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Time to rethink how fuel efficiency is measured

  • The image of cars in a showroom

Construct a comfy family sedan loaded with amenities, handsome appearance and plenty of room for people and luggage.

Drop in a small engine designed for decent performance and stingy gasoline consumption.

That’s a key formula for carmakers as they try to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards.

Honda’s 2013 Accord L4 is part of that trend.

Review: Don’t judge Honda’s new Accord by its cover

Does it work?

With my partner, Denise, and two long-time friends, I drove an L4 sedan to, and around, Buffalo last week.

The Accord moved us in fine style. Everyone had loads of room. The car handled precisely. Even in fuel-saving Eco mode it easily kept up with highway traffic and it could creep up to 140 kilometres an hour without that speed being obvious. Our upscale Touring model had leather, excellent sound and ventilation systems, and GPS.

Many gasoline sippers use turbocharging to squeeze power and fuel economy from small engines. Our 185-horsepower L4 didn’t. But it did feature Honda’s Earth Dreams technology, including direct injection, friction reduction, enhanced variable valve timing, and continuously variable transmission, plus the Eco button to enhance fuel economy.

Technology that shuts the engine at every stop would help fuel economy, but it’s not available on the L4. It’s “certainly a fuel-saving feature being studied among many other technologies for the future,” Honda says.

By current standards this is a relatively simple package, which helps restrain the price to a base $23,990, or $31,590 for the Touring with CVT.

Acceleration isn’t neck-snapping, especially in Eco, but it’s fine for city driving and we could handily merge on to highways or manoeuvre around slower traffic.

The Accord can be had with a V6. But the L4 is all you need — not thrilling, but competent and comfortable.

However, it raises an issue increasingly heard about spacious fuel-sippers.

According to Natural Resources Canada, the L4 with CVT burns 7.8 litres of gasoline for every 100 kilometres of city driving, 5.5 on the highway and 6.7 combined.

(The U.S. EPA publishes more conservative numbers; something I’ll probe in the New Year. As well, recognizing official tests only approximate actual driving, the EPA posts a “real world estimate.” For the L4, it’s 7.9 litres per 100 combined.)

But here’s the “real world” of our test car. On the Buffalo trip, with four occupants and luggage, usually in Eco, and keeping up with traffic between 110 and 120 kilometres an hour, the highway score was around 7.5. In the city, each trip was 11 or more.

Back home, I drove from Bathurst and College Sts. in the west end to Main and Gerrard Sts. in the east; just me and hockey gear on a 14.5-kilometre route in light, early morning traffic with much of the distance along Lake Shore Blvd. and the crumbling Gardiner. The fuel-consumption score: 11.7 per 100.

Another day, I reached the same destination but on slower streets and in more crowded traffic. That score: 13.9. A couple of runs along eastern Lake Shore brought the number down to just below 11, but as soon as I returned to streets with more lights and traffic it climbed back above 11.

Before and after our test, the display showed an overall score for the car’s entire history of 9.5.

Fuel-economy claims always warn that actual results depend on driving habits and that the numbers should only be used for comparisons.

But this level of discrepancy — a 40-per-cent gap between Canadian test and actual scores, and even 20 per cent above the EPA’s “real world” — is a concern with this car category since it’s crucial for assessing environmental and fuel-security benefits and costs.

My L4 experience suggests we must be careful about claims that cars combine the space and comforts we crave with stingy fuel consumption. It especially demands a serious rethink of how that consumption is measured and presented.

  • Time to rethink how fuel efficiency is measured

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