With the 2008 model year getting underway in earnest this month, significant numbers of car buyers will get their first look at the government's new fuel economy ratings.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for those window stickers that tell car shoppers what kind of mileage to expect, said last year that it would begin using tests that better reflected real-world driving conditions.
The result? In most cases, the estimated mileage numbers will be lower.
Hybrids and other high-mileage cars will take the biggest hits.
Although the 2008 Toyota Prius isn't in showrooms yet, the EPA back-tested several years' worth of cars using a mathematical formula based on the new testing methods.
Based on the new test, the combined city-highway mileage for the 2007 Prius dropped from 55 miles per gallon to 46, a 16% decline. The Honda Civic hybrid, also a 2007 model, showed a similar decline.
Drivers have long complained that the EPA's mileage test, developed in the mid-'70s, didn't take into account the way people actually drive. For instance, the test didn't measure the effects of stop-and-go driving and lead-footing -- two common Southern California pastimes -- on fuel economy.
In addition, the national speed limit was 55 mph when the old test was developed. Today, it's as high as 80 mph in some places.
In 2005, Consumer Reports tested 303 cars and trucks and found that about 90% got lower mileage than the EPA's estimates. The mileage for city driving averaged about 30% below the government's figures.
The new estimates "are more realistic and more reflective of how we drive today," EPA spokesman John Millett said.
Besides listing mpg estimates, the EPA's new window stickers will also compare a vehicle's fuel economy with others in its class. And it gives a more precise breakdown of how the annual operating cost figure is calculated.
(You can browse the new mileage estimates, and compare them with the EPA's old numbers, at www.fueleconomy.gov. To check out the new window sticker, go to www.epa.gov/fuel economy/label.htm.)
Dealers say it's too early to tell how car shoppers will react to the change, but the automakers aren't complaining. Customers angry about not being able to achieve unattainable mileage estimates weren't especially good for business.
(The fact that the new, lower estimates won't be used to calculate the car companies' average fuel economy rating -- known as CAFE -- also makes the pill easier to swallow.)
And the EPA is careful to note that it still isn't promising perfection.
"It's a sticker, not a crystal ball," Millett said. "This is a yardstick to compare one vehicle to another.
"Your mileage will vary."
Chrysler sees light on electric power
Speaking of miles per gallon, Chrysler, the only U.S.-based automaker without a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle on the market, said this week that it was forming a unit to focus on electric-drive cars and trucks.
The unit, called Envi, is to develop electric vehicles for the company's Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands. Envi is short for "environmental," spokesman Nick Cappa said.
The announcement reflects Chrysler's new strategy after its separation from DaimlerChrysler.
"The creation of Envi allows us to focus on the development of a new generation of environmentally responsible" vehicles, Chief Executive Robert Nardelli said in a statement.
The move came a week after Nardelli hired Jim Press, the president of Toyota Motor Corp.'s North American unit and an advocate of the Prius, the world's bestselling hybrid.
Chrysler was taken over by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management in August.
Chrysler plans to offer its first hybrids next year, in versions of the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen sport-utility vehicles.
Chrysler's 2007 cars have the lowest average fuel economy, 28.6 mpg, of the six top-selling automakers in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
From Bloomberg News