By DON HAMMONDS
January 02, 2006
But while consumers presumably would get more realistic, reliable gas mileage ratings from the updated standards, they also may find fewer car choices available in the showroom.
EPA has long been criticized for using outdated standards for evaluating fuel economy that consumer groups, auto industry officials and car buyers say severely overstate mileage by failing to reflect contemporary "real world" driving conditions.
Officials at the EPA, which has used the current standards since 1985, agree that changes need to be made but warn that shifting to updated methods likely will mean a substantial lowering of fuel mileage estimates for many vehicles.
"We think we will have to adjust the current estimates downward," said EPA spokesman John Millett. "We as motorists now spend a lot more time in congestion than we did 20 years ago. The type of vehicles that we drive are different. Twenty years ago, air conditioning and power windows were options. Today, they are standard and ... have a detrimental effect on fuel economy."
The potential for dramatically lower fuel mileage estimates also may mean limits on what you may find on showroom floors in years to come. "Companies will be forced to build smaller cars and move away from larger ones," said Jack Nerad, a Kelley Blue Book analyst.
"Over the course of time, car companies have essentially subsidized their economy vehicles to make sure that their fleets" meet what are known as CAFE standards, or, Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards for their entire lineup, Nerad said. "They kind of artificially lowered the prices of high fuel economy cars."
There's already evidence that the difference in mileage figures for cars and trucks under the new standards will be substantial. In October, for example, Consumer Reports said its testing of a cross-section of 2000 to 2006 cars and trucks found as much as a 50 percent difference between what EPA cited as the mileage rating and what its testers were able to achieve.
The Jeep Liberty Diesel 4WD, rated at 22 mpg in the city by EPA, got only 11 mpg in the test. The Honda Civic Hybrid Sedan, rated at 48 mpg in the city, could manage only 26 - a 46 percent lower rating. And the popular Chrysler 300 C was cited at 17 mpg in the city by EPA, vs. 10 by Consumer Reports.
Other outlets also have found considerable discrepancies in mileage figures. AAA, which also has called for a change in EPA fuel economy standards, tested a number of 2003 and 2004 models and found that a 2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser, rated at 20 city/26 highway by the EPA, could only achieve 17.5 mpg. A 2003 BMW Z4, with an EPA rating of 21/29, was calculated at 15 mpg.
Current methods used by the EPA assume that drivers won't go over 56 miles per hour in the city and 60 miles per hours on the highway, and that drivers won't accelerate by more than 3.3 miles per second.
Critics say the current EPA tests don't capture time spent idling in traffic; they say many cars spend almost two-thirds of their time in stop-and-go traffic. EPA also doesn't turn on their air conditioning when testing cars or take into account newer accessories that impact mileage. The agency also tests hand-built prototypes provided by the manufacturers.
Both the AAA and Consumer Reports tests included a range of driving, such as stop-and-go traffic, climbing hills and a combination of both highway and city driving.
Consumers may be in for a period of confusion once the new standards take effect, Nerad said. But he believes they will benefit "because the mileage numbers will be closer to the real world than what they have been."
The particulars of what will be in the new standards and testing methods are not yet known. Once completed, the agency's recommendations will be presented to the public and automakers.
Recommendations coming out of those public hearings will then be taken up by the EPA as part of finalizing the new standards, Mr. Millett said.
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