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Fuel efficiency numbers on new cars (finally) get real

Seth Perlman/AP Photo

Canadian car buyers are all too familiar with showroom sticker shock. Soon, though, they will be zapped by a different set of numbers when they read the updated EnerGuide ratings posted on each new car.

The more comprehensive ratings better reflect the real-world driving experience and, as a result, fuel consumption numbers for most vehicles will rise. Starting with the 2015 model year, Canadian labels will be in line with those in the United States, which reacted to consumer complaints and industry pressure in 2008 with new test procedures and ratings.

A 2015 model, in most cases virtually the same as the 2014 version, will consume on average 15 per cent more fuel. The car is the same but the new rating more accurately reflects what a buyer can expect. Governments – Natural Resources Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States – do not conduct these tests. They dictate procedures manufacturers must use to arrive at the ratings.

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The numbers on the EnerGuide label in Canada result from a two-cycle test. Those on the 2015 label are determined through a five-cycle test in use south of the border. The old numbers do not include provisions for real-world speed or conditions. It is acknowledged that the resulting numbers are not "real" and the city number is adjusted upwards by 10 per cent, the highway number by 15 per cent. The additional tests used for the new labels attempt to correct that.

Under the current procedure, vehicles are tested in a laboratory where the temperature is between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. The engines are started from this warm state, acceleration is light and speeds low. The "City" test lasts for 31 minutes, during which the vehicle makes 23 stops and achieves an average speed of 34 km/h, and a top speed of 90 km/h. The "Highway" test is 13 minutes long and covers 16.5 kilometres at an average speed of 78 km/h and a top speed of 97 km/h. The 2015 labels will include the results of three additional tests:

1.) A cold test that replicates the current City test, but at ambient temperature of -7C.

2.) An "Air Conditioning" test that starts at an ambient temperature of 35C and calls for the air conditioning system to operate at maximum level for 10 minutes. The vehicle covers a distance of 5.8 kilometres at an average speed of 35 km/h with a top speed of 88 km/h. This test includes four stops and acceleration at the rate of 8.2 km/h per second.

3.) A high-speed test conducted over 13 kilometres and 10 minutes at temperatures that range from 20-30C. The average speed is 78 km/h and the top speed is 129 km/h. There are four stops and acceleration from rest is at the rate of 13.6 km/h per second. That acceleration compares to the mild 5.2 km/h per second used in both old tests.

While the new ratings will be lower and more realistic, real-world experience is dependent on individual driving habits and road conditions. The laboratory used in these procedures does not contain hills, heavy rain or crosswinds. The vehicles are perfectly tuned and the tires are at the proper pressure.

But the new sticker will be closer to consumer expectations.

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