Let's call this the fuel economy ratings fiasco.
How is it that governments in both Canada and the United States have managed to fail car buyers so miserably on something as simple and straightforward and important as fuel economy ratings? How is this possible?
Take Canada. As Globe Drive's Richard Russell reported last week, Transport Canada hasn't done fuel economy testing since the spring of 2010. Three years! The fuel economy numbers you see pasted on new vehicles are provided by the car companies themselves – using an antiquated and arguably discredited testing procedure.
That's the bad news. The worse news is that Ottawa won't be back in the fuel economy reporting game, notes Russell, until the 2016 model light vehicles come to market. Here's the rub: Natural Resources Canada hasn't settled on what should be done for testing and reporting. So for now, nothing is being done by our government.
At least in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency reports fuel economy numbers based on a relatively new, and not completely absurd, testing procedure. Nonetheless, Consumer Reports has found plenty of flaws in the U.S. testing, too.
"Many turbocharged cars tested by CR have slower acceleration and no better fuel economy than the models with bigger conventional engines," notes the publication, based on its real-world tests.
Jake Fisher, head of CR's auto testing, adds, "While these engines may look better on paper with impressive EPA numbers, in reality they are often slower and less fuel efficient than larger four– and six-cylinder engines."
In a nutshell, CR found that the EPA's fuel-economy estimates – calculated based on laboratory tests – don't always translate to real-world driving. Moreover, the promised benefits of small engines with a turbo boost don't always materialize.
Consider the 2013 Ford Fusion EcoBoost with the 1.6-litre turbo four (173 hp). Its "0-60 mph acceleration time trails competitive family sedans, and it delivers just 25 mpg, placing it among the worst of the crop of recently-redesigned family sedans," says CR.
Or the Chevrolet Cruze, with the base 1.8-litre conventional four-cylinder versus the smaller 1.4-litre turbocharged four. "While the 1.4-litre feels marginally more powerful in daily driving," says CR, "it was barely faster to 60 mph, and got the same fuel economy as the larger engine.
CR also found that the Hyundai Sonata Turbo, Kia Sportage Turbo, and Ford Escape 2.0T with turbocharged four-cylinder engines are less fuel efficient than V-6 models in the same class. To be fair, BMW's new 2.0-litre turbocharged four "gets 28 mpg in the new 328i Sedan and delivered improved mileage in the 2012 X3 SUV by one mpg, with essentially identical power and acceleration." So some small turbos are delivering as promised.
The issue with real-world fuel economy is easy to understand. Small engines with turbos can deliver pretty good fuel economy, as long as drivers don't use the turbo very much. A turbocharger force-feeds air into the combustion chamber to goose power, and when doing so more fuel is also added to the air/fuel mixture. Use the turbo, you use more fuel. Simple.
"When you have an EcoBoost engine, you have the opportunity to have performance and fuel economy, but not at the same time. EcoBoost adds a dimension that you won't get by just making the engine smaller. We're telling the driver, it's up to you on how you want to drive," Richard Truett, Ford's powertrain communications manager, recently told The Detroit News.
In other words, that tasty fuel figure on the window sticker might be yours if you drive like a bored pensioner with plenty of time to kill.
The Wall Street Journal isn't alone in pointing out that consumers are getting increasingly irate over what many see are misleading fuel economy numbers. U.S. regulators, the Journal adds, are "rethinking how to close the gap between their fuel-economy estimates and actual mileage–particularly for vehicles that use newer technology, like electric-hybrid systems or turbochargers."
The problems here are not easily solved, argues Joe White in the Journal. Regulators use laboratory testing procedures, although drivers operate in the real world. And because the real world is unpredictable, well, the window sticker often does not reflect what drivers actually experience out on the open road.
We can all appreciate the challenge to regulators and car companies, but the problems here don't seem insurmountable. Unless, of course, you are the Government of Canada which hasn't done any testing at all in three years and won't have something to stick on new cars until the 2016 model year.
Good to see our tax dollars at work.