The government, spooked by finding discrepancies in test data that will mean new, lower fuel-mileage rates for 84 variations of 2011 to 2013 Hyundai and Kia models, is expected to consider an industrywide audit.
"This is an ongoing investigation," the Environmental Protection Agency says, but won't elaborate.
Cars are emissions-tested mainly by their makers, using EPA protocols, and the data are provided to the government for mileage-rating calculations. The EPA tests about 15% as a check on the system. It says its audits from 2000 until now found that only two vehicles needed new ratings.
"EPA will have no choice but to broaden the audits," says Jesse Toprak, industry analyst at TrueCar.com. "I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that Hyundai/Kia are not the only manufacturers that may have inaccurate mpg stickers."
EPA's "credibility is being questioned" because it failed to uncover the errors promptly, he says.
A massive audit could tax the EPA's auto test lab at Ann Arbor, Mich., and delay verified mileage ratings for new models.
Hyundai and Kia will put new window stickers with lower mileage ratings on all unsold vehicles. They apologized and created a plan to pay owners for the difference in fuel costs between the old and new ratings. The plan covers some 900,000 vehicles, about 35% of those they sold during the EPA time frame.
Ratings for their two best sellers, Hyundai's Sonata midsize sedan and the mechanically similar Kia Optima, were validated and don't change.
Most models that changed are down one or two miles per gallon, but a version of Kia Soul lost six mpg on its highway rating. The changes also eliminate all of their touted 40-mpg models.
Hyundai and Kia are units of South Korea's Hyundai Group and share powertrains and other hardware.
Hyundai/Kia's Sung Hwan Cho, who heads the automaker's U.S. technical centers, says there are enough variations in test procedures to explain the discrepancies. It's "a very complex testing process," he says.
The EPA process is strict, "but there are also some points where we need some interpretation," Cho says.
"Nobody is trying to con anyone," says Andrew Smart, head of industry relations at the Society of Automotive Engineers. He says inconsistency can be due to "subtle differences in vehicle configuration. Very clearly, they never tried to mislead people."
The EPA began an audit after it got mileage complaints from owners of 2012 Hyundai Elantras. When its test data didn't match Hyundai's, the agency began auditing more Hyundais and mechanically similar Kias.
Contributing: Kelsey Mays, Cars.com
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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