The buying decisions of Consumer Reports' 8 million subscribers hinge partly on Joe Veselak's right foot.
Veselak, a 29-year-old auto technician, tests new-vehicle fuel economy for the magazine, a job that has grown in importance after fuel-rating restatements by Ford, Hyundai and Kia Motors over the past 13 months raised questions about the methods used by carmakers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
It's work relished by a car guy finishing a mechanical engineering degree.
"By the end of a day doing this, you just smell like gasoline," Veselak said last month as he calibrated a meter to measure fuel flowing from a Volkswagen Jetta's tank to its engine at the magazine's test track in East Haddam, Conn. "When I was taking night classes for school, I'd leave here, go to class, and people were like, 'This guy stinks!'"
The EPA has made few changes to the way it rates the fuel economy of cars since it began testing in 1971. Manufacturers put their own vehicles, which are usually pre-production prototypes, on treadmill-like devices called dynamometers and report results to the agency.
The EPA has used the disclaimer "your mileage may vary" to warn drivers that real-world fuel economy may not live up to its certified ratings. To prevent that mantra from becoming "but nobody gets that," the agency is stepping up the portion of vehicles it reviews and confirms for mileage. Also in the works is a data-customization project to allow drivers to search for what fuel economy they can realistically expect based on how aggressively they drive and under certain conditions.
"There is no higher priority for the EPA than to make sure that consumers have all the information they need when they're making typically the second-largest purchase that they make," Christopher Grundler, the agency's top auto-industry regulator, said in a telephone interview.
The EPA has generally audited about 10 percent to 15 percent of the vehicles at its own laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. The agency is now reviewing and confirming 15 percent to 19 percent in recent years, Grundler said.
"There's general agreement that EPA tests do not reflect reality," Peter Appel, a former Transportation Department researcher and now a Washington-based director at consulting firm AlixPartners, said by telephone. "There have been modest fixes to the EPA testing a couple times in the last 30 years. They're probably due for another one."
The EPA plans to issue a proposal within the next year to close a loophole that gives the same rating to models that use the same engine and transmission and fall into the same weight class, even if they are a different size or shape, Grundler said.
Beyond this remedy, which addresses how Ford was allowed to assign the rating for its hybrid Fusion sedan to its C-Max wagon, the EPA has no plans to change how it rates cars powered by a combination of gas and electricity.
Both Consumer Reports and Ford disagree with that decision to keep current tests for hybrids -- and so does Christine Hanson, a 62-year-old semi-retired legal worker in Tacoma, Wash. She and her husband paid $35,000 for a Ford C-Max hybrid in June, drawn by its 47 miles per gallon city and highway ratings.
"Everything else that went along with it -- the handling, the extra cargo in the back -- that was all icing on the cake," she said.
The mileage she got was less, around 37 mpg, and she wasn't alone. Ford lowered the rating on C-Max to 43 mpg for combined city and highway driving in August and started sending what it called "goodwill payments" of $550 to buyers and $325 to lessors of the car a month later.
"With hybrids, the mileage is very sensitive to driving conditions and driving styles of the consumer," Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields told Bloomberg Television in August. "In the case of the C-Max, we saw feedback from consumers, so we acted very proactively to make sure we addressed that customer satisfaction issue."
Hanson, the C-Max owner, said she has no intention of cashing her $550 check from Ford. She's involved in a class- action suit against the company in the Southern District Court of New York.
Ford planned to continue working with the EPA to improve the accuracy of hybrid ratings, Fields said. After extensive testing that the agency did this summer on C-Max and other hybrids, the EPA has concluded its tests are capturing hybrid fuel-economy performance just fine, Grundler said.
"Our test results, other manufacturers' test results, and consumer reporting through our website all suggest what most consumers are getting in the real world on their hybrid is what our label is suggesting they would," he said.
Hyundai and Kia's restatements were different. The Seoul- based affiliates, which share engines and model platforms, said "procedural errors" at their testing facility in South Korea caused overly rosy ratings.
As it happens, the 37 mpg reading in Hanson's C-Max matches the fuel economy that Consumer Reports achieved in its testing of the C-Max late last year. The magazine has said that 55 percent of hybrids and 28 percent of cars with small turbocharged engines fall short of their EPA mileage ratings by at least 10 percent.
EPA tests are at lower speeds and slower acceleration than how many Americans drive.
At Consumer Reports, Veselak and other technicians attach meters to the fuel lines of vehicles that measure the number of cubic centimeters of gasoline going into the engine.
The highway test is run over a five-mile loop on Route 2 near the magazine's Connecticut track. The technicians flip the switch on a device on the dash that turns the meter on and off once they get up to 65 mph and pass specific highway road signs.
During a drive back from the highway test and through the wooded rural neighborhood back to the track to demonstrate the city loop, Veselak said he and other Consumer Reports auto staffers spoke with the EPA on a conference call last year. The agency wanted to know more about how the magazine conducts its tests after it called out shortcomings in Ford hybrid mileages.
"To me, driving like this is what a lot of people are probably going to do when they're on the highway," he said.
The city test is done at the south end of Consumer Reports' track, which the magazine's owner purchased in 1986. The quarter-mile racetrack used to be the Connecticut Dragway, and the old timing tower still stands.
On the south end of the track, every vehicle is driven the same speed on the same stretch of stop-and-go driving through loops, twists and turns. Two drivers each do three runs to try to account for any variation in how the tests are done.
Hanson, the C-Max owner, did extensive research before buying her car. She plans to spend even more time looking at sites like Consumer Reports and inquire with people exiting their cars in parking lots about the fuel economy they're getting before buying her next vehicle.
"I really enjoy the car," she said of the C-Max. "I would probably buy it again if we were just rolling in money."