Ford’s C-Max Debacle Sparks Winds of Change for EPA

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Last week, news that Ford (NYSE:F) would be dropping its EPA-awarded fuel consumption rating the C-Max Hybrid vehicle received — from 47 combined miles per gallon to 43 miles per gallon combined — brought both the automaker and the entire Environmental Protection Agency ratings system into the spotlight.

In response to numerous complaints from owners, Ford made a handful of attempts to bring the car’s mileage up to the claimed numbers, including software upgrades. Ultimately, the company was unable to ensure that the C-Max’s real-world driving statistics would match the paper figures at the EPA.

Consumer Reports noted that half the hybrids it tested fell short of their advertised mileage numbers by 10 percent or more. Ford pledged to help the EPA and take its own look internally to determine the cause of the discrepancy.

Even the EPA looked inward to see if its own test was the cause of the problem. Christopher Grundler, the agency’s top auto industry regulator, said that when the EPA ran the Toyota (NYSE:TM) Prius and Hyundai Sonata hybrids through the same battery of tests that gave the C-Max’s faulty figures, the other hybrids did fine.

“It was all quite reassuring,” Grundler told Automotive News. “The problem here is really not how the testing is done.”

However, Ford is at odds with the EPA’s conclusion — perhaps, not surprisingly. “This is an industrywide issue with hybrid vehicles,” Raj Nair, head of global product development for Ford, said to reporters via Automotive News. “We’ve learned along with EPA that the regulations create some anomalies for hybrid vehicles under the general label rule.”

As it turns out, the fault lies with the way testing regulations are structured. A loophole in the methodologies used to test hybrids was just large enough for the C-Max to fit through and be awarded with the rather gratuitous rating, according to Automotive News.

The EPA said the numbers provided for the C-Max had an inflated combined fuel economy estimate because Ford used the same test results from the Fusion Hybrid, which shares a powertrain with the C-Max and weighs about the same. However, the Fusion Hybrid is far more streamlined and aerodynamic, giving it a big advantage over the more cumbersome C-Max.

A decidedly dated rule was put in place that allows automakers to share the data between nearly identical vehicles, such as Ford’s older Taurus and Mercury Sable, Automotive News reports. Though it helps the company’s save money by not repeating “redundant” testing, it results in the situation with the mislabeled mileage.

As cars become more efficient and automakers start selling more varied models with shared powertrains, the potential to mislead car buyers has increased, Grundler, the EPA regulator, said. Now, the rule needs to change, Automotive News notes, adding that it should take the EPA less than a year to propose changes according to Grundler, though the agency has given no timetable for a final rule.

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