When Louis Bird was looking for a new car, he wanted to make sure he bought a vehicle with great fuel efficiency. So he opted for a Hyundai Elantra, which was advertised as a car that got 40 mpg.
"I bought the car thinking I would be seeing major savings at the pump and getting over 40 mpg, but Hyundai fooled me," Bird said. "It is frustrating and disappointing."
Now Bird is suing Hyundai in a class action filed in California. He is one of a growing number of consumers who are pushing back against carmakers' claims that promise greater fuel efficiency than drivers can achieve.
For carmakers, the new trendy thing is to have a vehicle in the lineup that gets 40 mpg. One huge problem is that fuel efficiency figures are not based on real-world driving. And automakers opt to advertise with the fuel economy figures that are most impressive -- for highway driving -- rather than lower city or average mileage calculations, which would make their cars look less efficient.
But the Hyundai lawsuit is the second one in recent months to challenge automakers over lofty fuel economy claims. In February, California attorney Heather Peters sued Honda in small claims court over the fuel economy claims for her 2006 Honda Civic hybrid. She said she never got anything close to the 50 mpg she was promised. A judge awarded her $9,867 in the case, which Honda is appealing.
Automakers are trying to address customers' newly discovered passion for fuel economy. Lately fuel economy has become the No. 1 reason given by customers for seeking out certain vehicles, according to executives from Hyundai and Ford. Ten years ago, customers would list fuel economy on their top-10 concerns list but then opt for vehicles with worse fuel economy -- and outfitted with leather seats and nice radios.
But that was when gas prices averaged below $2 a gallon. Since November 2007 gas prices have hovered above or at $3 a gallon -- a level high enough to change consumer behavior. And automakers are now striving to make their vehicles more fuel efficient, driven in part by consumer demand and stringent fuel economy mandates, which will push the average fuel economy required of cars to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
The problem with the miles-per-gallon figures may lie with how automakers and the Environmental Protection Agency calculate fuel efficiency. The agency tests some cars at its National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.
There, agency technicians place the cars on something called a dynamometer -- a contraption that turns the car into something akin to a stationary bike. A technicians can hit the gas pedal without the vehicle moving but the engine gets a workout. A tube is inserted into the tailpipe for measuring the emissions, and then a driver takes the car through a series of maneuvers, intended to be similar to those in a "typical" driving experience.
When the test is over, the agency measures the carbon emissions from the tailpipe to determine the amount of gas consumed. The agency doesn't test every new car on the market: Sometimes the EPA lets automakers report their own figures.
Plus the EPA's figures often don't reflect real-world driving. In real life, drivers do all sorts of things that can change the fuel efficiency of a vehicle. When a driver steps on the gas pedal too hard after a car has been at a complete stop, this can eat up gas. Using the air conditioner on the maximum setting can reduce fuel efficiency 5 percent to 25 percent, the EPA says. Driving too fast, taking too many short trips or letting a car idle for too long can also affect fuel efficiency.
Consumer website Edmunds.com recently performed road tests with six regular gas-powered cars whose manufacturers claimed could attain more than 40 mpg; Edmunds' testers wanted to see if they could reach those figures. For highway driving, they found the cars generally achieved those numbers. But suburban or city driving proved a different story: Only one of the cars, the diesel Volkswagen Passat, got more than 40 mpg. The rest scored below 35 mpg.
In their advertising, most carmakers tout highway figures, which yield the best results. City driving often eats up gas, what with all the stopping and starting. But highway driving can result in better fuel economy because once a car reaches cruising speed, it doesn't need much more fuel to maintain it.
John Krafcik, Hyundai's CEO of U.S. operations, said Hyundai is following Federal Trade Commission guidelines when it advertises its cars' fuel efficiency.
The Elantra, the car involved in the California lawsuit, gets 40 mpg on the highway and 29 in city driving, according to the government. When the figures are considered together, the weighted average fuel economy for the Elantra is 33 mpg, according to the government's website FuelEconomy.gov.
Hyundai could opt to advertise with the lower city mileage number, or use the average of the city and highway numbers, which is generally lower than the highway number.
But this would be a hard change to make, especially if Hyundai were the only manufacturer to do so, Krafcik said.
"If one automaker said we're only going to deal with the combined figure, they'd be at a disadvantage," particularly if other automakers continued to promote only their highway statistics, he said. "It's a hard issue."
See one of Hyundai's ads for the Elantra below.