Despite Ford's apology, recent mpg downgrades are troubling

When Ford Motor Co. lowered window-sticker mpg ratings for six vehicles last week, it was refreshingly forthright.

As Raj Nair, group vice president for global product development, put it: “This was our mistake, plain and simple, and we apologize to our customers for it.”

That was candid and appropriate. But, frankly, there’s a troubling undercurrent in recent mpg downgrades.

When Ford lowered the mpg on the C-Max crossover last summer, it said it erred in pasting the rating for the Fusion mid-sized sedan onto the C-Max sticker, an action that it believed to be permissible under federal rules.

And in late 2012, when Hyundai-Kia lowered ratings for several vehicles, that company blamed an error in calculations.

I’m sure that the process of figuring fuel economy is complex and that honest mistakes occur. But two things strike me about the three mpg restatements:

  • In all three instances, the errors served to inflate rather than lower the mpg numbers. Random errors might sometimes work in the other direction, right?
  • In both cases, the errors occurred at automakers who were aggressively pushing mpg -- especially 40-plus mpg highway ratings -- in their marketing.

It makes me wonder what pressures were on the product development teams to hit specific fuel-economy ratings. Irrational as it may be, a 40-mpg car has more sizzle than a 39-mpg car, even though the real-world difference in the buyer’s fuel costs would be minimal.

But it doesn’t do much long-term good to sell a vehicle by promising a benefit that doesn’t exist. In our coverage of Ford’s most-recent downgrade, one dealer said that failure to get the window sticker mpg was “the No. 1 thing hybrid and [plug-in hybrid] customers are complaining about.”

Automakers need to recognize that the intersection of marketing and fuel-economy engineering is a troublesome pressure point. If that pressure pushes a company too far, the potential for an embarrassing apology -- and a batch of unhappy customers -- is very real.

You can reach Dave Guilford at

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