone, he said, employees were trying to enter nine new Clunker deals but couldn't get the government's computer system to accept them.

"Every dealer's in a panic trying to get their deals in," he said.

Michelle Primm, managing partner of Cascade Auto Group in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, said her dealership, which sells Subaru and Mazda cars, stopped writing Clunker deals on Thursday. Cascade also hasn't been letting customers drive their new cars away until after the dealership has gotten its money.

So far, not many customers have gotten their cars.

"We have 34 deals in the system," she said. "Of those only three have gotten reimbursed."

Subaru has been offering cash advances on Clunkers, she said, and that will allow more customers to get their, cars.

Caroll Smith, president of Monument Chevrolet of Pasadena, Texas, said his dealership will keep writing Clunker deals right up until the Monday night deadline.

"I have not quit and don't intend to," he said.

His only problem, he said, is that his inventory is thin, something that's been a common problem at auto dealerships across the country.

"I don't know in five years that it's ever been this low," he said.

So far, customers have been taking whatever he can offer them in order to close a deal quickly.

"People have been very accommodating in terms of taking the wrong color, the wrong whatever," he said.

More customers have started calling since the announcement that the program was about to end, said Edward Tonkin, vice president of the Ron Tonkin family of dealerships in Portland Oregon.

"We've seen an up-tick in traffic -- phone, Internet, and showroom traffic -- beginning yesterday," he said.

Brian Benstock, president of Paragon Honda in Woodside, N.Y., said he also will keep writing deals right up to the deadline.

He's already done about 200 Clunker deals and has gotten reimbursed for only one. That check arrived Thursday, the day Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the winding down of the program.

"We had a little Clunker party," Benstock said.

He has no sympathy for dealers who complain about slow payments, he said. Dealers often have to wait for various types of incentive payments, he pointed out, even from manufacturers.

"This is a voluntary program," he said. "If you have cash flow problems, you can elect not to participate."

For customers thinking about trying to squeeze in as one of the last customers, Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the auto Web site, recommends patience and preparation.

Dealers aren't going to want to close any deals without seeing all the paperwork, including proof of insurance and registration, up front.

Also, potentials should call ahead and make sure the dealership has the car you want and they're still accepting Clunker deals. And be prepared for crowds.

"There could be a lot of people coming out this weekend," he said. To top of page

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