EPA Secretly Changing MPG Numbers Ahead Of Cash For Clunkers, Screwing ConsumersS

Consumers hoping to trade in their old "clunkers" for new vehicles through the Cash for Clunkers (or CARS) program are discovering the EPA changed fuel economy numbers for some cars last week, making it impossible to trade them in! Update.

New Jersey resident Jeff Chase was considering trading in his 1989 Mazda 929 for a new car and checked the government's FuelEconomy.gov website and it said it met the 18 MPG threshold to be considered a gas-guzzling clunker. He went back later to buy the new car only to discover the numbers had been changed and the combined mileage was now 19 MPG and therefore disqualified from the discount.

"The dealer that I wanted to do business with had started to write sales orders for cars but were not delivering them until the final CARS rules were set," said Jeff Chance. "They are finding out that cars that they thought were qualified as trade-ins are no longer eligible. Now these people will not be able to purchase a car."

EPA Secretly Changing MPG Numbers Ahead Of Cash For Clunkers, Screwing ConsumersS

Jeff isn't alone. Daniel Anderson was planning to trade up from his 1991 V6 Toyota Camry only to be rejected because the number was changed sometime in the last week from 18 MPG, a number that would have garnered him a check, to a new 19 MPG rating.

Were the vehicles rechecked? Did they apply a new standard? Given the numerous Camrys and old Mazdas on the road, it's possible there are thousands of car owners on the road who believe they're qualified for a discount only to arrive at the dealership and find the numbers have changed.

This is especially troublesome because the official rules released this week states they'll use the latest combined mileage as determined by the EPA because the agency reconfigured how they measure mileage to more accurately reflect real-world MPG. Thus the Cash For Clunkers final rule states:

CARS Act Rule Language
EPA changed the way it calculated fuel economy ratings starting in Model Year 2008, and has estimated the revised ratings for Model Years 1985-2007. Therefore, as described above, eligibility is determined by the revised ratings rather than the original EPA sticker on the vehicle. Since the revised ratings reflect a lower fuel economy, vehicles that would not be eligible under their original EPA rating may qualify for trade- in.

If this is the case, people who discovered their car's were formerly rated as 18 MPG technically had vehicles determined to qualify under the rules.

Karen E. Aldana with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the agency wasn't aware of what happened. "On the final rule we said we'd use their fuelconomy.gov ratings, so the fact that they're changing it all of a sudden, if that's happening — this is the first I've heard of this."

NHTSA spokesperson Rae Tyson called us back after the story originally ran to inform us that, though they wrote the role, the mileage measurements are completely under the control of the EPA and the rating that went into affect on Friday, July 24th is the one that currently determines eligibility and if anyone made a deal before Friday did so at their own risk.

"The fact is that we have said all along that any dealer entered into a sales agreement prior to the beginning of the agreement was doing so at his own or her own peril because until the program is final you always run into the risk of a deal made not qualifying," said Tyson.

An aide we've spoken to for one of the leaders behind the original bill in Congress says they were also unaware this was occurring.

UPDATE: WE Just received this statement from the EPA confirming what happened:

EPA Statement On Mileage Changes:
In support of the new CARS program, the government conducted a month-long quality assurance and quality control effort regarding fuel economy calculations on more than 30,000 vehicle model types spanning the past 25 years.

As a result of the review, roughly an equal number of vehicles became eligible as those found to be not eligible. Of the above model types, eligibility for roughly 100 vehicles was affected.

An enormous effort went into completing these updates so that they would be in place with NHTSA's issuance of the CARS regulation last week — working to ensure that the most precise info possible would be available to consumers once the program took effect.

Photo: Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood celebrating the launch of the CARS program last week. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images