Maybe you noticed this, too. A few years ago, when gasoline prices began spiking towards $4 a gallon as the Bush-era recession was taking hold, the car companies pulled a little switcheroo in their advertising. No more did you see or hear on TV the two numbers you were used to seeing — one for city mileage, the other for highway. Now, as you were spending that much more money on gasoline, the ads highlighted only highway mileage, and they pretty much still do today. The highway number was always bigger, of course, so maybe car buyers would forget that they did most of their driving in city conditions, or maybe their mental calculations would keep them in the car-buying game.
It’s one of those little deceptions of advertising and marketing, like the downsizing years ago of coffee packages, as if consumers might not notice that they were spending the same amount of money for 12 ounces of ground java as they used to pay for a pound.
Fast forward six years from the 2008 gas price peak. Earlier this month, two Korean carmakers, Kia and Hyundai, agreed to pay a $100 million fine for inflating mileage claims on their vehicles, boosting the so-called average fuel economy by one to two miles per gallon. Tack on a $400 million class-action lawsuit settlement and other penalties in the case, and the two companies have been dinged a total of $750 million.
That’s probably the kind of money that gets noticed.
I bring this up only because I sometimes get obsessive about such things. Three years ago, after I gave up an old gas-guzzling, turbo-charged Volvo for a Toyota Prius, I started keeping track of my mileage every time I filled up. I was happy that the hybrid car cut my gasoline expense by more than half. But I got curious about an issue that soon developed.
I’ve got a little bit of a lead foot, so I never expected to reach whatever optimistic numbers were posted on the vehicle. But that wasn’t the point. I began to notice that when I did the usual arithmetic — number of miles on the odometer divided by the number of gallons of fuel I’d just poured into the tank, my answers never — and I mean never — matched what the car’s onboard computer read. My mileage was always — and still is — a mile or two less per gallon than what the Prius wanted me to believe.
Now, I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. But who knows?
This experience reminded me of the time when one of my old Honda Civics always appeared to rack up an extra tenth of a mile whenever I tested it against highway mileage markers. Do the math: Over time, that’s a 10 percent variation on actual mileage, thus, apparently, inflating my personal fuel economy. What are you going to do? I, of course, did nothing then, nor have I bothered to take up my latest mileage issue with Toyota.
I think, perhaps, Toyota and other car companies are currently distracted anyway by this business about defective airbags and a looming recall from hell.
Then, of course, there’s General Motors — its defective ignition switches and its deceptive safety and parts-replacement practices. The death toll in that sorry case has risen to 30. The evidence points to an 11-year coverup, and Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill earned her consumer-warrior creds when she very publically throttled the carmaker in hearings this year.
But whom are we supposed to trust any more? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration certainly did not shine in the GM case.
I hesitate to concede that deception has become our baseline condition.
Yet, half-truths crowd the airwaves and cyberspace in almost every political debate. Deception clouds the marketplace with confusion. It keeps gotcha politics, takedown “news” stories and negative campaign advertising alive.
So whether we do the math or not, we should arm ourselves against deception, stay on our toes and be ever watchful.