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Ford is Also Trading in Its Clunkers for Cash

My dad just bought a Ford Fusion Hybrid. He loves the darned thing. On a recent trip from Michigan to Maine — slightly over 1,000 miles — he managed to stop just once for gas along the way and averaged close to 38 miles per gallon. It’s a good car. The ride is almost eerily smooth, transitioning effortlessly between gas and electric power as you decelerate and accelerate around turns. There’s even a power outlet in the back seat, so your passengers can use their laptop or iPod to their heart’s content while they’re getting where they’re going. It’s by no means the sexiest vehicle, but it’s a bit easier on the eyes than a Prius.

It’s also an American car. This is not an accident. My dad is not exactly the most jingoistic guy — rather, he’s a rather liberal, California-bred political science professor. But he won’t buy a foreign car. Won’t even consider it. This is because he lives in Michigan. The only thing that will get you more dirty looks in Michigan than driving a foreign car is having an Ohio State Buckeyes sticker on the back bumper.

The car wasn’t purchased as part of the CARS program — the family’s old Taurus wasn’t quite clunky enough to qualify. But he was eligible for a couple of tax credits and stands to save something like $1,000-$1,500 per year in gas depending on where the price of oil goes. Overall, it’s a pretty good buy.

The fact is, though, that Americans who want a fuel-efficient vehicle have had comparatively few domestic options, at least until recently. Nobody should act shocked or offended, therefore, if a lot of the sales made through cash-for-clunkers were for foreign vehicles. A new vehicle is eligible for the CARS (cash-for-clunkers) program if it achieves at least 22 MPG according to the EPA. How many American-made* vehicles qualify?

The EPA has a database in which it lists 1,182 distinct model lines of 2009 cars and SUVs. Of these, 531 — 45 percent of the total — are manufactured by Ford, Chrysler, or GM.

Only 293 of these model lines qualify for the Clunkers program. Of the qualifying cars, just 87 — 30 percent — are American-made, well behind their share of the overall fleet. Another way to look at this: just 16 percent of domestic-made model lines qualified for the program, versus 32 percent of the foreign brands.

So if, as it happens, the cars purchased under the clunkers program were less likely to be American made (52 percent were, versus the usual benchmark of 63 percent — although that rate has steadily been declining), this is simply a reflection of the choices that consumers had available. If anything, the American-made cars have over-performed, relative to their availability. Per eligible vehicle model, the American cars sold an average of 4,125 units through the clunkers program, versus just 746 for the for the foreign cars.

I don’t know why it took Detroit so long how to figure out how to make a good mass-market, hybrid like my dad’s new Fusion. But they’re starting to get it right. And Ford, at least, buoyed in part by the clunkers program, is being rewarded with big year-over-year sales increases. Now, if only they could do something about the Lions

* By “American-made”, I mean a car produced under the Ford, GM or Chrysler flagships, or one of their subsidiaries. There are some ambiguities in where a car is actually manufactured — a lot of Ford Fusions, for example, are assembled in Hermosillo, Mexico, while some foreign manufacturers have assembly plants here.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.