Car buyers paying more attention to mileage

EPA also gives it more thought with fairer way to figure miles per gallon


FORT WORTH, Texas - Dottie Love does her homework before buying a car. Last year, Love began researching the Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, in hopes it would save her money on her 100-mile-a-day commute. She was soon faced with conflicting data.

Consumer Reports said the car would get an average of 50 miles per gallon. But the Environmental Protection Agency said the car would get closer to 60 mpg.

Conversations with Prius owners online indicated she should expect to get the lower figure.

"Nobody gets 60 mpg," Love said. She eventually bought the car and reliably gets 50, she said.

Sticker shock at the pump has more drivers thinking about fuel economy. As Americans get used to gas prices above $2 a gallon, new car buyers are taking a closer look at the miles-per-gallon data on the sticker.

But those who want an accurate estimate of mileage may be disappointed by some fuzzy math that goes into the calculations.

The mileage estimates for city and highway driving provided by the EPA have been routinely inflated because of an unrealistic methodology used since the federal agency began testing vehicles in 1974, according to critics such as AAA.

"When a consumer is told your mileage may vary - it probably should say, `Your results WILL vary,'" said Susan Pikrallidas, AAA vice president of public affairs.

The EPA puts new models on an enormous treadmill and runs them for different periods of time. For the highway estimate, the EPA simulates a 10-mile trip with an average speed of 48 mph.

Now the EPA is re-evaluating its test to make the agency's mileage estimates more accurate. Recommendations for updating the process are expected this year.

The newly designed test will likely incorporate several common driving habits that burn extra gas, including air conditioning and driving in congested areas, the EPA says.

A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey shows that more than half of Americans are thinking of buying a more fuel-efficient car in the future.

Changed view

When Peter Stamps shopped for a new vehicle late last year, a sport utility vehicle seemed to fit one of his primary needs. He wanted something big enough to accommodate his wife and two children.

But the engineer quickly ruled out the option. "I was looking for something that had decent mileage," Stamps said.

He eventually bought a Chrysler Town and Country. The mileage sticker at the dealership said the minivan would get 18 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway.

Stamps said he hasn't driven it enough to determine the vehicle's actual mileage. "We're planning on taking a long drive. We'll see if it lives up to its word then," he said.

Experts say that fuel efficiency isn't yet steering big changes in the auto market.

Art Spinella of CNW Marketing Research said that some people are moving away from gas-guzzling SUVs but that the impact of high gas prices is still limited.

For more than a decade, Spinella has been analyzing what people look for in a new car. Among 52 attributes, fuel economy has climbed more than any other feature in the last two years, but it still places 23rd.

Not top concern

"It's lower than cup holders," Spinella said. "It still hasn't risen to the value of performance, which is around 11." The two most important attributes: quality and driver visibility.

Gas prices would need to reach $2.80 a gallon, and stay that high for at least six months, before many drivers would change their buying habits, Spinella said.

Some, though, are trying to conserve.

Many families are relegating the SUV to secondary-vehicle status, using it only when something needs to be towed, Spinella said.

Kyle Bennett of Plano, Texas, owns a Hummer H2, the tank-like vehicle that has become the symbol of fuel inefficiency.

The 2004 model averages 9.6 mpg, according to www.trucks. (The EPA does not test large vehicles such as Hummers.)

When he's not driving through forests and streams, Bennett is mindful of his gas consumption.

Changes tires

If he's not off-roading, he uses a different set of tires on his Hummer that saves him about two miles per gallon, he said.

But more often than not, he just doesn't use his Hummer for day-to-day driving, he said.

"I think a lot of the mystique around the Hummer brand name is starting to not be as attractive as it used to be, obviously, partly, because of the price of gas," Bennett said.

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