Autos

Ford Shows Why Hybrids Aren't Nearly as Efficient as We Think


Ford Shows Why Hybrids Aren't Nearly as Efficient as We Think

Photograph by Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Ford (F) is doling out some extra gas money to almost 200,000 of its hybrid customers, because the vehicles aren’t quite as efficient as the company promised.

Ford will pay about 200,000 drivers as much as $1,050 in the next few weeks, to compensate for lowered mileage ratings on six of its current crop of fuel-sippers, including the Fiesta, the C-Max, the Fusion Hybrid and the Lincoln MKZ hybrid. (Lincoln drivers will get the biggest checks while the payouts for Ford models are less rich.)

Ford, which said it uncovered the errors internally, no doubt is hoping a flurry of checks will keep customers happy. “When we see an issue, we address it,” Raj Nair, the company’s vice president of global product development said in a release.

But the mea culpa casts a harsh light on how mileage is tested in hybrids, which is a far more complicated and controversial process than efficiency tests on gasoline engines.

Even the more conservative mileage ratings trotted out by Ford this morning will be hard to maintain. Go grab an entry-level Fiesta and see if you get 43 miles to a gallon on the highway, let alone 45, the old claim.

To be fair, all mileage measuring is an imperfect science. Engineers just pull the car onto a kind of massive treadmill and hook a tube up to the tailpipe. As the vehicle “drives” it over a simulated “course” with a set pattern of acceleration and braking, the amount of carbon in the exhaust is measured to discern how much fuel is burned. The car companies perform the tests; the EPA reviews them and in retests about one out of every 10 vehicles.

The problem with hybrids is that the federally mandated computer courses are both dated and really casual. Though the whole testing process was updated in 2008, the driving is still the virtual replica of an old guy coasting to the country club in a 1970 Eldorado. The max speed doesn’t go north of 60 miles per hour and acceleration rates have all the pep of a Sinatra ballad.

Hybrids are great at that kind of driving, which is why they get great mileage ratings from EPA tests. But in the real world, they have to keep up with contemporary traffic, which tends to burn more gas. Hybrids are particularly handicapped on highways, where high speeds require their gas engines to kick in and, proportionally, do more work than standard vehicles.

In a wide-ranging audit last year, Consumer Reports found hybrids fell short of their mileage ratings by 10 percent on average. Out of some 315 cars tested, the Lincoln MKZ was one of the biggest underperformers, managing just 35 miles per gallon compared with its 45 mpg sticker.

Not surprisingly, the Consumer Reports study sparked some lawsuits and, circuitously led to today’s Ford announcement.

Here’s the really misleading thing: in some cases, car companies don’t have to test hybrid mileage at all. The EPA allows them to calculate an efficiency rating by crunching some numbers against how a gasoline version of the same model tested. In other words, Ford might have simply made a math mistake.

Kyle-stock-190
Stock is an associate editor for Businessweek.com. Twitter: @kylestock

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