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Get Real! The Truth About MPG Ratings

In the wake of restated fuel economy on several vehicles in the past 2 years, can you trust the fuel-economy sticker that’s on the vehicle in a new-car dealership lot? Environmental Protection Agency’s rules leave open the possibility that your real-world mileage won’t match what you read on the sticker.

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When Robert Fellows was in the market for a new vehicle, he was inclined to lease another Toyota Prius. He liked the car and loved the gasoline mileage.

Instead, Fellows was more impressed by a different hybrid—the Ford C-Max Hybrid—which had a window sticker that promised a jaw-dropping 47 mpg in both city and highway driving. The C-Max Hybrid would perform 7 mpg better than a Toyota Prius v would on the highway, Ford Motor bragged in a news release.

Fellows was sold. “I thought I would equal or exceed the Prius mileage,” he says. However, not long after he drove the C-Max Hybrid off the lot, he began to suspect that something was wrong. The hybrid’s onboard fuel-economy monitor said Fellows was achieving only 35.7 mpg, not the 47 mpg that he expected.

Fellows returned to the dealership to complain. He was told that the problem wasn’t the car, it was him. “They said, ‘Oh, you have to drive it more. You have to break it in,’” he remembers. Fellows would have none of it. “I’m an experienced driver of a hybrid, and that’s total BS.”

He turned out to be right. In August 2013, Ford lowered its mileage ratings for the C-Max Hybrid, acknowledging that the numbers that it submitted to Environmental Protection Agency weren’t representative of how the hybrid performed in the real world.

The experience of Fellows and other C-Max Hybrid buyers isn’t unique. In November 2012, Hyundai Motor admitted, after months of denial, that the fuel-economy ratings for several models that it sold under the Hyundai and Kia brands in 2010 and 2011 were overstated. Nearly 900,000 vehicles, including popular models, such as the Hyundai Elantra and the Kia Rio, were affected.

A vehicle’s reported fuel economy is important to consumers’ buying decisions. An April 2013 survey by Consumer Federation of America found that 88 percent of new-vehicle buyers ranked fuel economy as “important,” and 59 percent called it “very important.”

Something few consumers understand, however, is that the EPA fuel-economy rating that appears on the sticker of a new vehicle isn’t necessarily the result of EPA testing. For the vast majority of vehicles, ratings result from tests that are performed by automakers that use professional drivers, pure gasoline and test facilities that have conditions that are unlike those that real-world drivers face.

Taken together, the restatement of fuel-economy ratings raises the question: Can consumers who are in the market for a new vehicle believe the fuel-economy ratings that are on the window sticker?

Consumer advocates say they can’t.

“They should put no more stock in the window sticker than they do in the sticker price,” says Jamie Court, who is the president of Consumer Watchdog. Court’s organization bases its claims on consumer complaints, which it collects and catalogs, as well as testing that was performed by independent groups.

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For its part, EPA acknowledges that its procedures might not catch all mileage overstatements. It has promised to increase the number of vehicles that it checks and to publish a comprehensive audit of one of the key elements of fuel-economy testing across the industry.

For consumers who head to the dealership lot in the near future, that isn’t much help. By wading through industry reports and conversations with eight independent experts, Consumers Digest determined what you should know when you go.

FUELING PROBLEMS. For too long, automakers overstated their vehicles’ fuel economy, Court says. “It’s going to be inflated; it’s just a question of how much.”

The case of the Hyundai Elantra was particularly egregious because of how heavily marketed the fuel-economy claims were, Court says. “They were calling it the ‘40-mpg Elantra,’ and that was how they were advertising it in the Super Bowl,” he says. However, the complaints that kept pouring in to Consumer Watchdog told a different story. “Consumers were literally getting low 20s,” Court says.

In a letter to EPA as early as November 2011, Consumer Watchdog reported that even experienced drivers found that their real-world mileage was far below the window-sticker numbers.

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