New fuel economy labels, set to hit auto dealerships in 2012, aim to offer more information in an easy-to-read format for quick car-by-car comparisons on the showroom.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled the new labels in May. The labels are meant to help drivers quickly compare fuel economy, fuel costs and emissions on gasoline vehicles, electric vehicles and hybrid models, but just because the tag touts 48 mpg doesn't mean you'll get that on your morning commute.
"The information is only a guide, a means to suggest possible fuel consumption," says S.E. Day, author of "How to Legally Steal Your Next Vehicle and Save $1000s: A Consumer Informational Guide to Effective Automobile Negotiations" and host of the talk radio show "The Legally Steal Show."
The redesigned labels include estimates on how much drivers will save or spend on fuel over the next five years compared to the average new vehicle and easy-to-read ratings of how a model compares with others for smog and greenhouse gas emissions. The labels also provide snapshot glances of how much fuel or electricity it takes to drive 100 miles, the driving range and the charging time of an electric vehicle. QR codes on each label offer quick access to additional information online.
As in the past, the numbers on the new labels present the best-case scenario. They are based on tests performed on properly maintained vehicles, under ideal driving conditions and while practicing conservative driving techniques.
"The numbers translate into real world driving by giving the consumer a range, say 39 mpg to 48 mpg on the highway," Day explains. "If all the variables are in place then the vehicle will consume the suggested range of fuel consumption."
Those variables include regular oil changes, proper tire inflation, minimal air conditioner usage, minimal cargo weight, proper braking and acceleration, and maintaining a constant, moderate speed. Road, traffic and weather conditions also affect fuel economy, but whether or not you achieve the mileage on the tag is mostly up to you.
"The biggest element of fuel efficiency is the driver and his or her driving behaviors," says Leon Kamins, general manager of Mossy Nissan. "The numbers are fairly accurate but sometimes optimistic. Most drivers are not willing to drive slowly enough to obtain maximum mileage."
"It is extremely important for drivers to adjust their ways of thinking to a more conservationist approach," Day says. To make the most of your mileage, Ford Motor Co. suggests the following:
--Think slow and steady. Pumping the accelerator sends more fuel into the engine, so accelerate smoothly, maintain a constant speed and use cruise control whenever possible to help conserve fuel.
--Skip the warm-up. Today's vehicles don't need it. Don't leave your car idling more than 30 seconds. Turn off the engine while parked, while waiting at the bank window or in other non-traffic situations.
--Turn off the air conditioning. Use the climate controls selectively to reduce the load on the engine. When temperatures top 80 degrees, moderate air conditioner use can save 10 percent to 15 percent on fuel usage.
--Close the windows. Don't drive with the windows down unless the vehicle is traveling under 50 mph. Driving with the windows open at highway speeds increases aerodynamic drag on the vehicle, which lowers fuel economy.
--Travel light. Remove any excess weight from the vehicle and avoid the use of luggage racks. The added frontal area reduces aerodynamics and hurts fuel economy by up to 5 percent.
--Plan ahead. Consolidate trips when possible and plan your route to bypass congestion, which causes more idling and cuts down on fuel economy.
--Check your tires. Underinflated tires increase rolling resistance, which needlessly taxes the engine. Proper tire inflation can reduce the average amount of fuel use by 3 to 4 percent.
--Practice TLC. When your car runs efficiently, it uses less fuel so get regular tuneups, keep the wheels aligned, replace the air filter as recommended and use the right oil. For the best fuel economy, Ford recommends SAE 5W-20 oil for most cars and trucks, but consult the owners guide for the recommended grade.