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Clunker owners swamp Modesto-area car dealers for cash rebates

Two unfamiliar sounds could be heard in the sales office at Central Valley Automotive on McHenry Avenue Sunday afternoon: a ringing phone and customers talking with sales agents.

The noise was music to the ears of sales manager Ray Chavarria. A few weeks ago, before the federal government's "cash for clunkers" program started, hours would pass between phone calls. Walk-in customers were few and far between, Chavarria said.

Over the weekend, a flood of customers was lured by the promise of cash for clunkers, formally called CARS, for Car Allowance Rebate System.

The program hands out $3,500 to $4,500 rebates when shoppers trade in older cars with poor gas mileage for new models with better fuel economy.

Central Valley Automotive saw about 45 customers Saturday, Chavarria said. A typical day before the rebate program would bring 15 or so through the door. The logbook that tracks customer visits brimmed with entries; it had been full of blank spaces.

Outside, cars on the lot had red, white and blue tags reminding shoppers about the program.

"God bless them for doing this, honestly," said salesman Michael Rizavi. "The industry was absolutely hurting. This reminds me of four years ago. Back then, (there were so many customers) we didn't know who to pick."

Before the program, Rizavi saw days in which 10 hours would go by with no customers. On Sunday, he was busy prepping a shiny white Jeep Compass for a cash for clunkers customer.

The customer, Leslee Best of Salida, traded in her 1991 Mazda Navajo for the Compass. She got a $4,500 rebate, plus $3,500 in other incentives. (In some cases, Central Valley Automotive is matching the government rebates.) All told, Best knocked $8,000 off her new car's sticker price. Ordinarily the old Mazda would have been worth about $200 as a trade-in, said sales manager David Perez.

Best said she would miss driving the Mazda, which racked up 194,000 miles. But she said she was looking forward to the Compass, which gets 27 miles per gallon on the highway.

"I think it's fantastic," Best said. "I hope it helps the dealerships and the economy. I just hope it helps with jobs, that's what we really need."

Up the street at American Chevrolet, senior sales manager Dwain Cormire laughed when asked about the impact of cash for clunkers. "This has put us at a whole other level," Cormire said. "It's been pandemonium."

To prove his point, Cormire showed off a row of about 25 clunkers parked in the dealership's back lot. The aging fleet -- some with rusted tailpipes and peeling paint -- had all arrived in the past two days.

American Chevrolet stayed open two extra hours Saturday night to accommodate the traffic. Sales manager Mike Solario said foot traffic into the dealership had tripled since cash for clunkers started. He estimated the program could mean a 20 percent boost in sales this month.

Another side effect of the program, said Central Valley Automotive's Chavarria, is improved employee morale. At the height of the boom, the dealership employed 18 salespeople. Now it has 10, and they've seen some grim days since the economy went south. Not on Sunday, Chavarria said.

"The energy is up, the enthusiasm is up," he said. "It seems like there's light at the end of the tunnel."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378.

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