DRIVE TIME


Finally, Your Real MPG

Mark Solheim

Fuel economy ratings haven't always lined up with actual drivers' results. Now, new estimates for 2008 will reflect real-world miles per gallon.



The car industry has kept a dirty little secret for years: The widely publicized Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings overstate the miles per gallon you're likely to get.

Those of us who calculate our mileage at every fill-up knew the truth. The general public began to notice when the redesigned Toyota Prius hit showrooms several years ago. Although the EPA said the Prius got an astronomical 60 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway, Prius drivers -- and the media -- registered miles per gallon in the 40s.

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Toyota and other carmakers acknowledge that the EPA numbers often overstate fuel economy, but the testing process and window-sticker ratings are controlled by reams of regulations. Now, new tests for 2008-model vehicles will more closely reflect real-world fuel efficiency. Look for the revised numbers on the window stickers of 2008 models. For now, check out our new tool that gives you estimates of what fuel economy will be for about a thousand 2007 models under the new tests.

Driving like Grandma

Mileage tests were developed when we more or less channeled our grandmothers' driving. Cars are run in a lab on a treadmill. The air conditioner is turned off, test speeds are conservative, and there are no fast starts. In 1985, after an EPA study found that drivers were achieving lower fuel economy than predicted by the tests, the agency concocted a formula on paper to lower the official figures. But the formula didn't bring the numbers down far enough, and in 2002, the environmental group Bluewater Network (a division of Friends of the Earth) petitioned the EPA to update its procedures.

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The new standards will get closer to reality by factoring in higher speeds, stop-and-go driving, more-aggressive acceleration, use of air conditioning and driving in colder temperatures. Mileage will still vary, but the tests will reduce estimated city mpg by 12%, on average, and highway mpg by 8%, according to the EPA. Hybrids' fuel economy is likely to get a haircut of up to 30% for city driving and 20% for highway.

Fuel-economy confusion

Carmakers generally approve of the new tests because they have heard enough grumbling from buyers. "It isn't good for anybody" when customers don't get the fuel economy shown on the window sticker, says Edward Cohen, of Honda North America. But given the lower mpg estimates, carmakers have a tricky marketing problem to reassure buyers that the 2008 models aren't less efficient. You can expect to see advertising that addresses the differences.

One of the first carmakers to face that challenge is Mitsubishi, which is introducing its redesigned Lancer sedan in March. The '06 Lancer (Mitsubishi is skipping the 2007 model) gets EPA-rated fuel economy of 27 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. The numbers for the 2008 model will fall to 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. On lists of top fuel misers, the new Lancer will be a no-show, at least until the other 2008s debut. One fix, at least for the Lancer, will be listing mpg under both the new and the old testing procedures, says Moe Durand, product public-relations manager for Mitsubishi.

The window sticker for all cars is undergoing a slight redesign, to allow annual estimated fuel costs to be more prominently displayed. For more information about the new fuel-economy labels, see www.mileagewillvary.com.




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