Just How Often Are Car MPG Claims Inflated?

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Markus Altmann / Gallery Stock

A recent mini-scandal reveals what many drivers have long suspected: The gas mileage claims listed prominently on the windows of new cars can be overstated. Unfortunately, this may not be an isolated incident.

The acronym “EPA” is featured on the mpg ratings of new car stickers, but the Environmental Protection Agency does not conduct fuel economy tests on all vehicles. Instead, according to the Associated Press, how things work is that automakers do their own tests, and “the EPA enforces accuracy by auditing about 15 percent of vehicles annually.” Obviously, this system opens up the possibility that automakers could be inflating their vehicle mpg ratings, purposefully or “by accident.”

After receiving complaints from drivers about the fuel economy of the 2012 Hyundai Elantras, the EPA conducted an audit, which exposed the fact that the majority of 2012 and 2013 Hyundai and Kia models had inaccurate, inflated mileage ratings. For most of the affected cars, sticker ratings had to be lowered by a mere 1 mpg or 2 mpg. The Kia Soul Eco, however, is now rated at 29 mpg on the highway, down 6 mpg from the 35 mpg that used to be listed on the window. That’s quite a bump, one that’ll be noticed by drivers who take fuel economy into consideration when choosing a new car—and who doesn’t do so nowadays?

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As an Automotive News story pointed out, the revelation undercut one of the main selling points—often the biggest selling point—for consumers who’d decided to go with a Hyundai or Kia:

In researcher AutoPacific’s 2012 New Vehicle Satisfaction Survey, fuel economy was rated as an “extremely important” purchase reason by more than 90 percent of Hyundai and Kia buyers, well above the industry average of 75 percent.

It was the No. 1 reason buyers chose an Accent, Elantra, Veloster and Sonata Hybrid, as well as the Kia Rio, Soul and Forte. As an overall brand attribute, fuel economy was rated fourth, behind quality, reliability and warranty. For the rest of the industry, fuel economy ranked 19th.

We’ll have to see how much of an impact the lower mpg ratings have on Hyundai and Kia sales. Surely, some drivers who were on the fence, and perhaps even leaning toward one of the Korean automaker’s cars, will choose another vehicle now that the fuel economy of, say, the Hyundai Accent or Kia Soul, doesn’t seem so hot.

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Moody’s Investor Services has estimated that Hyundai and Kia may have to pay out as much as $100 million to compensate customers who purchased cars that had overstated mpg ratings. And that figure doesn’t factor in how badly the scandal will affect future sales. Jim Hall, of the auto industry research firm 2953 Analytics, told The Detroit Bureau that there is an “incalculable cost” to the inflated fuel economy claims:

One may never get a clear sense of the damage to their brand images, as there’s no direct correlation between image and sales. But if mileage-gate reduces the number of potential buyers who consider their products, that will soon become obvious – and translate into lower sales.

There has been plenty of speculation that the EPA may expand its investigation over inflated mpg ratings to vehicles from other automakers. If that happens, experts at the auto show in Los Angeles tell Reuters, investigators are likely to expose similarly overstated mpg claims:

“I think we might see more of this,” said Jake Fisher, the head of automotive testing at Consumer Reports. “There are other vehicles that don’t really stack up to the EPA estimates.”

The Ford Fusion hybrid, for example, hasn’t come near its 47-mpg rating in Consumer Reports’ independent testing. One explanation for this may be that how one drives has a huge impact on the vehicle’s gas mileage. A driver with a lead foot, of course, isn’t going to max out the vehicle’s fuel economy.

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In any event, will a consumer’s buying decisions really be changed because a car gets 1 or 2 mpg less than he originally thought? For the most part, probably not. But, as Fisher said to Reuters, the concern isn’t merely about getting slightly worse gas mileage:

“The actual fuel economy, it’s really not that big of a deal,” said Fisher. “The question is – do you trust this automaker? Are they building safe cars? Are they going to cheat somewhere else where it comes to safety or something else?”