Canadian and American flagsA few weeks ago, Canadian resident Rachel Perks sent me an email puzzler. Why is it that apparently identical cars — same make, model, engine size, specs, etc. — are advertised with drastically better fuel economy in Canada than in the United States?

To see what I mean, compare the official government fuel ratings in the U.S. versus Canada. Or take my car as an example. It’s a 2003 Honda Civic with a 5-speed manual transmission and a 1.7 litre VTEC engine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says I should expect 27 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. Natural Resources Canada, however, says 38 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. What’s going on? [Quick technical aside: Canadian car sellers use both litres per kilometre (a vastly superior formulation) and also miles per gallon (the terribly misleading measurement we use in the States).]

As it turns out, the greater part of the explanation is mundane — just a translation error, really. Canadians use imperial gallons and Americans use U.S. gallons. An imperial gallon is 20 percent larger than a U.S. gallon, so a Canadian vehicle needs fewer “gallons” to travel the same distance. Problem solved, right?

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Actually, no. The volumetric conversion accounts for much of the difference, but not nearly all of it. As it turns out, Canadian fuel efficiency ratings are almost certainly misleading and inflated.

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Let’s convert my car’s fuel economy ratings into imperial gallons. (Here’s a handy online converter.) In imperial gallons, I should be getting 34 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway, at least according to the U.S. EPA. Remember, that compares to 38/48 reported by the Canadian authorities. Are cars in Canada really that much more efficient? Almost certainly not.

What seems to be going on is that U.S. fuel economy testing is more rigorous than the testing in Canada. In 2008, the U.S. government introduced more stringent testing procedures that effectively reduced the reported fuel economy of nearly every car on the road. Under the older and less-stringent standards that are similar to Canada’s, my car would have rated a 32 mpg city and a 38 mpg highway. (In fact, that’s exactly how it was advertised when I bought it.) Convert that older rating to imperial gallons and I’d be driving a car with an advertised 38/45 fuel economy — pretty close, though still not quite as good, as the 38/48 that Canadian manufacturers advertise.

Most of the basic testing protocols are the same in the two countries (see here and here). Manufacturers use a “dynamometer” to test the vehicles in an indoor laboratory environment. Then they report their findings to the relevant government agencies. The big difference is that the U.S. now requires testing that more closely replicates real-world driving: with faster speeds and acceleration, air-conditioner use, and colder outside temperatures, all of which reduce fuel efficiency.

You could dicker about differences in real-world driving conditions between Canada and the U.S., but I suspect that the differences are very minor. Even where they are significant, the differences may actually cancel each other out. Speed limits are often a bit higher in the States, but stop-and-go driving may be slightly more common in Canada because there are fewer limited-access highways. Air-conditioning use is probably more common in the U.S., but cold weather driving is certainly more common in Canada.

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Because the Canadian ratings don’t account for real-world driving conditions, car-buyers in Canada are faced with misleading and inflated ratings. In other words, they’re getting sold a bill of goods. Buy a car with the inflated efficiency ratings and you’re likely to consume nearly 15 percent more fuel than you thought you were going to. Over the course of a year, that could that could easily add up to a couple hundred bucks of unexpected expense. (The precise figure depends, of course, on the price of gas, your currency, and your driving habits.)

Needless to say, there’s no reason this disparity should exist. The North American auto market is so tightly linked that manufacturers could very easily report the more stringent U.S.-grade testing results to the Canadian government as well. But until they’re required to by law, car manufacturers have every reason to stick with the inflated numbers in Canada.

A couple hundred bucks a year. Hmm, It’s almost like a carbon tax. Except unlike a carbon tax, the extra expense of inflated fuel efficiency is hidden from view, bad for the environment, and funds oil companies rather than the public. That’s a pretty rotten deal.