A Letter to the President Can Matter: Ours Changed Hyundai’s MPG Claims And Evened the Playing Field For US Carmakers

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If you doubt that writing the White House can make a difference, just look at the letter my Consumer Watchdog colleague Judy Dugan and I wrote to the President in January calling for an audit of the inflated MPG claims for the Hyundai Elantra. Friday, the EPA answered with an announcement that Hyundai and Kia's window sticker claims were inflated, would be fixed and consumers would get refunds.

Not bad for a much maligned government or post office.

In conjunction with the National Auto Show in Detroit, we sent a letter to the White House with data showing that in real-world driving the Chevy Cruze ECO got 28% better overall MPG than the highly touted 2011 Hyundai Elantra, even though the two models received the same EPA combined mileage ratings. We noted such disparities between tested and actual mileage, including similar shortfalls in MPG that generated lawsuits against the Honda Civic hybrid, were likely putting domestic automakers at an unfair marketing disadvantage to foreign-based competitors.

Pretty important for U.S. taxpayers who still owned a 25% stake in General Motors after the 2009 federal bailout of GM and Chrysler.

What the public doesn't know is that almost all clean air and MPG testing is done by manufacturers, not the EPA (which merely certifies the results). Given the questions about tested and real MPG, on behalf of Consumer Watchdog we asked President Obama to require the EPA to bring clean-air and MPG testing in-house to increase consumer confidence, and to also reevaluate its testing procedures.

We wrote:

"Consumers are largely unaware–and would be shocked to know–that the Environmental Protection Agency does not conduct most auto clean air and MPG tests. Manufacturers conduct the tests themselves and transmit the results to the EPA, with a low likelihood that the EPA will re-test to confirm validity. Manufacturers' post-market engine modifications, like those made by Honda on earlier Civic hybrids to extend engine life at the expense of MPG, also apparently do not trigger a requirement to re-test the auto or notify buyers of MPG degradation.

"It is past time to bring MPG and clean air testing back to the EPA itself. This is the only way to prevent manufacturer gaming of the results [and] clean up doubts caused by the EPA's dependence on manufacturer."

"If a domestic car is slightly more expensive or has slightly lower official MPG numbers than the competition, but actually gets better on-road mileage, the scale is tilted against the U.S. manufacturer. This appears to be factually the case in comparing the Chevy Cruze and the Hyundai Elantra."

When the Environmental Protection Agency audited Hyundai, it determined it overstated its sticker mileage estimates on various vehicles, including the Elantra. Hyundai had previously denied that it exaggerated mileage claims, but said Friday it would reissue the window stickers with new mileage estimates and shell out cash to car owners, even though the amount is probably insufficient.

The agency is continuing its investigation into the inflated test results. And a false advertising lawsuit over the "40 Mile Per Gallon Elanta" filed in California by my consumer group Consumer Watchdog has the potential to get car buyers a lot more back given that Hyundai just admitted its window sticker was yet another false advertisement.

The issue of EPA self-testing and what Hyundai owes car owners, as well as US car makers, is just beginning. The public deserves to know the whole truth about why the South Korean carmakers' test results were inaccurate and whether or not they were intentionally falsified, as well as what damage that did to the American motor industry, which is back by the American taxpayer. Hyundai should settle up with consumers and make reparations for its inflated claims if it wants to restore consumer trust in its brand.

On the eve of an election, it's nice to know that a letter to the White House can make a difference. That government can work right when it's given an opportunity to act and good information to act upon. It's worth writing the White House, and voting for that matter too.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on November 3, 2012

Jamie Court
Jamie Court
Consumer Watchdog's President and Chairman of the Board is an award-winning and nationally recognized consumer advocate. The author of three books, he has led dozens of campaigns to reform insurance companies, financial institutions, energy companies, political accountability and health care companies.

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