For Hyundai and Kia, a warning from Congress over mpg claims

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WASHINGTON -- Executives at Hyundai and Kia can breathe a small sigh of relief today.

The admission this month that the two Korean brands overstated the fuel economy of 900,000 vehicles sold in the United States in the 2011-13 model years opened the door for the sort of public humiliation that befell Toyota a couple of years ago. Congressional committees summoned top Toyota executives to Washington and raked them over the coals for unintended acceleration.

Hyundai Motor America President John Krafcik and Kia Motors America President Byung Mo Ahn have not received such an ominous invite from Washington. And today, the chairman of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees fuel economy fired a warning shot -- and nothing more.

It came in the form of letters from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to Krafcik and Ahn. Rockefeller, who has a large Toyota presence in his state, wrote that he wants to make sure Hyundai and Kia compensate all customers.

The public relations nightmare occurred after the EPA received complaints from consumers about the fuel economy of their Kia and Hyundai vehicles.

Notably, Rockefeller didn't call for hearings or an investigation.

Hyundai and Kia's plan to compensate owners of affected vehicles for extra fuel costs, plus a 15 percent penalty, is a "positive step," the letters say, but some people "may not learn about the program, or may find it burdensome to participate."

Rockefeller could change his mind, and Republicans in the House could see fit to start a probe or hearings of their own, though that is seen as less likely.

Kevin McAlister, a spokesman for Rockefeller and the Democrats on the Senate committee, said his boss is closely watching the EPA's investigation.

No hearings or investigations may be planned now, but "if EPA does come up with something interesting or the problem spreads, those are things that could change that," McAlister said.

He, like just about everyone else, is still wondering how Hyundai and Kia ended up selling vehicles with fuel economy claims that were between 1 and 6 mpg too high.

That's what EPA will investigate. And that means the ball is still in the agency's court.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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