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US:Car companies tackle hybrid mileage complaints

Car companies tackle hybrid mileage complaints

By Gina Chon / The Wall Street Journal

With consumers complaining that hybrids vehicles don't get the gas mileage advertised on window stickers, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Co. are stepping up efforts to let drivers know why they might not get the desired fuel economy.

Hybrids, which combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor, have become hot sellers because they are touted for their fuel efficiency at a time when gas prices are hovering around $3 a gallon. In September, Toyota's Prius, the top selling hybrid in the U.S., saw sales jump by 90 percent compared with the same period last year. The vehicle sticker pasted on Prius windows at dealerships says the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the car goes 60 miles on a gallon of gas.

But there have been increasing complaints that many cars, and especially hybrids, don't deliver the miles per gallon estimated by the EPA. According to a study by Consumer Reports that tested the mileage of vehicles in real world conditions, hybrids had some of the biggest disparities, with fuel economy averaging 19 miles per gallon below the EPA city estimate. The problem is that the EPA estimates assume that drivers are operating under certain ideal conditions, such as not using air conditioning and accelerating slowly, that can be very unlike what people actually do on the road.

The groundswell of complaints is spurring the EPA to act. The agency says that by the end of this year it will propose changes to the methods used in calculating fuel economy ratings for vehicles. The EPA said the new rules will more accurately reflect how people actually drive and will consider the impact of air conditioning, aggressive driving and traffic congestion on fuel economy.

To help drivers improve their mileage, Ford is creating a "Hybrid Patrol," a group of Ford staffers who will travel to 11 cities to talk about fuel economy.

This weekend Ford is holding a clinic at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich. More than 280 owners of hybrid-powered Escapes and their guests, who are traveling from 24 different states, will learn driving tips to improve fuel efficiency and get a chance to ask Ford engineers about hybrid technology. The attendees, who are paying their own travel expenses, will also be able to test drive the new Mercury Mariner hybrid, Ford's second hybrid vehicle, which is arriving at dealerships next week.

There are likely to be few surprises or silver bullets among the fuel-efficiency tips, however. They include common sense bits of advice that few drivers are likely to abide by: Don't brake as much. And drive a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour on the highway. Auto experts say if you do follow these rules, you will get the EPA estimate.

Ford decided to hold the clinic because its studies showed that two out of every five hybrid owners lacked knowledge about their cars' technology. The Ford Escape hybrid, which gets a maximum of 36 mpg in the city according to EPA estimates, saw sales jump to 1,808 in September, compared with 1,363 sold in August.

Auto companies are putting more resources into hybrids. Last month Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. said his company would increase production of hybrid vehicles so that more than half of its Ford, Mercury and Lincoln vehicles would be powered by a gas-electric engine.

At Toyota, luxury brand Lexus has begun distributing through dealerships a pamphlet on the RX 400h, Lexus's luxury hybrid SUV, listing reasons why the vehicle may not get the 31 mpg the EPA estimated for the vehicle in city driving.

The EPA tests, the brochure points out, assume drivers accelerate slowly, leave the air conditioning off, and average a speed of 20 miles per hour in the city. The pamphlet tells drivers that quick acceleration, heavy braking and driving at speeds above 60 miles per hour can make the mileage lower than the EPA estimates.

The RX 400h, which was introduced in April, had sales of 2,113 in September, compared with 2,607 in August.

Some hybrid owners are frustrated by the disparity between the EPA estimates and their cars' actual gas mileage. When Amy Quirk bought her Toyota Prius, the pricing sticker said it got 60 mpg. So when the San Francisco-based environmental lawyer saw she was consistently getting only 30 mpg, she complained to her dealer's service department. First she was told the problem was the cold weather. Then she was told that the Prius didn't get the mileage that was advertised on the vehicle sticker price. Ms. Quirk now gets about 40 mpg on her Prius, which she bought a year ago, by coasting down hills when she drives.

"You have to be very mindful of how you drive to get good mileage," she says.

Jim Press, head of Toyota's U.S. operations, said in an interview last month that the Japanese auto maker is trying not to overpromise on fuel efficiency, particularly for hybrids. That includes telling dealers to be clear to consumers that the EPA estimates can vary, depending on driver behavior. Mr. Press noted that if a driver is constantly hitting the brakes and the gas hard, then the vehicle won't get the EPA miles-per-gallon estimate.

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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