False petrol consumption figures fuel Ford's fire

Doughty widow challenges advertising claims.

Tough times for Ford South Africa. First, that embarrassing business when some of their cars kept bursting into flames.  Now it’s fuel consumption. A 74-year-old Cape Town widow, getting no satisfaction over her complaints of excessive fuel usage by her budget Ford runabout, has mandated attorneys to “institute an independent public investigation into the practice of misrepresented fuel efficacy figures in the motor industry”.

 Ford Kuga

In January Ford SA recalled more than 4,500 of its 2012-2014 1.6 Kuga SUVs after one death and 46 confirmed fires, 11 in January alone. The apparent cause: cracking of the engine’s aluminium cylinder head, leaking oil into a hot engine compartment – and conflagration.

When Marie-Anna Cherenack went shopping for a new car in 2013 the foremost thought in her mind was fuel efficiency. And when she paid a visit to the Imperial Ford franchised dealership in Cape Town, she was impressed by the spec sheet for their Ford Figo 1.4 Ambiente, a facelift version of the Fiesta. The specs claimed a fuel consumption rate of 6.6 litres per 100km. Just what I’m looking for, said Cherenack, slapping down R90,000 cash for the white Figo (recommended retail price R118,670).

German is Cherenack’s mother tongue, and in addition to that nation’s obsession with exactness, her late husband was Paul Cherenack, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cape Town. Prof Cherenack died in 2002 at the age of 59, his quirky sense of humour and passionate tirades against bureaucracy, as well as his pearls on such mathematical mysteries as the exactness of the sequence of homotopy groups, much missed by his students and colleagues in the university’s Topology and Category Theory Group. 

If staff of Imperial Ford were lulled into the picture of Marie-Anna Cherenack as a dear old granny babysitting her beloved grandchildren at her home in Tamboerskloof, they soon discovered their mistake – Prof Cherenack’s widow has maths skills of her own. Alarmed at the frequency of her visits to the petrol station to top up the tank of Ford’s latest budget offering, she dug out her calculator and proceeded to conduct her own fuel consumption test. The result: far from 6.6 litres per 100km, her Figo was sucking up juice at the rate of 10 litres per 100km – 50% more than the claimed rate.

Cherenack called in an expert to confirm the accuracy of her calculations. The assessment of her Figo – conducted in a 62.4km road test on a varied elevation route by technical specialist and insurance assessor Gary Wilson –  revealed a consumption rate of 8.531 litres/100km, nearly 23% higher than what Wilson described as “Ford’s published figures” and 29% more than the 6.6 litres/100km in the car’s spec sheet given to Cherenack by Imperial Ford.

Ford Figo

“Bearing in mind the steady driving manner used, the specification should easily have been reached – if the claimed consumption figures were achievable,” reads the expert’s report. “Testing more than one Ford Figo will most likely see similar test results.”

Wilson’s asessment makes this devastating conclusion. “Claimed consumption figures are not achievable as published on the Ford website. Information published by the manufacturer in regard to performance and consumption has a major influence in the choice a customer makes when purchasing a vehicle. If this information is not accurate then the customer is not getting the vehicle intended within the confines of what was advertised.”

Cherenack shares her late husband’s loathing for bureaucracy, which she was not slow to articulate not so long ago as branch executive member of the Ray Alexander branch of the South African Communist Party. She took Cape Town’s then executive mayor Dan Plato to task for school overcrowding in Hout Bay’s Hangberg (60 pupils per class) and the “apparent double standards” in service delivery for impoverished communities, compared to that enjoyed by the wealthier residents of Hout Bay.

Faced with Imperial Ford’s “very nonchalant” attitude, she mobilised Bliden Campbell Attorneys Inc, who told the car dealership that the claim of 6.6 litres/100km was a “fraudulent misrepresentation clearly designed to mislead” in terms of sections 40 and 41 of the Consumer Protection Act. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing Imperial Ford suggested that Cherenack trade in her Figo and pay them an additional R79,467 for a 2015 Fiesta 1.4 Ambiente. Cherenack rejected the offer.

 She turned to the Motor Industry Ombudsman of South Africa (MIOSA), who  rejected her complaint last year. “The declared fuel consumption  and CO² emission figures will be achieved during technical laboratory testing in accordance with the legislated technical specifications,” the body’s case managers reported.

However, they added that this laboratory testing only created “a standard against which fuel consumption and CO² emission figures can be compared to different vehicle types under uniform conditions and are not necessarily indicative of real-life driving conditions.

“The actual fuel consumption and emission levels will depend on many factors including driving habits, prevailing conditions, vehicle equipment, condition and use… We cannot support your expectations and will be closing our file accordingly.”

In other words, the impressive spec sheet that Imperial Ford gave Cherenack to clinch the sale of their Ford Figo was meaningless.

Cherenack’s attorneys Bliden Campbell informed the Ombudsman that in view of MIOSA’s “unprofessional handling of this matter and apparent inclination to support an unlawful practice” Cherenack had mandated them to institute an independent public investigation into the practice of misrepresented fuel efficacy figures in the motor industry.

The reclusive Marie-Anna Cherenack has no comment to make to Noseweek.

“She doesn’t want any form of harassment, she insists that we act on her behalf,” say her attorneys Bliden Campbell, who decline to discuss the status of this probe. The law firm’s director Wayne Campbell says: “Mrs Cherenack is incredibly cautious.

“She was aggrieved and wanted the consumer to know about her experience [with Imperial Ford]. But she wanted to know from us whether she would be sued. It’s a marvellous story: Ford has done this and in the end it’s been condoned by the Ombudsman, who is meant to protect the consumer.”

Imperial Ford is part of Imperial Auto, South Africa’s largest auto retailer and distributor. Asked for comment, Imperial Ford’s MD Michael Glassberg, requested  questions in writing. After stating that he required 72 hours to respond, Glassberg relented and said: “We are not in a position to disclose any information pertaining to a transaction between Ms Cherenack and our dealership to external sources.”

♦ In a “challenging” trading environment, Imperial Holdings last year recorded an operating profit in South Africa of R3.7 billion on revenue of R66bn. The CEO is Mark Lamberti, who arrived at Imperial in 2014 and set a much-lauded approach to executive pay by allocating his first year’s salary of R7.4m to a scholarship fund for children of long-serving employees earning less than R600,000 p/a.

This grand gesture, which left Lamberti to live off investment income (his portfolio included 450,000 Imperial shares), did not prevent him from accepting performance-related compensation of more shares to be held in escrow with an expected value of R15m in 2018.

That’s if sales don’t take too much of a dive. – Ed.

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