Sticker Shock: EPA to Revise Window Labels

By Charles Krome

Remember when the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) was passed back in 2007? Me neither. But it turns out that EISA calls for the EPA to come up with revised window stickers for the 2012 model year, with the goal being to make it easier for customers to sort out the fuel-efficiency and emissions performance of new vehicles.

The redesigned stickers will still provide the traditional EPA fuel-economy ratings as well as information about greenhouse gas emissions, other air pollutants and annual fuel costs, and, again, the goal is to end up with a sticker that can “help consumers make easy and well-informed comparisons between vehicles.”

Well, we’re now at the stage where the agency has come up with two draft labels, and it’s looking for public input: “Specifically, which design, or design features, would best help you compare the fuel economy, fuel costs, and environmental impacts of different vehicles.”

The biggest difference between the two, of course, is that one has a big ol’ letter grade front and center, while the other gives relatively similar weight to a slew of different measures, with the EPA combined fuel-efficiency number and annual fuel cost getting the primary focus. The latter also gives you the familiar horizontal scales that show how a specific vehicle fares in terms of fuel efficiency, etc., as compared to the pool of all other vehicles in its segment.

It seems pretty clear to me that letter grades would be the easiest—although perhaps not the most accurate—tool for consumers to use. Among the reasons for this is a particularly notable one: It allows people to easily compare vehicles across segments as well as within segments.

This is important, because I can’t help but feel people are getting taken in by claims about “best-in-class” fuel efficiency and the like. Take the Ford F-150 as a random example. Ford likes to boast about how its full-size pickup offers the best fuel efficiency in its class, and that sounds pretty good. And if you were to look at one of those horizontal scales that shows how the F-150 does against its rivals, it would look pretty good. But there’s no getting away from an EPA line of 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway/17 mpg combined. In the grand scheme of things, those are just not very good marks—which is why, on the list of sample grades provided for current models, the EPA only gives the least-thirsty F-150 a C+.

Now, I understand that for someone who “needs” a full-size pickup for its capabilities, knowing which truck is the most fuel efficient—regardless of its actual EPA ratings—is important. But for the casual buyer who would be using an F-150 as a bulked-up family hauler, the C+ letter grade gives a clearer picture of where the Ford stands in the marketplace as a whole.

Here’s the bottom line: Like it or not, the government has made improved fuel-efficiency its number one priority in terms of what it expects from the auto industry. Thus, it would be helpful if there were some kind of gauge that buyers could use to evaluate how cars ranked in their ability to achieve that goal, and that’s what the letter grade system provides.

The problem is that people, especially gearheads and luxury automakers, are going to have to wrap their heads around the idea that cars like a Cadillac CTS-V simply aren’t going to get good grades on the new EPA report card. Just keep in mind that the appropriate comparison here would be giving the Mazda MX-5 Miata a failing grade in cargo space.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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