For Honda Motor Co. it was a rude moment when Hyundai Motor Co. unfurled a banner at the 2010 Detroit auto show touting the Korean brand as America’s most fuel-efficient. Honda’s U.S. sales chief vowed that Hyundai’s apparent victory would “motivate us even further.”
Now it’s payback time. Just as Honda ramps up sales of a new Accord sedan and prepares a modified Civic small car, Hyundai and its affiliate Kia are regrouping after admitting to the most extensive overstatement of fuel-economy ratings ever found by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“The timing is beautiful for Honda,” said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports. “They’d been seen as falling behind in fuel efficiency, not keeping up with Hyundai and others.”
Hyundai’s reversal may help a number of automakers. Toyota, Nissan and Ford are promoting fuel-efficient new models. Still, no automaker stands to benefit from Hyundai’s misstep as much as Honda. Hyundai sales may slide as much as 11 percent for the next few months, according to Strategic Vision, a San Diego-based consumer-research company that annually surveys 350,000 car buyers.
At the same time, Honda’s cars and sport utility vehicles are those most often considered as alternatives for Hyundai buyers, ahead of other brands, said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision’s auto division.
“For people who think ‘this isn’t for me,’ as a result of the fuel-economy issue, Honda does look like an attractive brand known for fuel economy,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst for Edmunds.com, an auto pricing and data website. “Honda should benefit most.” Ford may also benefit, she said.
With higher gasoline prices, fuel economy has emerged as a draw for car buyers.
The EPA this month said Hyundai and Kia would put new mileage labels on “the majority of their 2012 and 2013 models,” reducing average mile per gallon ratings by one to two miles for most of the affected vehicles. Kia’s Soul wagon was the farthest off — by six miles per gallon.
The companies have apologized to customers and are offering prepaid fuel cards to reimburse owners.
Honda executives say they’re not likely to make similar errors.
“We’ve been conservative in our EPA estimates,” said Mike Accavitti, Honda’s head of U.S. marketing. “We triple-check everything so customers are satisfied with the mileage they get in the real world.”
Prior to Hyundai’s 2010 show banner, Honda led U.S. fuel- economy rankings for 33 years, based on EPA data.