Frustrated hybrid driver sues Honda claiming mileage ratings are inflated

A Civic hybrid sits on the floor of a Honda Motor Co. showroom in Tokyo. A US lawsuit challenges the car's mileage ratings. A Civic hybrid sits on the floor of a Honda Motor Co. showroom in Tokyo. A US lawsuit challenges the car's mileage ratings. (Koji Sasahara/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Facing $3-a-gallon gasoline prices in California last year, John True decided to stop driving his Mercedes-Benz E320 and bought a Honda Civic hybrid.

Impressed by the gas-electric hybrid's advertised mileage -- 49 miles per gallon in the city, 51 miles per gallon on the highway -- True plunked down $28,470, at least $7,000 more than for a comparable non hybrid Civic EX.

But after 6,000 miles of driving, True said he averaged just 32 miles per gallon in mixed city/highway driving. So in March, True, an Ontario, Calif., professional jazz piano player, filed a class-action lawsuit in U S District Court in Riverside, Calif., in what appears to be the first legal challenge of the mileage claims of hybrid vehicles.

True's frustration with the actual mileage of his hybrid vs. the advertised mileage echoes that of other owners, many of whom voice their complaints on online message boards, and reflects the findings of some independent tests, including one by Consumer Reports.

The lawsuit claims American Honda Motor Co. has misled consumers in its advertisements and on its website. The suit notes that while the Environmental Protection Agency and automobile window stickers say "mileage will vary," some Honda's advertisements read "mileage may vary." That implies that it's possible to get the mileage advertised, said William H. Anderson, a Washington, D.C., attorney for True.

One Honda magazine ad claimed owners could get up to 650 miles on a single tank of gas, while Honda's website features a fuel savings calculator that assumes hybrid Civic drivers will average 51 miles per gallon.

"This case does seek relief for tens of thousands of consumers like Mr. True, who purchased the HCH expecting to benefit from its 'remarkable' fuel efficiency, and paid thousands of dollars extra for an HCH that looks identical and performs basically the same as the non hybrid Honda Civic," said a June 4 court filing.

Honda and others note that EPA tests, which hadn't been revised in two decades, have overstated average fuel economy for all vehicles. Last year, the EPA said it was revising its testing procedures to better reflect real world driving conditions, beginning with the 2008 model year.

"I can tell you that the 49/51 figures are EPA numbers, not Honda numbers," Honda spokesman Sage Marie said earlier this month. "Some customers achieve the EPA mpg figures and some don't, as fuel economy performance is a function of conditions, traffic, driving style, load, etc."

He said the "vast majority of Civic hybrid customers are satisfied with the performance since it delivers consistently and substantially higher numbers than comparable non hybrid vehicles in the real world. It is possible to attain the EPA estimates, and customers do all the time."

Last month, Honda said it would stop selling the hybrid version of the Accord this year, citing slow sales. Sales of the hybrid Civic have been better. Through June, Honda has sold 17,141 Civic hybrids, up 7.4 percent over last year.

Anderson said True's legal team will begin the process of discovery, in an effort to determine how many complaints Honda has received and what the automaker's internal mileage testing shows.

"It's just dishonest to twist the numbers that they know people can't get," Anderson said. Just because the EPA conducts tests, it doesn't give Honda license to advertise fuel economy numbers that aren't achievable, he said.

Andrew Frank, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California at Davis, and father of the plug-in hybrid, said drivers don't realize that aggressive driving dramatically reduces fuel economy, especially in hybrids.

"The hybrids are much more sensitive to the way you drive than a conventional car," Frank said.

Consumer Reports found in October 2005 that the Honda Civic hybrid averaged just 26 miles per gallon in city driving -- 46 percent below the EPA estimate. Other hybrids also averaged below estimates.

The new EPA tests -- unveiled in December -- will drop city fuel economy for all vehicles by an average of 12 percent and 8 percent for highways.