Hyundai, Kia owe buyers a bundle over wrong mileage estimates

Gas pump handle with money protruding from nozzle

I'm guessing that about a million Americans are going to be getting a check from Hyundai and Kia.

A debit card, actually.

All because the two Korean automakers sold more than 900,000 cars and sport-utility vehicles over the past several years with misleading gas mileage estimates on their window stickers.

Of course, they inaccurately claimed those vehicles got better mileage than they actually did — up to 6 miles per gallon better in the most egregious instance — causing owners to complain and touching off a government investigation.

I'm pretty surprised by this because Hyundai rarely makes a misstep, developing one popular well-built product after another.

But Hyundai and its Kia subsidiary have a real crisis on their hands here.

It doesn't take much to catapult a carmaker from hero to heel; remember the Toyota "sticking gas pedal" brouhaha a couple of years ago?

Things started getting ugly for Hyundai and Kia when owners noticed that their mileage wasn't close to the EPA estimates posted on the window of their cars and SUVs. They complained to the Environmental Protection Agency, which launched an audit of those ratings.

The EPA found that the fuel-economy numbers on more than a dozen 2011, 2012 and 2013 models were overstated by an average of 2 to 3 mpg.

The models involved are Hyundai's Elantra, Accent, Genesis, Sonata Hybrid, Azera, Veloster, Tucson and Santa Fe. From Kia, it's the Soul, Optima Hybrid, Sorento, Rio and Sportage.

How could this possibly happen?

2013 Hyundai Veloster

Although fuel-economy ratings are said to be EPA estimates and labeled that way on those price stickers we see on the window of every new car, the EPA doesn't actually establish those ratings.

The carmakers do.

The auto companies test and rate their own cars and then submit those numbers to the EPA.

The EPA certifies the carmakers' numbers and spot-tests a few cars here and there to keep the manufacturers honest, but it doesn't test every car.

All car companies are supposed to follow the same precise procedures created by the Society of Automotive Engineers for establishing mileage estimates.

But in accepting blame for the errors, Hyundai and Kia said their joint test center in Korea had attempted to streamline portions of the process.

Test tires, for example, must have a certain amount of wear. But rather than putting miles on the tires in real-world driving, they used the controlled environment of a test track, affecting the outcome.

If you own or used to own one of the affected models, you'll be reimbursed for the extra gasoline you used.

Payment will be in the form of a personalized, prepaid debit card.

How much you'll get will be calculated based on a formula that factors in the difference between the promised combined and the revised combined mpg fuel cost in your region, and actual miles driven.

Both manufacturers are also adding a 15% bonus to compensate for any inconvenience.

2012 Kia Sportage

Owners seeking reimbursement will need to go to a local dealer for their brand to certify the number of miles they have driven.

For current owners, this will be an ongoing program with additional debit cards issued as often as they go to a dealership for an odometer certification.

Reimbursements for claimants who have sold their cars will be based on the mileage statement on their bill of sale.

Because the formula for calculating individual reimbursements uses widely varying data, the carmakers aren't offering a dollar estimate of what the average owner might expect.

But, for example, let's consider a typical Hyundai or Kia owner in Florida who drove 15,000 miles.

The difference between an expected 27 mpg in combined city/highway driving to a revised 26 mpg would result in an estimated difference of 21.4 gallons of gas.

Based on the average cost of a gallon of gas, that would be a fuel-cost difference of $76.71.

Adding $11.32 for the 15% inconvenience benefit brings the total to $88.03.

Each carmaker established websites (; dedicated to providing information about this problem.

On the site is a page where you can determine if your specific vehicle qualifies for the reimbursement by entering its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) found at the base of driver's side windshield and then using a reimbursement estimator to calculate a ballpark amount.