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Gas Games: Where Can I Get That 31 MPG Mustang?

Story by Sam Haymart

The window sticker says 26 MPG, but the dealer says 31 MPG. What gives?

07-06-08: Selling cars is about finding buyer hot-buttons and then pushing them repeatedly until they light up and start signing on the dotted line. Today the gas mileage button is as hot as it gets. So with tough times and the carrot dangling that goes with it, dealers are getting more “creative” than ever to hook buyers in the lip and reel them in. In the excitement, the truth is sometimes lost in the chum.

If you have looked at car advertising in your newspaper lately or driven by your dealer lot you will notice that MPG ratings are plastered on every car, often more prominently than the price or payments. The closer you look however, you start to notice that things are not as they seem. Dealers are using every trick in the book right now to gain advantage, and like always buyers need to beware of claims - especially when it comes to MPG.

We checked out local paper in Phoenix, AZ this weekend and found three separate Ford Dealer advertisements for a new 2008 Focus. One claimed the official EPA certified 35 MPG highway rating. That’s cool, but another dealer advertised 39 and another even 41 MPG. How can this be? Is one dealer getting a better batch of cars than the other? Is one dealer adding a magic potion to the cars?


To find out we visited our local Ford dealer, Berge Ford in Mesa, AZ to get a first hand look. They were one of the dealers advertising the 39 MPG Ford Focus. Sure enough, we saw a line of the new compacts on the front line with 39 MPG painted on their windshields prominently. Then we saw the new Mustangs with 31 MPG emblazoned on the glass, just inches from the EPA certified 26 MPG official ratings.

So what’s up? Is this blatant lying? Is this a scam? After speaking with a representative from Berge Ford we came away with the impression that it is indeed a sell job, a sneaky one - but most likely not illegal. You see, the EPA recently changed the way they rate cars for efficiency. They used to rate all cars on a static test which involved a single set of runs on a chassis dyno in controlled laboratory conditions.

These tests often did not reflect real world driving which includes the use of air conditioning, heavy acceleration, and highway speeds of 75 and 80 mph on average. So for 2008 they created a new window sticker that reflects what they call “real world averages”. Many cars identical from 2007 to 2008 actually saw lower MPG ratings on the window stickers.

So what does this have to do with the dealers advertising higher MPG numbers? To offset the pain of the lower "real world" MPG estimates, the EPA added "reported ranges" to give more depth. If you look below the official number, there is a posted range that EPA says some vehicles have achieved in other conditions besides that of the official tests. Some of these reported numbers come from other sources and are not always substantiated. None the less, they are reported on the window sticker as a guide.

In the case of the 31 MPG Mustang we saw at Berge Ford, the window sticker says 26 MPG for highway efficiency. Below the official number, the EPA says it has reports that vehicles have achieved as little as 21 and as much as 31 on the highway. So in our case the dealer chose to seize upon the far end of this range and plaster it on the windshields of all their cars.

The reality is that you are about as likely to achieve this number in real life as you are to win the lottery. While these numbers are published by the EPA on the Mustang‘s window sticker, they are not to be taken as what most drivers will achieve. In fact, the EPA website further states that the Mustang’s combined city and highway mileage is more like 20 MPG.

Perhaps you might be able to achieve 31 MPG in that Mustang if you fill up at the top of a mountain range and coast down to the bottom on the freeway at 55 mph with the air-conditioning off. But to advertise the car with this number is shady. The dealership of course made no apology for this sleight of hand, but further spun the EPA official ratings as being much lower than reality - that we could expect that 31 MPG with the Mustang and likely more.

The salesperson cited anecdotal evidence, saying he sold his brother in-law a Mustang V6 last month. "He is averaging 33-35 miles a gallon commuting to work", we were told. Of course, why wouldn’t we get the same? The salesman said so right?

The most important thing for buyers seeking MPG as their decision hot button to do is check out the EPA official numbers on any car before they go to the dealers. This way you are armed with the official information before you get sold. Never buy a car based on what the dealer tells you or represents to you - ever.

Get official EPA MPG Ratings here: www.fueleconomy.gov


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