As part of the government's renewed focus on improving fuel efficiency in the U.S., the EPA is currently working on fresh designs for new-vehicle window stickers. The goal is to make it easier for consumers to both compare vehicles against each other and see how they stack up against the industry's ideal. One of the concepts being bandied about is to essentially slap a big ol' letter grade on the stickers, which you might think would be a relatively simple matter. But here's the problem: Because the letter grade reflects how any given vehicle rates as compared to the theoretical gold standard of an EV'”not as compared to other rivals in its class'”products that rely on a standard internal combustion engine (ICE), even very efficient ones, aren't going to be making the dean's list anytime soon. In fact, cars you think might set the green curve, like the Toyota Corolla, end up getting "only" a B.
Compacts at the Head of the Class
With some help from the friendly folks at Automotive News'”along with some original research of my own'”let's get a little perspective here. AN recently put together an interesting graphic that shows the grades of current ICE-powered top sellers, based on 2010 EPA data, and it's quite the eye opener.
The best-selling compacts last month and their EPA lines were the Honda Civic (25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined), the Corolla (26/34/29) and the Ford Focus (24/34/28). But while the 65,723 total customers who purchased one of these three cars last month no doubt thought they were doing their part to help protect the environment and all, the trio would each receive a B grade with the new EPA window sticker system.
I know I would have been pretty happy with a B average back in the day, but I'm guessing Honda, Toyota and Ford have a different viewpoint. After all, the situation here is akin to some of the smartest kids in the class cramming for a big test and getting a grade that's barely above average. Just imagine what things must be like in the mid-size segment.
Chevy Malibu Shows an Up-sized Surprise
Speaking of which, automakers have put in a huge amount of work to boost fuel efficiency and cut emissions in the mid-size segment, which is really the key to the car side of the ledger. That's obvious from the fact that the four-cylinder versions of all the mainstream mid-size sedans'”Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Honda Accord'”are also able to achieve window-sticker B grades.
So, the grading system becomes a plus for customers who might otherwise think the only way to get into a B-graded car is to buy a compact or something smaller, but it's a negative for automakers who may be hoping to attract green-conscious buyers based solely on having, for example, a compact entry in the marketplace.
Most Trucks Sink to C Level
Then we come to the real high-volume players, the full-size pickups. Here, the greenest versions of the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra can all achieve C+ ratings, with GM's hybrid full-sizers slipping into the B- range. Now, as you might guess, it's segments like this one that are the most troubling for automakers. When you put the amount of resources into a vehicle that Ford puts into the F-150, having the teacher mark your final exam with a C+ (or lower, for the more powerful models) just doesn't look good, even if no other truck does better.
The story gets a little better for crossovers, with many of the smaller ones, like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Jeep Patriot, able to ring up B marks, and the Escape hybrid notching a B+. But it's worth pointing out that big crossovers, like the Honda Pilot, are looking at C+ ratings.
In the final analysis, while the report-card-style window stickers seem like excellent tools for buyers, allowing them to compare vehicles across segments and put something like an absolute value on their performance, I think the possibility that the best-selling vehicle in America wouldn't be able to get into a decent college means automakers are going to give this strategy a failing grade.