Toyota, Honda must fess up to less vroom

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Old 03-13-2006, 10:37 PM
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Default Toyota, Honda must fess up to less vroom

Toyota, Honda must fess up to less vroom
New testing standards force carmakers to reduce claims
Nick Bunkley / The Detroit News
Monday, March 13, 2006

New testing standards are forcing automakers to downgrade horsepower on several of their models. Does a change in horsepower ratings cause you to rethink your next vehicle choice?

It turns out Toyota Motor Corp. isn't as strong as it appears in at least one area -- under the hood.

Testing under stricter new horsepower standards reveals that most of the models in Toyota's lineup have less oomph than the company has advertised. Even though the engines are unchanged, the automaker had to lower the horsepower ratings on all but few 2006 Toyota, Lexus and Scion models. The reductions range from 4 to 20 horsepower compared with 2005 models.

Honda Motor Co., the No. 2 Japanese automaker, also has downgraded the horsepower ratings on several models, including most of its Acura luxury brand.

But while the Japanese automakers overstated their power, an analysis of data compiled by Edmunds.com shows domestic vehicles have generally been testing at or slightly above previously stated horsepower. The testing suggests Detroit's automakers may have suffered unfairly in the battle of perceptions.

While drivers may not notice the difference, said George Peterson, president of consulting firm AutoPacific Inc, "it does matter to the manufacturers because each one is engaged in what I would call a brochure war where they're competing for the best specifications. And the average American likes a bigger horsepower number than a smaller one."

Most notably for Toyota, the rating for its top-selling Camry, when equipped with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine, had to be reduced to 190 horsepower from 210.

The V-6 version of Toyota's Highlander sport utility vehicle dropped from 230 to 215, and the Lexus LS and SC 430 decreased by 12.

The revised ratings comply with standards adopted by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

The standards specify which components and accessories should be on during testing and what kind of oil and fuel to use. To claim an SAE-certified rating, an automaker also must conduct tests in the presence of an independent witness.

"The intent of the revision was to tighten up the specifications," said Gary Pollak, an SAE program manager. "There were a lot of areas that were loose and subject to interpretation."

Peterson doesn't expect Toyota or Honda to face the same kind of backlash that Hyundai Motor Co. did after inflating the horsepower ratings of its U.S. vehicles by as much as 10 percent for more than a decade. The South Korea-based automaker agreed in 2004 to pay $30 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of 858,000 owners.

But for consumers who covet powerful engines and allow horsepower ratings to influence which vehicles they purchase, the revisions could chip away at Honda and Toyota's reputations.

Consumers haven't taken kindly to overhyped claims.

In 2001, Nissan Motor Co. came under fire after overstating the acceleration of its Infiniti Q45 sedan. Ford Motor Co. admitted overstating the horsepower rating of its 1999 Mustang Cobra R, and Mazda Motor Corp. did the same with the 2001 Miata roadster. Buyers of both cars were offered compensation.

The new rating also could make some vehicles less appealing to consumers who start shopping by researching specifications on the Internet. The V-6 Camry's 190 horsepower pales next to competitors such as the 221-horsepower Ford Fusion, although that will change soon when the 2007 Camry is introduced with 268 horses.

Toyota spokesman John McCandless noted that the company was proactive in testing all of its vehicles under the new standards.

"We've never really been big on promoting horsepower," McCandless said. "The proof in the pudding is driving the car."

Darren Seeman, who runs the Web sites ToyotaLife.com, LexusLife.com and ScionLife.com from home in Portland, Ore., doesn't think people who bought a Toyota before the latest tests were conducted will feel misled or cheated. "Honestly, I don't think a lot of people buy a Toyota brand for the horsepower," said Seeman, 29. While Toyota and Honda have subjected their entire lineups to the new standards, Detroit's automakers are mostly retesting vehicles with new powertrains.

Eventually, all vehicles are expected to be rated according to the new standards.

"What we put in place were pretty much common practice at GM, and at Ford and Chrysler as well," said Dave Lancaster, a technical fellow at General Motors Corp. who chaired the committee that developed the standards. GM has submitted results from 11 engine lines -- covering popular vehicles such as the Chevrolet Malibu and Impala, Pontiac G6 and Cadillac DTS -- to SAE for certification. The tests bumped up the horsepower ratings for the Malibu, Impala and G6 by 1 for 2006.

DaimlerChrysler AG has retested its higher-performance vehicles, including the Dodge Viper and those equipped with a Hemi engine. The Viper went from 500 horsepower to 510, while the ratings for most others changed less than 4 percent, Chrysler Group spokesman Cole Quinnell said.

Under the previous guidelines, Quinnell said, "a lot of times we chose to publish a number that was lower than what another manufacturer might choose."

Ford has found virtually no changes in testing under the new standards. Company officials say the new 3.5-liter V-6 planned for the 2007 Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX and Lincoln MKZ will provide at least the 250 horsepower it has promised.

"It's not in our best interest to give customers an inaccurate picture of what kind of power their car has," Ford spokesman Nick Twork said.

Honda saw the horsepower ratings on the Odyssey minivan and Pilot SUV fall from 255 to 244. The CR-V and Element went from 160 to 156. Various Accord styles had slight gains. Six of the seven Acura models were downgraded, including the RL, TL and MDX.

Honda spokesman Chuck Schifsky said the company wanted to be up-front with customers by retesting all of its vehicles, even though that meant reducing many of the horsepower ratings. "We're still pretty darn competitive with all of our vehicles, even with the new specs," Schifsky said.

Honda and Toyota have been educating dealers about the changes. Dan Hurd, a salesman at LaFontaine Toyota in Dearborn, said, "They're more concerned with the drive and the fit and finish."

Seeman, who operates the Web sites, said he doesn't feel any differently about his Lexus SC 430 knowing that it was downgraded from 300 horsepower to 288. "I'm still going to tell people it's 300."
 
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