New-Car Window Stickers May Get Letter Grades, but the Backlash Is Building

They call it the "Monroney" document, and it was first required by Congress in 1958 (and named after the sponsoring Senator). It's more popularly known as the new-car window sticker, and it's now undergoing a thorough overhaul, definitely the biggest changes in more than 30 years. But not without a fight.

Despite working with focus groups in five cities and getting some consensus from consumers, the combined efforts of two federal agencies produced a letter-grade option that is getting some vigorous pushback from carmakers and dealers. Greens mostly like it (with caveats), but automakers are weighing in against -- largely because so many popular cars (especially large vehicles and SUVs) get poor grades.

The EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are going to take comments for 60 days on two very different proposed designs (one of which is more of an evolution of the current design), and they should get an earful. The new stickers won't be in place until model year 2012, but the proposed rulemaking includes a couple of pages giving hypothetical grades to 2010 cars and trucks, which have to be very green to get high marks.

Right now, the only car that would likely get an A+ in the sample ratings is the Tesla Roadster, since that category is for "zero emission" battery electrics. Many strong-selling cars would get a C, including versions of the Chevrolet Silverado, Cadillac CTS, Dodge Charger, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Titan and Toyotas Tacoma and Tundra. Love the GMC Sierra 15 with the 6.2-liter engine and four-wheel-drive? You'll have to get past the C- on the window sticker.

Automakers wanted two things, one they got and the other they didn't. They wanted cars to stay in their categories, meaning that a big SUV would get an A+ if it was greener than all other SUVs. That didn't happen. And they battery EVs to be rated "zero emission," with no mention of "upstream emissions" (generated by power plants producing the electricity that charges the cars) on the window sticker. That they got -- upstream emissions will be relegated to a website few people are likely to see.

Still, despite minor victories, there's discontent in the auto world. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) said in a statement that it "will likely oppose any proposed label design that would mandate a letter grade for a vehicle's overall fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions performance." The dealers much prefer the government's second option, which NADA says "retains the current label's focus on miles per gallon and annual fuel costs, while updating its overall design and adding new comparison information on fuel economy and vehicle emissions."

The automakers, represented by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, don't like letter grading, either, with president and CEO Dave McCurdy comparing it to "schoolyard memories of passing and failing."

But greens are clapping, at least with one hand. There is likely to be a campaign to get upstream emissions included on the window sticker (which NADA also opposes). And there will be considerable lobbying for the letter grades.

"Letter grades are very attractive," said Luke Tonachel, vehicles analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who also blogged on the issue. "They simplify the information and help consumers find the cleanest, most-efficient options available to them."

And, surprise, surprise, NRDC likes the fact that all cars will compete in the same marketplace. He points out that letter-grade sticker also compares the vehicle in question to all others in its class, and indeed it does, but the letter grade is huge, and the class comparison small. One possible compromise would be retaining the letter grade, but shrinking it down considerably.

Felix Kramer, whose CalCars.org was instrumental in getting plug-in hybrids on the road at GM and Toyota, says the regulators "have done an outstanding job." Kramer likes the fact that the sticker will include what is called miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) for electric cars and plug-in hybrids (which obviously can't be judged head-to-head with gas vehicles). He also thinks the graphics and ratings are effective, but he complains that there are obstacles to filing comments. "They've made it hard [at the website] for the public to see what's important in the proposals and to contribute their views," he said.

It's still early, though, and opinions could evolve. The 60 days of comments will start in about a week.