Consumer Expert Grades Cars at L.A. Show Using Proposed Fuel Economy LabelBy Scott Doggett November 19, 2010
We've written extensively on the subject of the EPA and Transportation Department's consideration of new fuel-economy labels for new vehicles, beginning with our Aug. 30 blog entry: "Feds Propose New Fuel-Economy Labels for Cars and Trucks, Seek Public Input."
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In a nutshell, one showroom-window-sticker design prominently features a letter grade to communicate the vehicle's fuel economy and greenhouse-gas emissions. Another proposed label design retains the current sticker's focus on miles per gallon and annual fuel costs.
A third little-discussed proposal, which would combine an updated form of today's window sticker with a five-star rating system to quickly indicate a vehicle's "green" credentials, has also arisen.
Environmental and consumer groups as well as others have lined up solidly behind the proposal that would assign letter grades to new vehicles based on fuel efficiency and environmental impact. Automakers, dealers, Edmunds' readers and Green Car Advisor have spoken out against it, although for very different reasons.
Our principal objection is that when every model in a vehicle segment has the same grade - for example, if every electric vehicle bears an "A+" grade - the decision-making process for the consumer isn't made any easier. And the current proposal does indeed call for grading from the entire auto pool, instead of grading from within segments.
Automakers and dealers don't tend to like the letter-grade approach because it makes it harder to sell vehicles bearing low marks. Imagine owning a dealership selling vehicles from an automaker that mostly makes trucks. Most of the vehicles in the showroom would bear "C" and "D" grades, which wouldn't help your sales any.
One of the groups that really likes the letter-grade label proposal is the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit organization founded in 1968 to advance consumer interests through research, education and advocacy. It's a respected group and an influential one.
So when we learned that Mark Cooper, the CFA's director of research, was going to wander around the Los Angeles Auto Show, placing letter-grade labels on models using the criteria currently being considered by the EPA and DOT, we decided to tag along.
Cooper, a super-bright and amiable guy with a doctorate from Yale University, provided us with a list of the more than 30 vehicles at the auto show that received letter grades. We've posted that list here, along with a shot of Cooper beside a 2011 Toyota Corolla ("B+"). Also appearing here is additional data pertaining specifically to the show as relates to the grading system.
If Cooper is so bright, why then does he support the letter-grade proposal while we do not? Three reasons: First, he said the letter grades make it easy for consumers to see just how "green" models are the moment they walk into a showroom. Second, he said, the labels encourage automakers to try harder to produce greener vehicles, because they will want all of their vehicles to bear top marks. And third, he said, consumers can discern which models within a segment are greener than others in the same segment based on information that appears on the letter-grade sticker (namely, the areas showing gallons of fuel used per 100 miles driven and annual fuel cost.
We'd prefer to see monthly cost to operate rather than annual fuel cost, and we take issue with Cooper's second reason; we don't see automakers trying harder to make greener vehicles on the basis of the grading system, because some segments will always do better than others.
Battery-electric subcompacts will always outscore battery-electric heavy-duty pickups, for example, because a battery-electric pickup capable of hauling three-quarters of a ton of rebar will never be able to go as far on a charge and be reasonably priced compared to, say, a battery-electric two-seat city car. Or at least it seems that way today.