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An embarrassment for the Ford Motor Company could result in changes to the way fuel economy is calculated. Ford is downgrading the mileage estimate for its C-Max hybrid. Many customers had complained that they couldn't get anywhere near the EPA sticker number.
Tracy Samilton, of Michigan Radio, has the story.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Car companies go through a complex and expensive process to get the miles per gallon sticker they put on a new car. It starts at places like SAKOR, a company making machines that measure an engine's emissions and fuel economy.
RANDY BEATTIE: Notice it automatically started the engine. Now it'll go up to speed, warm itself up, and then it'll run through a point where it's changing speed and torque levels continuously.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN ENGINE)
SAMILTON: Randy Beattie's company specializes in making these for hybrid cars like the C-Max. The machines can run a car through five standard EPA tests to get an average number or it can run through two tests - the EPA permits that as an alternative. Beattie says as people pay closer attention to fuel economy, the stakes get higher for automakers.
BEATTIE: They're high stakes and the data had better be good.
SAMILTON: But it's not unusual for customers who buy hybrids to be disappointed when they compare their mileage with promises.
Tony Montisano is a San Diego attorney who bought the Ford C-Max thinking it got 47 miles per gallon.
TONY MONTISANO: And no, it doesn't.
SAMILTON: Montisano is only getting mileage in the upper 30s in his C-Max. That's similar to what Consumer Reports got in independent tests. Montisano feels misled.
MONTISANO: All I wanted was a hybrid that's going to give me the mileage it says it's going to give me.
ROBERT BIENENFELD: The test procedures cannot cover every condition,
SAMILTON: That's Robert Bienenfeld of Honda. He says, for example, they can't cover situations where a customer does lots of high-speed highway driving. But he says car companies can't afford to under-deliver to hybrid customers.
BIENENFELD: For a hybrid, people paid extra for that hybrid.
SAMILTON: So they will notice when they come up five to 10 percent short. Now, Honda did have problems with this issue in an older version of the Civic hybrid. Even hybrid leader Toyota had problems when it first introduced the Prius. But there's a much bigger disparity between the C-Max EPA number and actual results. That had industry insiders wondering if Ford actually gamed the system in some way.
Chris Grundler of the EPA says no. He says Ford - as is permitted by the rules - took the fuel economy number for the Fusion hybrid and applied it to the C-Max. But the vehicles aren't identical.
CHRIS GRUNDLER: So small differences in design - in this case, it's less aerodynamic than the Fusion, it has a different wheel and tire - made a big difference in the result.
SAMILTON: And when Ford went back and tested the C-Max independently, it also switched to that five-cycle test.
Grundler says the EPA is undertaking a review of its fuel economy tests, to make sure customers aren't disappointed. At a hastily called press conference today, Ford said it will rebate $550 to consumers to account for the disparity. But for Ford C-Max owners like Montisano, it's important to get it right the first time.
TONY MONTISANO: It's not going to sit right with your consumer. And it's going to leave a bad taste for all future purchases by those customers of Ford vehicles.
SAMILTON: For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.