Ford to Pay $19.2 Million to States Over False Advertising Claims

The settlement addresses exaggerated fuel-economy numbers for C-Max hybrids and payload capacity for Super Duty pickup trucks

2014 Ford C-Max hybrid
2014 Ford C-Max Hybrid
Photo: Ford

The Ford Motor Company will pay $19.2 million to a consortium of 40 states and Washington, D.C., over false advertising about the fuel economy of its 2013-2014 C-Max hybrids and the payload capacity of its Super Duty pickup trucks.

“Consumers place a premium on fuel efficiency when shopping for new vehicles. For years, Ford advertised impressive fuel economy and payload capacity for its cars and trucks,” said Tom Miller, Iowa’s attorney general. “Unfortunately, these figures were not based in reality, leaving customers with vehicles that did not meet their standards.”

In these two cases, Ford exaggerated numbers for an advantage in competitive segments. And it was caught. 

“We are pleased that the matter is closed without any judicial finding of improper conduct,” said Ford in a statement, adding, “We worked with the states to resolve their concerns.”

The C-Max Fuel Economy

Ford ran a series of ads that claimed the C-Max provided better fuel economy than the Toyota Prius. The 2013 C-Max was originally rated at 47 mpg in city and highway driving, and 47 mpg overall. The claim was that it delivered 47 mpg in every situation. 

Back on Dec. 6, 2012, Consumer Reports wrote: “Ford has been making some eye-opening claims about the fuel economy of the redesigned 2013 Fusion Hybrid sedan and new C-Max Hybrid wagon: ‘47 city/47 highway/47 combined mpg.’ After running both vehicles through our real-world tests, we have gotten very good results. But they are far below Ford’s ambitious triple-47 figures.”

We got 37 mpg overall in our tests. That’s close to what owners reported on the EPA’s, at 39 mpg. 

more on fuel economy

The EPA’s 47 mpg estimates were supplied by Ford and based on the Fusion Hybrid. In our tests, the Toyota Prius at the time got 44 mpg overall, far more than the C-Max. 

“We install fuel meters in every car we test to measure actual fuel consumption on designated city and highway courses. When we saw the large shortfall, we immediately contacted Ford and the EPA with our findings,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “We continue to publish our results of over 50 tests not only to inform consumers but also to discourage automakers from making unrealistic claims.”

EPA rules specified that if two cars use the same engine and transmission, and fall into the same weight class, automakers have the discretion to use the same test results for both, even if they test only one of them. The Fusion Hybrid and the C-Max use the same engine, transmission, and electric drive, and their weights fall within 35 pounds of each other. But unlike other cars that share an EPA fuel-economy rating, the two cars aren’t remotely the same size or shape, nor do they even share platforms.

A Ford spokesperson said in a statement to CR: “Ford follows EPA regulations, appropriate industry regulatory bodies, and our own robust standards for fuel-economy labels and advertising. Our vehicle performance claims are reliable and can be trusted by consumers.”

And that was true, but the company found a loophole large enough to drive a hybrid through.

In 2013, Consumer Reports found six other tested pairs of vehicles that fit the EPA conditions for sharing fuel economy figures from Chevrolet, Ford, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen. In no other case was there a similar discrepancy. And among 315 cars tested at the time, CR found that most got within 1 to 2 mpg of their EPA estimates. 

Called out over the discrepancy between marketing and real-world performance, Ford retested the C-Max and downgraded its fuel-economy ratings to 40 mpg overall. 

It then made hardware updates for new models, including a higher final gear ratio, lower-viscosity motor oil, and aerodynamic improvements, including a rear spoiler, new hood seals, and air deflectors in front of the tires, and a higher speed threshold for the electric drive. The new mpg figures were 39 mpg combined for 2014 through 2016 (41 city, 36 highway). 

To make amends, the company made “goodwill payments” to about 200,000 customers to compensate them for extra fuel costs: $550 to owners and $325 to lessees.

This case underscores why Consumer Reports goes to great lengths to test the fuel economy of every nonelectric car we purchase. It provides realistic, objective, independent information for car shoppers and helps keep the auto industry honest.

The Super Duty Payload

During a peak time in the ongoing pickup truck wars, Ford boasted “best in class” payload capacity for its 2011-2014 Super Duty pickups. 

The attorneys general, in this case, claimed that Ford calculated the maximum payload capacity based on a hypothetical truck configuration that omitted standard items such as the spare wheel, tire and jack, center flow console (replacing it with a mini console), and radio. But they said the hypothetical payload capacity increased “just enough” for Ford to support the advertising claim. 

A Ford spokesperson told CR: “Specific payload capacity is based on each truck’s as-built condition—as there are thousands of possible configurations—and is documented in the owner’s manual and by a cargo label permanently affixed to each vehicle as required by federal law.” 

The attorneys general said Ford advertised that this capacity was available to all customers, but this specific configuration was available only to fleet customers. 

2011 Ford F-250 Super Duty
2011 Ford F-250 Super Duty

Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

Jeff S. Bartlett

A New England native, I have piloted a wide variety of vehicles, from a Segway to an aircraft carrier. All told, I have driven thousands of vehicles—many on race tracks across the globe. Today, that experience and passion are harnessed at the CR Auto Test Center to empower consumers. And if some tires must be sacrificed in the pursuit of truth, so be it. Follow me on Twitter (@JeffSBartlett).