Despite the risks, Ford cranks up mpg claims
New effort takes aim at Toyota's Prius lineup
SAN FRANCISCO -- With three new hybrid vehicles on the market and two more on the way, Ford Motor Co. is getting bolder about claiming fuel economy superiority over rival Toyota Motor Corp. -- despite the risks that entails.
"Ford has eight products that deliver 40 mpg or more. We can beat Toyota in every segment where they compete," C.J. O'Donnell, Ford marketing manager for electrified vehicles, said here at the launch of the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid. "We're not going to be shy about pointing out those advantages to customers."
But O'Donnell knows that touting fuel economy can be risky. Hyundai Motor America and Kia Motors, which aggressively advertised 40 mpg plus figures, have admitted overstating fuel economy claims for 900,000 vehicles sold in the 2011-13 model years.
"I think it's certainly going to bring a lot of scrutiny to everyone," O'Donnell said. He admitted, moreover, that Ford cannot guarantee that every owner of a Ford vehicle will get the advertised fuel economy. Equaling the EPA mileage figures on the window sticker "has a lot to do with how you drive the vehicle," he said.
Where carmakers once bragged about horsepower, fuel economy is the new currency in the automotive marketing game. Hyundai and Kia are casualties of that game.
"Whereas Hyundai may have said they were leaders the past several years, now that their numbers have dropped, other companies can step up and say, 'We're the best in this segment,' provided their numbers have been verified by the EPA," said Mike Omotoso, powertrain analyst for LMC Automotive. "Because of what happened to Hyundai and Kia, everybody else is going to be extremely careful before going public with their numbers."
But Ford has not backed off. A series of playful new ads for the C-Max hybrid family compares those vehicles' EPA figures with those of the Toyota Prius.
For the 2013 C-Max Energi, Ford touts advantages over the 2013 Prius Plug-in:
Combined gasoline engine and electric motor output of 188 hp vs. 134 hp.
EPA-rated mpg-e of 100 vs. 95.
Range of 620 miles vs. 540.
Base price, including shipping and after a federal tax credit, of $29,995 vs. $30,260.
Toyota is not Ford's only fuel economy rival. Honda Motor Co., for instance, also boasts several nameplates with impressive mileage numbers. But the Prius outsells all other hybrids combined, and Toyota has a reputation among consumers for outstanding fuel economy.
Under the marketing leadership of former Toyota-Lexus-Scion executive Jim Farley, who came to Ford in 2007, Ford marketers have become increasingly aggressive in claiming fuel economy superiority.
Toyota declined to comment. But outsiders don't expect it to stand still.
Said David Sullivan, an analyst for AutoPacific: "If you think they're going to give up what they've done with the Prius in the last 10 years, you're wrong. I would imagine the next-generation Prius will be just as monumental as the original in terms of groundbreaking technology. Prius is definitely an older product and it's easy to pick on."
The next-generation Prius is due in the spring of 2014.
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.