No C-Minus Cars but the New Window Stickers Are Revealing Anyway

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 03, 2011

The EPA's new gas car sticker: no letter grades.
The EPA's new gas car sticker: no letter grades.

It gives window shopping a whole new meaning. If environmentalists had gotten their way, new 2013 cars would have received fuel economy report cards--letter grades right there on the window. Would you buy a C- minus car? Automakers didn't think so, either; so they fought long and hard against the rating system, an option put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Let's face it, though, a prominent letter grade on the window would have given consumers a quick and reliable reference point to judging cars against each other, not only on fuel economy but on greenhouse gas production. Electric battery cars would have gotten automatic "A"s, and many big SUVs and supercars "D"s. Makes sense.

As Ray Magliozzi put it to me, "Letter grades would have made it simpler for people, but there needed to be some kind of compromise with the manufacturers because they really hated the idea of D-minus grades on their window stickers. Of course, the Lincoln Navigator buyer probably realizes he's not buying an economy car, and wouldn't care that much if the car got a failing grade. The French have a good system, the Cheval Fiscal, that taxes horsepower but also recognizes that some people need larger cars."

The problem with having two agencies with responsibility for a single standard is that they're not necessarily going to agree--and in this case they didn't. NHTSA is far closer to the auto industry than the EPA, and it was sympathetic when the carmakers and their industry groups, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, complained that letter grades would kill showroom sales. EPA liked the letter grades, but it didn't prevail in the inter-agency fight.

The greens aren't happy. "It's very disappointing that the Obama Administration was bludgeoned into dropping a key step to inform consumers on how to buy a clean car," said Dan Becker, director of the safe climate campaign at the Center for Auto Safety. "American automakers, bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of $80 billion, are paying us back by using their lobbying muscle to keep consumers in the dark by feeding them more gas guzzlers."

Luke Tonachel, a senior analyst in the transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me that axing the letter grades "is a missed opportunity to help consumers with their pain at the pumps. The letter grade really simplified the process of finding the most efficient vehicle to meet people's needs."

Electric cars don't burn gas, but still get MPGe.
Electric cars don't burn gas, but still get MPGe.

OK, but let's put this episode behind us and take a look at the window sticker that the agencies did approve. It's not that bad, and an improvement over the current sticker. Pride of place is given to the combined fuel economy number, which didn't even appear in the old design. You also get an estimate of the annual fuel costs for that car or truck, and how much you'd save over five years (if anything) compared to an average new car.

I like the small-print numbers that tell you how much fuel the vehicle will use in 100 miles, and the bar graphs that compare the fuel economy/greenhouse gas and smog performance with the rest of the fleet. Ironically, those graphs do include numerical ratings (on a one to 10 scale) that apparently didn't ruffle too many feathers at the automakers. That's probably because they're far less prominent than the letter grades would have been.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) has been looking at the current auto fleet, and says if you applied the one to 10 scale a lot of them would get low marks. "If, like school, you consider anything below a 60 to be a failing grade, then 70 percent of the 2011 models would fail under the new fuel economy labeling requirement," said Jack Gillis, a CFA spokesman. A car with a "6" rating gets 22 mpg combined, and it goes downhill from there. A "1" (two percent of today's fleet) gets 12 mpg at best.

Thirty percent of the 2011 cars would get "5" ratings, 13 percent would be rated "4," and 10 percent rated "3." It's a good thing these stickers won't be required until the 2013 model year--with the public buying economy cars in droves, the fleet's performance is going to get better.

Dig that MPGe for schizophrenic plug-in hybrids.
Dig that MPGe for schizophrenic plug-in hybrids.

There's a separate label for plug-in hybrids, which are hard to rate because their "fuel economy" is totally different when they're running on batteries only. The label assigns them a figure in miles per gallon equivalent, or MPGe, that is certainly subject to debate. How you drive a plug-in hybrid really determines its fuel economy and overall environmental performance--potter it to work five miles away and you'll be much greener than if you cover a lot of highway miles.

Electric cars get their own MPGe label, too. It's slightly ridiculous, since they don't burn gas and so there are no "gallons" involved. But mpg is what consumers are expecting. People are going to like the annual fuel cost estimate, and the amount they'll save over five years--$9,600 on the sample sticker.

There's also a QR code that you can hook into with a smartphone and get an online rundown of how various models perform in the green ratings.

So the new window stickers don't have letter grades, but they should help consumers make better choices. With even $4 a gallon gas looking good these days, people are certainly motivated in that direction anyway.

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