How Consumer Reports Won Me Back

I’d been on the fence about Consumer Reports for a long time. On the one hand, I have to support the scientific method wherever it’s applied rigorously, especially considering how rare that is these days. On the other hand, and this is necessarily going to be a vague observation, they seem impossibly white-bread. I’m not sure what I mean by that except to say that I feel like Consumer Reports skews toward mediocrity. In other words, if you want to decide based on scientifically quantifiable data (which includes a built-in, bell-curve cost-benefit analysis), they rock. If you want to choose based on taste or aesthetics or coolness or some other ineffable post-modern factor (as I think and sometimes fear many of us do), read something by Conde Nast or Playboy.

However, they won me back with this month’s cover story on the fallacy of E85 as our automotive savior. Unfortunately, you can only get a teaser on line. Here are the highlights:

  • 27% reduction in fuel economy in the test vehicle (E85-rated Chevy Tahoe)
  • Poor E85 availability (800 stations out of 176,000), no availability in 14 states, including New York
  • CAFE/FFV credits allow manufacturers to produce large, inefficient E85 vehicles that will never use the fuel, thereby increasing overall gasoline consumption (for example, the Tahoe, which in the real-world testing gets 10 mpg combined on E85, rates as a 35-mpg vehicle for CAFE purposes).
  • The E10 program already uses virtually all available ethanol production capacity, which means we’re already seeing the maximum emissions-reduction benefit (or we would be if all these hulking E85 vehicles weren’t “cheating” by running on regular gas.

Note that Consumer Reports does not actually come out and say, “Nah nah nah nah nah, we told you to buy the Prius.” But it’s implied.

I expect to see a similar condemnation of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles around this time next year.

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