Lies, Damned Lies and Fuel Economy Numbers

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Heather Peters with her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid.


Heather Peters was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore.  So she decided to take Honda to court, alleging that the Japanese maker sold her a car it knew wasn’t likely to get anywhere near the mileage she had been promised.

In a case commanding national attention, former corporate attorney Peters is now waiting for a decision from a small claims court in suburban Los Angeles that could award her as much as $10,000 – though she claims Honda actually defrauded her to the tune of $122,112 by convincing her to buy a 2006 Civic Hybrid.

“The sales force said 50 miles per gallon, but they didn’t say if you run your air conditioning and you remain in stop-and-go traffic, you’re going to get 29 to 30 miles per gallon,” said the 46-year-old Peters prior to the trial. “If they did, I would have gotten the regular Civic.”

Peters isn’t alone. A number of manufacturers have been hit with criticism and, in some cases, with class action lawsuits, contending that the numbers they promote in window stickers and in advertisements are far more optimistic than buyers should expect.

And the situation only seems to be getting worse as fuel economy has become one of the single biggest factors American consider when shopping for a new car.  When it comes to compact and subcompact models, 40 has become the new norm, the minimum number needed in terms of highway mileage to ensure shoppers consider a particular product.

Hyundai recently announced plans to add a fourth model to its line-up rated at 40 mpg or higher.  But, in the process, it is taking fire from the Washington-based Consumer Watchdog which claims the figure quoted for the compact Hyundai Elantra is “deceptive.” The organization is asking the maker to stop using it in ads – while also demanding the Environmental Protection Agency re-test the vehicle’s fuel economy.

In a letter to Hyundai, the group said that, “With this mileage issue in the public arena, Consumer Watchdog believes you should acknowledge the real-world gap to potential buyers, or risk losing their trust.”

For its part, a statement by the Korean maker says that, Hyundai stands behind the EPA fuel economy ratings of the Elantra and we have no intention of removing our fuel economy numbers from our advertising. Simply put, the charges being made by Consumer Watchdog don’t hold up.”

The maker actually acknowledges that the testing done by a variety different magazines and consumer groups has resulted in lower fuel economy than the EPA has gotten when testing the same vehicles – but Hyundai stresses that is true across the board, not just limited to its own products.

“Enthusiast magazine fuel economy reporting (Car & Driver, Motor Trend, etc.) and even USA Today, testing typically results in lower-than-EPA results for almost all vehicles, as was found with Elantra,” said the Hyundai statement.

Part of the problem, said an industry source asking not to be identified by name, “is that manufacturers typically tune their cars to maximize their performance in the EPA test cycle.  In some cases they might actually do better in real world conditions, but in many cases they’ll get lower mileage in consumers’ hands.”

The EPA has been well aware of such discrepancies and has periodically tweaked its testing procedures to try to generate numbers that are more in-line with real-world results.  The most recent changes, made in 2008, were aimed primarily at correcting what were admittedly overstated numbers for most hybrids – such as Heather Peters’ Civic.

In some instances, the EPA has had to tweak its formula to be more generous.  Ford's Derrick Kuzak has noted that the automaker is reluctant to start offering costly start-stop technology on its vehicles because the current EPA methodology doesn’t reflect its benefits.  Start-stop systems briefly shut off a vehicle’s engine rather than idling, say, at a stoplight.  The engine automatically re-starts when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake pedal.  The EPA is considering ways to reflect the use of start-stop when determining the final rating of a vehicle.

But, more often than not, fuel economy numbers have tended to be overstated, something manufacturers are well aware of.  But, at the hearing on Peters’ complaint in a small claims courtroom in Torrance, California a Honda representative insisted, “We have no choice” but to use the EPA figures.  “We have to put these numbers on the label,” argued technical specialist Neil Schmidt.

Not so, countered an EPA spokesman, who said that federal mileage testing provides only the maximum number a maker may quote.  If a vehicle is more likely to deliver 35 in real-world conditions an automaker has the right to go with that figure, though sticking with an EPA-sanctioned 40 MPG is more likely to catch a consumer’s eye.

But the push for a high EPA rating can occasionally backfire.  When J.D. Power and Associates downgraded Ford in its Initial Quality Survey last year, one of the reasons was a balky transmission in the new Ford Focus that had been specifically tweaked to maximize mileage.  The maker has since revised the software used to balance fuel economy and ride comfort but it remains to be seen if that will drop Focus below the sought-after 40 mpg figure.

That number is, it should be pointed out, based on the highway portion of the EPA testing process.  The government actually provides three numbers: City, Highway and Combined, the latter being “the one we think is most likely to reflect what a consumer will really get in real world conditions,” noted Nissan’s chief U.S. spokesman Dave Reuter.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom a number that you’ll see quoted in advertising.

“The convention in the industry has been to promote the highway number…to represent the best competitive position,” noted Doug Scott, Ford’s Truck Group Marketing Manager.

Nonetheless, the story isn’t entirely bad.  With automakers putting more and more emphasis on fuel economy, many of the latest products are achieving 5, 10, even 15% overall – real world — gains compared to the products they replace.

Credit new technologies like direct injection, turbocharging, six-, seven- and even eight-speed gearboxes and, yes, start-stop.

Yet, a new study by MIT economist Christopher Knittel suggests that the industry could do even better if it weren’t for the fact that today’s cars are both bigger and heavier than ever.  Take the Honda Civic.  It’s now nearly big enough to be considered a midsize but debuted as a subcompact.

According to Knittel, the average gas mileage of vehicles sold in the U.S. increased by just over 15%.  Over the same period their average curb weight rose 16% — while their horsepower soared by an average 107%.

Had the typical car maintained its weight and power the typical U.S. automobile would today be getting about 37 mpg, rather than 27, Knittel noted in a new research paper, “Automobiles on Steroids,” published in the American Economic Review.

“Most of (the recent) technological program has gone into (compensating for) weight and horsepower,” he wrote.

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