2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid
2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid (Ford Motor Company)

Ford announced in a press release Thursday that it is reducing the fuel economy estimates for the 2013 C-Max Hybrid and giving customers who bought the car a small reimbursement. According to the EPA, the C-Max Hybrid’s fuel economy will go from 47/47/47 city/highway/combined to 45/40/43 city/highway/combined. The disbursement, which Ford calls a “goodwill payment,” will be $550 for purchasers and $325 for lessees.

The New York Times reports that the payment amount represents Ford’s estimate of the difference in average fuel costs between a 47 and 43 combined mpg rating. So far, Ford has sold about 32,000 2013 C-Max Hybrids. Considering that sales number, the payments are expected to cost Ford between $10 and $17 million.

This isn’t the first time Ford has had a problem with its fuel economy estimates. The New York Times says that Ford faces lawsuits pertaining to its mileage estimates on hybrids. Last month, we reported that Ford was making voluntary upgrades to the software on its 2013 hybrids in an effort to improve fuel economy.

Several news outlets say that this mpg controversy has pointed out problems with the EPA’s testing guidelines. For one, Time magazine reports that mpg estimates come from automakers, not from the EPA. The EPA performs audits on about 15 percent of the vehicles. Time says it can take quite of bit of consumer complaining to trigger an audit by the EPA.

The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reports that another EPA policy may also cause inconsistency in fuel economy estimates. The EPA allows car companies to substitute one car for another in mileage tests if the car has the same engine, transmission and is in the same weight class. Because of this policy, Ford was able to use the fuel economy estimates of the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid in place of actual estimates for the C-Max Hybrid, which has a significantly different aerodynamic profile.

Several commentators, such as Automotive News (subscription required), cite the aggressive hybrid market as a possible catalyst for using these questionable, but entirely legal, tactics. “Car companies are competing fiercely to fill showrooms with the most fuel-efficient vehicles possible, knowing that a mile or two per gallon could make or break a new model. And in some cases the most potent solution for them lies within the arcane rules of federal fuel economy standards.”

In response to questions about its rules, the EPA calls the hybrid fuel economy matter a “new and emerging issue caused by a combination of factors,” including high mileage numbers that are “particularly sensitive to small design changes,” and a greater incidence of shared hybrid powertrains across a large number of models. As for its plans for the future, the EPA says it “will be working with consumer advocates, environmental organizations, and auto manufacturers to propose revised fuel economy labeling regulations to ensure that consumers are consistently given the accurate fuel economy information on which they have come to rely.”

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