02/05/2012 01:39 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2012

Will Carmakers' Super Bowl 'Miles Per Gallon' Claims Continue to Be Super Bull?

Last week an upset Honda Civic Hybrid owner won a $9,000 small claims victory against Honda for widely misrepresenting the miles per gallon on her Civic. Hyundai told my group Consumer Watchdog Thursday it would not advertise its 40 miles per gallon claim about the Elantra in its Super Bowl ads weeks after we called for an end to such advertising.

Few know that these car companies self-test their own cars to manufacture these MPG claims that they then widely advertise with the EPA's stamp of approval as though it were gospel. Buyers of the Civic Hybrid and Elantra almost never come close to duplicating the claims. The cost to consumers is huge. Consider the video Consumer Watchdog created to counter the Elantra claims, which shows the real-world costs of the hyperbole.

On Wednesday, Consumer Watchdog wrote a letter to Hyundai's U.S. CEO and Seoul-based president seeking for clarification after a copy of the Super Bowl advertisement appeared on Hyundai's YouTube page without the "40 MPG" claim on screen, but with the claim made on the YouTube side-bar. We planned to widely promote a guerilla counter-advertisement showing the cost to consumers of the misrepresentation.

The ad-style video produced by Consumer Watchdog noted that even the professional testers at Consumers Union achieved only 29 MPG in combined city and highway tests of the 2011 Elantra, 12% below the company's claimed combined 33 MPG. It counts the costs to consumers:

  • In a year, enough gasoline for a trip from Little Rock, AR, to California's Disneyland.
  • For all purchasers of the 2011 Elantra, an extra 10 million-plus gallons of gasoline purchased per year.
  • For all purchasers, an extra yearly gasoline cost of $38 million.

Consumer Watchdog has urged the Environmental Protection Agency to re-test the 2011 and 2012 Elantra. The company itself conducted its original MPG tests, the basis for its EPA-certified claim of 40 MPG highway, 29 MPG city and 33 MPG in combined driving.

Real-world reports and professional driving tests report much worse mileage than Hyundai's claimed 40 MPG highway, 29 MPG city and 33 MPG combined. Drivers have particular difficulty reaching the city claim or the combined claim.

Consumers who increasingly buy cars on the basis of high miles per gallon -- then can't get close to the posted figure -- are justifiably angry. Hyundai's omission of its touted '40 MPG' claim in its Super Bowl ads, after making a very big deal of it in earlier advertising, shows that the company is hearing the hoofbeats of consumer outrage. Will other car companies follow?

Consumer Watchdog's letter sent Wednesday asked for a response from Hyundai by noon PDT Thursday, offering to stop the promotion of the guerilla video that disputes the Elantra's MPG claims and counts up the multi-million dollar cost to drivers. The letter also challenged Hyundai's U.S. CEO to fill up the tank of Elantra and either match the company's mileage claims or leave himself stranded on the road to the Super Bowl.

Consumer Watchdog wrote:

"Should you intend to sneak the 40 MPG claim into your advertisement at the last moment then we offer you this challenge: Will Mr. Krafcik take the 40 MPG challenge and drive to the Super Bowl on a full tank of gasoline based exactly on that calculation, starting precisely that number of miles away? If you are not ready to do so, you should not tell 111 million U.S. Super Bowl viewers that they could either."

Download the correspondences between Hyundai and Consumer Watchdog here.

More and more carmakers will continue to be called out for their exaggerations. It's time the EPA begin testing cars itself.