Honda Civic Hybrid Plaintiffs SHOULD Win

By Chris Haak

By now you’ve surely heard the story of Heather Peters, a disappointed Honda Civic Hybrid owner who took Honda to small-claims court in California and won a $9,800 judgment against the company.  In California’s small-claims court, neither side may use a lawyer.  Ms. Peters sued Honda because her Civic Hybrid didn’t get anywhere near the numbers posted on her car’s window label (which, for pre-2008 Civic Hybrids, was a whopping 49 MPG city/51 MPG highway/50 MPG combined.  She won her case, but Honda has vowed to appeal, if for no other reason than to stem a tide of copycats who also want a pound of flesh from Honda.

Even people not closely following the car business like we do here have heard the phrase “your mileage may vary.”  Often, it’s abbreviated online as YMMV, and the phrase has gone far beyond its original usage to refer to any situation where your actual results may not be quite what was advertised or discussed by others.  You didn’t meet a life partner on match.com?  YMMV, buddy!

Nearly every adult also knows that it’s sometimes difficult to hit the published fuel-economy numbers, particularly those using the 2007 and earlier methodology.  Do you know that the 2008 adjustments were not the first time published mileage figures were adjusted downward since the beginning of the CAFE era in 1978?  In 1984, the EPA adjusted the numbers on the window sticker downward from the CAFE calculations by 10 percent for city and 22 percent for highway driving “to more accurately reflect driving styles and conditions.”  I have a brochure from the 1979 Volkswagen lineup in my files (Why? No idea.) and the Rabbit is rated at 25 MPG city/38 MPG highway with the 1457 cc, 71 HP gasoline engine and 40 MPG city/53 MPG highway with the 48 HP 1471 cc diesel.  The EPA’s fueleconomy.gov website’s archives only go back to 1984, but the VW lineup’s engines had grown by then anyway, so it wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples comparison.  However, knock off the 10 and 22 percent from city and highway, respectively, and you get 23/30 for the gasoline Wabbit and 36/41 for the diesel one.

Those driving styles and conditions continued to change, with motorists driving far faster on the highway than the 48 MPH that the EPA test calls for.  On top of that, the old tests did not account for rapid starts, using accessories such as air conditioning, and other things that modern drivers typically do.  So the numbers were revised downward again for 2008 model-year vehicles.  Rather than applying the same adjustment factor to all vehicles as was done in 1984, the EPA published a very thick book describing its testing methodology and attempted to adjust mileage realistically for different vehicles.  Conventional (i.e. non-hybrid) vehicles saw their numbers drop between 10-20 percent in the city cycle and 5-15 percent on the highway.  Split the difference between those two and our hypothetical 1979 VW Rabbit went from 40/53 to 36/41 to 31/37.  Who says technology hasn’t advanced?

Significantly, hybrid ratings dropped more dramatically than did conventional vehicles, with a 20-30 percent decline in the city figures.  More appropriately, the Civic Hybrid in question was originally rated at 51/49/50, which in 2008 dropped to 40/45/42.  That represents declines of 22%/8%/16%.

Back in 2007, a guy named John True sued Honda because his Civic Hybrid was returning 32.5 MPG, which is significantly below even the adjusted post-2008 figures – much less the pre-2008 less-realistic ones.  He put together a class action suit, and the proposed settlement with Honda was for $1,000 off the purchase of a new Honda or a check for $100.  That settlement was rejected by the court because the judge felt that it didn’t pay Civic owners enough.

Now that you have the extensive background, let’s get back to the original point of this article.  Heather Peters won her small-claims case because she should have.  Says the LA Times:

Honda has acknowledged that the battery on 2006 through 2008 Civic hybrids “may deteriorate and eventually fail” earlier than expected. When the battery pack can’t be charged to full capacity, the car relies on the gas engine more and fuel economy suffers.

Since Honda is on the hook for the battery warranty, it pushed out a software update to the car’s ECU that changed the system’s operating parameters to use the battery less often.  With the electric drive marginalized, something has to give – and that means the gasoline engine has to pick up the slack.  And that means that it will use more fuel than it would have in the original EPA tests.  We’ll let Ms. Peters’ site, dontsettlewithhonda.com, pick it up from here:

…last year Honda tricked Civic Hybrid owners into doing an irreversible software update.  The letter said that the update would “help prevent early IMA battery deterioration”.  This sounded great, but Honda didn’t tell us that it would do this by reprogramming the engine to use more gas and would drastically reduce MPG.

So in this case, we have a perfect storm:

  1. EPA window stickers that showed unrealistically-high numbers until 2008 – and hybrids took it on the chin in 2008.
  2. Automakers can design cars to excel in the narrow operating parameters of the EPA tests, even if those might actually harm real world fuel economy.
  3. The software update was the final nail in the coffin.

Based on these accounts, Honda needs to either come up with a new software update that restores the cars’ mileage to factory specifications and prepare itself for additional battery replacements, or it needs to re-test the car’s fuel economy with the software update in place and do a much better job of compensating owners for taking away their car’s fuel economy.

“Your mileage may vary” never had so much meaning.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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4 Comments

  1. AMEN! Thank you for being the first that I have seen to tell the WHOLE story of my case! I promise I’m not just whining about the sticker and I know YMMV. I didn’t even think of suing when I was getting 40 MPG because YMMV, it was only after the software update and getting no more than 29 MPG that I got mad, and I didn’t sue until the insulting $200 class action settlement was offered.

    You are correct that hybrids were known by the EPA and manufactuerer to be much more sensitive to driving conditions, but Honda actually said in my brochure “just enjoy driving the Civic Hybrid like you would a conventional gasoline-engine vehicle”!

    Thanks for taking the time to dig deep on this story.

    Regards,
    Heather

  2. This is only going to get worse as the new MPG the Gov. wants to impose is going to make the accountants have more heart-burn

  3. They should not win. If I can get 25 mpg + out of a vehicle rated for 21, so should they get their 50 mpg. Just don’t know how how to drive. Don’t accelerate toward red lights. Don’t take off like a jack rabbit. Really, it’s not rocket science.

  4. @Roy – the point is not that their mileage varies from the EPA numbers – it’s that a software change that makes the car lean more heavily on the combustion engine rather than the electric motor causes the car to burn more fuel than when it was new. The only winner after the software upgrade until now was Honda, because it made life easier for the Civic Hybrid’s batteries, and therefore there will be fewer warranty claims on the batteries. If they retest these old Civic Hybrids pre- and post-software update, I will almost guarantee that the results will be different based on everything I have heard. (Anecdotal stories from owners PLUS Honda’s own word about the reason for the software update and what it changed about the cars.)

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