Like many other automakers Hyundai ran a series of ads on this year’s Super Bowl broadcast, including one for its popular Elantra line of cars. This one was a straightforward affair, focusing more on the vehicle than on, say, raging zombies, barking/singing dogs or Soup Nazis. Still, there’s one element that was missing from the commercial that’s appeared in other of the automaker’s ads for car, namely its “40 miles per gallon” fuel economy rating.
While the Hyundai representative we spoke with assured us the spot was originally conceived exclusively to highlight the car’s (well deserved in our opinion) accolades and awards and at no time was any mention of the Elantra’s mpg estimates planned, at least one consumer organization is claiming a victory of sorts.
A group called Consumer Watchdog has been hounding Hyundai in recent weeks, asserting its “40 miles per gallon” claim for the Elantra is inflated, albeit depending on how one looks at it. The Elantra’s official fuel economy rating, certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, is indeed 40 mpg in highway driving, but it’s only 29 mpg in the city and 33 mpg in combined city/highway driving. As we see it, the larger question isn’t whether the car can in fact attain 40 mpg, but whether the average consumer understands that a blanket claim of “40 miles per gallon” doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what they’ll actually obtain in their daily stop-and-go commute.
The group is disseminating its own counter-advertisement showing the cost to consumers of the difference between claimed and actual fuel economy, which can be viewed via the You Tube video at the bottom of this post. The clip contends that even Consumer Reports could get nowhere near the claimed mileage, obtaining just 29 mpg in combined city/highway driving in its own testing. In fact, CR obtained a close-enough 39 mpg on the highway, though it just got 20 mpg in city driving, which brought down the combined rating. [Click here for CR's fuel economy estimates.]
“Consumers who increasingly buy cars on the basis of high miles per gallon—then can’t get close to the posted figure—are justifiably angry,” says Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “Hyundai’s omission of its touted ’40 mpg’ claim in its Super Bowl ads, after making a very big deal of it in earlier advertising, shows that the company is hearing the hoofbeats of consumer outrage.”
Advertising verbiage aside, the differences between claimed and real world fuel economy has long been a bugaboo among car buyers, and in all the years we’ve test-driven new cars it’s been the exception rather than the norm when we’ve been able to reach the EPA-certified estimates. While we, like most drivers, often attribute this to our lead-footed ways, some consumers are choosing to challenge automakers’ fuel economy estimates as being akin to false advertising. Last week a disgruntled Honda Civic Hybrid owner in California won a small-claims court challenge over claims that the car could achieve as much as 50 mpg.
Why do many cars’ fuel economy estimates miss the mark – sometimes by a wide margin? A lot of it has a lot to do with the way new cars and trucks are evaluated for their energy consumption. While it would seem logical to determine a vehicle’s fuel economy by simply filling up the tank, driving it on the road or a test track for a set number of city or highway miles, refilling the tank, and dividing the number of miles driven by the number of gallons consumed, this is not how the experts do it.
In fact, tested vehicles don’t reach the pavement at all. Rather, a car or truck’s fuel economy is measured under rigidly controlled circumstances in a laboratory using a standardized test that’s mandated by federal law. Each model is tested on what’s called a dynamometer, which is like a treadmill for cars, and is run through two standardized driving schedules, one each to simulate city and highway motoring. The engine’s exhaust gases are collected and analyzed to calculate the amount of fuel that’s being burned. Each car is “driven” according to a strictly uniform program of acceleration, deceleration, stopping and idling. While tweaks and improvements to these testing cycles have been made over the years, they bear no resemblance to anyone’s daily commute.
Out on real roads, physical factors like trip length, traffic conditions, terrain, temperature, and the weather all affect a car’s mileage, as does the car’s aerodynamics and the number of passengers and weight of cargo that’s aboard. Lead-footed acceleration, heavy braking, high-speed driving, excessive idling, towing, and engaging four-wheel-drive also negatively impact a motorist’s mileage.
Perhaps at some point the technicians will find a way to get the cars out of the lab and onto the road in a similarly controlled manner to get more accurate fuel economy readings. Until then, expect similar kerfuffles over fuel economy ratings to continue. The lawyers will no doubt have more sway going forward over how automakers can express their vehicles’ projected mpg in their ads. As they say, “Your mileage may vary.”
Jim Gorzelany is author of the Automotive Intelligentsia 2011-2012 Sports Car Guide, available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com and the Apple iBooks Store.