Cape Town - With the petrol price nudging R14 a litre, fuel consumption has become a primary factor in motorists’ choice of a car.
Motor manufacturers have responded to the demand for leaner, greener cars by producing more efficient engines without sacrificing performance.
This new crop of engines boasts staggeringly low fuel consumption figures, but as they’re obtained in best-case scenarios and simulated conditions, they are near to impossible to obtain in real life.
Manufacturers concede this, but argue fuel consumption figures are intended to be used to compare consumption figures between competing models.
But many motorists don’t realise that and are disappointed and angry when they discover they can’t achieve those consumptions.
In recent years, the Advertising Standards Authority has considered many complaints of misleading advertising, relating to advertised fuel consumption figures.
In 2012, for example, a Mr Hussain complained to the ASA that while the print advert for Volkswagen’s Polo Bluemotion 1.2 TDI claimed a combined average (stop-start city driving and open road driving) of just 3.4 litres per 100km, he was only able to achieve 5.07 litres per 100km in his.
VWSA, however, denied misleading consumers.
It said the figures were obtained in accordance with the prescribed uniform measuring standard, under test conditions with an unladen vehicle and consistent driving behaviour, in order to be able to compare models and not necessarily to be replicated on the road in traffic and unpredictable conditions.
It’s true that many factors affect fuel consumption, from driving style and road contours to altitude, wheel specification and load weight.
But the ASA directorate holds that unless advertised consumption figures make it clear to consumers that those figures are obtained under laboratory conditions which real life can never match, mainly because “all the variables are controlled, if not eliminated, in order to standardise the comparison”, consumers |will be misled.
In the case of the Polo, that wasn’t clear, so the ad in question was found to be misleading.
Which brings us to the case of Christopher McCreanor.
Towards the end of 2013, he bought a Ford EcoSport 1.0 GTDI Titanium SUV from Barloworld Ford and Mazda, N1 City, Cape Town, mainly because of its advertised fuel consumption figure - a combined 5.7 litres per 100km.
“We can’t afford not to drive economical vehicles,” he said, “and with the EcoSport’s impressive, award-winning engine and performance claims, it seemed to be the perfect solution to hiking fuel prices.”
With the “mini-SUV” appearing to offer more space and power than small hatches with the same fuel consumption, McCreanor was sold.
“Little did I know I would never be able to get the promised fuel consumption.”
He brought this to the dealership’s attention when the SUV had done just more than 1000km, and was told this was normal and he should wait until he had done 3000km.
But the vehicle’s fuel consumption didn’t improve.
Again, he approached the dealership, which serviced his car and tweaked its software, which should produce better consumption. It didn’t.
A few weeks later, in early December, a Ford field engineer ran tests. McCreanor was told his car was in perfect specification, but he would not get better fuel economy than 8.8 litres per 100km.
“I could have accepted a standard deviance from the 5.7 litres per 100km claim and would have been happy with 6.5 litres er 100km, but certainly not 8.8 litres per 100km,” he said.
“That’s almost 45 percent more than Ford is claiming. If I’d known that, I’d have bought a less expensive, fuel-efficient car.”
In the end, the dealership offered to buy the SUV back, but it left McCreanor riding a scooter on Christmas Eve and about R13 000 out of pocket.
The dealership put the vehicle, which had 8000km on the clock, on its showroom floor and sold it the next day.
McCreanor asks: “For me, the issue is this: why are motor manufacturers allowed to give incorrect fuel efficiency figures and then hide behind a disclaimer?
“How can they make claims and drive massive ad campaigns based on fuel efficiency and economy, but then dismally fail to deliver?
“How is this fair?”
I took up the case with the Ford Motor Company of SA and got a predictable response.
“In independent ownership, fuel consumption is open to many variables such as geographic and climatic differences, road conditions, fuel quality and individual driving behaviour, to name a few.
“We confirm that the fuel consumption quoted is based on the results achieved during an independent testing process and cannot account for all variances at any given time per consumer after the consumer has acquired the vehicle.
“Ford abides by the South African National Standards. The detailed procedure for conducting the test is the subject of Sans 20101: 2006. The quoting of fuel consumption figures is a regulatory requirement and is provided at a specific point in time prior to the sale and consumer usage of the vehicle.”
In the ASA case of Mitsubishi Outlander versus P Grobler of 2008, the directorate acknowledged that no reasonable person would expect to achieve the advertised consumption constantly.
But it made the point that such a person would expect to achieve consumption “in the vicinity of the advertised figure”.
What McCreanor achieved with |his EcoSport was nowhere near the advertised figure.
The standardised means of calculating fuel consumption has its place in the industry, but the lack of disclosure of more realistic figures is prejudicing consumers who are desperate to lower their fuel-spend.
At best, consumers can hope for adverts with an asterisk leading to a small print disclaimer saying something along the lines of “provided solely for the purposes of comparison between different vehicle models” and “cannot be fully representative of real-life driving conditions”.
Which leaves us to protect ourselves by doing our own research. Search the internet for actual consumption figures and speak to people who own “economical models”.