Navigant Research Blog

Your Mileage May Vary, Automakers Admit

Dave Hurst — January 9, 2013

Source: EPAThe fuel economy mileage that appears on window stickers of new vehicles is calculated through a test that puts a vehicle through a standardized drive cycle designed by the EPA.  The EPA then relies on auto manufacturers to conduct the test and certifies that the vehicles have been tested.  The goal is to give consumers a valid comparison point between different vehicles, so if one is shopping for a new Ford C-Max or a Toyota Prius, the numbers for fuel economy can be accurately gauged.

At least that’s the goal.  Already this year the EPA audited Hyundai and Kia after receiving consumer complaints about the fuel economy figures.  The audit found that Hyundai and Kia have fudged mileage claims in order to achieve 40 mpg, in some cases by as many as 6 mpg.  This resulted in the combined company (Hyundai owns 49% of Kia Motors) reducing its overall corporate fuel economy from 27 to 26 mpg.

Another automaker finds itself in the mpg hotseat, this time not in form of an audit, but in the courts.  A class action lawsuit against Ford claims that the new C-Max and Fusion hybrids’ mileage of 47 mpg is fiction.  This comes after the EPA already suggested that it would review the mileage claims, citing significantly lower results during testing by Consumer Reports.

These suits and audits are not new.  Honda recently suffered a high profile loss in small claims court, which was later overturned on appeal.  It’s clear that as automakers continue to push for higher fuel economy from vehicles, the bragging rights (and marketing value) of hitting certain mileage claims are enticing enough to push the limits of window-sticker honesty.  The phrase “your mileage may vary” has never been more applicable.  In Ford’s case, the company seems to be positioning its claim that 47 mpg for the C-Max and Fusion is achievable if they’re driven in the most conscientious way.  Whether this stands in the real world is likely to be a hot topic during the Ford lawsuit.

Hyundai and Kia’s reputation has been hurt by the fuel economy debacle, though sales remained strong throughout 2012.  The fact is that none of Hyundai or Kia’s vehicles now reaches the 40 mpg mark, an important, if arbitrary, number, for consumers shopping for a high fuel economy vehicle.  What will it mean to Ford’s reputation if the EPA certifies that the 47 mpg is invalid – or that it’s valid only if the car’s driven in a very specific and economical way?  In the near term, Ford will take the hit.    Ford, however, is just the most recent whipping boy, and all the automakers must be more cautious in publishing dicey numbers.

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