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fuel estimates get with the times

If you haven't been shopping for a new car in a while, you may notice a few changes next time you're at the dealership. In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised its 20-plus-year-old fuel economy estimates to reflect today's faster and more congested roads.

This means MPG (miles per gallon) estimates for many vehicles, particularly hybrids, dropped by as much as 30 percent.

Why the change?

Developed in the 1970s and revised just once in 1984, the EPA estimates for city and highway driving were often criticized as overly optimistic. For example, estimates were based on speeds capped at 55 mph, the national speed limit at the time. Now, testing is done up to 80 mph.

The EPA now also considers factors like aggressive acceleration, air condition use, and extreme temperature conditions.

How are fuel costs determined?

In estimating annual fuel costs, the EPA factors in annual mileage (an average of 15,000 miles per year), average gas prices (based on projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration for the applicable model year), and the vehicle's combined fuel economy.

If a premium grade gasoline is recommended or required by the manufacturer, the fuel cost will be calculated accordingly.

Fuel economy labels get a new look

In 2011, the EPA and National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) finalized the first major redesign of fuel economy labels in 35 years. The new labels made their first appearance on 2013 model vehicles.

Along with fuel economy, the new labels include:

  • New ways to compare energy use and cost between electric and gas-powered cars
  • How the car's estimated fuel costs compare to the average new vehicle (over a 5-year period)
  • How the car's estimated greenhouse emissions compare to the average new vehicle
  • An estimate of how much fuel or electricity the car would use to drive 100 miles
  • Information on driving range and charging time (for electric vehicles)
  • A QR Code that allows users to access online information about how various models compare on fuel economy and other environmental factors

So next time you're out shopping for a car, pay attention to all the great new information the label has to offer. It might just help you make your final decision.