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Why do small-car speedometers go so high?

Tom Krisher The Associated Press The speedometer on the Toyota Yaris says the tiny car can go 220 kilomtres per hour. In reality, the bulbous subcompact’s 106-horsepower engine and automatic transmission can’t push it any faster than 175.
The Toyota Yaris speedometer: The numbers go to 220 km/h, but the car canÕt.

Tom Krisher

The Associated Press


The speedometer on the Toyota Yaris says the tiny car can go 220 kilomtres per hour.

In reality, the bulbous subcompact’s 106-horsepower engine and automatic transmission can’t push it any faster than 175.

So why do the Yaris — and most other cars sold in North America — have speedometers that show top speeds they can’t possibly reach?

The answer has deep roots in a culture that loves the rush of driving fast. The automakers’ marketing departments are happy to give people the illusion that their family car can travel at speeds rivaling a NASCAR racer. And companies often use one speedometer type in various models across the world, saving them money.

But critics say the ever-higher numbers are misleading. Some warn they create a safety concern, daring drivers to push past freeway speed limits that generally top out around 130 km/h.

“You reach a point where it becomes ridiculous,” says Larry Dominique, a former Nissan product chief who now is executive vice-president of the auto pricing website. “Eighty per cent plus of the cars on the road are not designed for and will not go over [175 km/h].”

Last year, speedometer top speeds for new versions of the mainstream Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu were increased from 195 or 210 km/h to 250, which approaches speeds on some NASCAR tracks. The speedometer on the Honda Accord already topped out at 250. All are midsize family haulers, the most popular segment of the North American auto market, and like most new cars, have top speeds that seldom exceed 200 km/h.

The Yaris got its 220-km/h speedometer in a redesign for the 2012 model year, giving it the same top reading as the original 1953 Chevrolet Corvette sports car. Even the new Nissan Sentra has a 250 km/h speedometer.

There are several explanations for the speedometers.

When people are comparison shopping, cars with higher speedometer readings appear to be sportier, and buyers favour them even though they have no intention of driving over 160. “People really want to see higher numbers,” said Fawaz Baltaji, a business development manager for Yazaki North America, a large supplier of speedometers for auto companies. “It is indicative of a more powerful engine. There’s a marketing pitch to it.”

Although cars with high-horsepower engines can come close to the top speedometer speeds, most are limited by engine control computers. That’s because the tires can overheat and fail at higher speeds. Tires now common on mainstream cars often can’t go above 210 km/h or they could fail. Many tires, especially on older models, have speed limits as low as 180. But that’s still faster than most people will ever drive.

Automakers, in a push to cut costs, now sell the same cars worldwide and use the same speedometers in different cars all over the world. In China and Europe, governments require that the top number on speedometers be higher than a car’s top speed. Cars sold in Europe, for instance, have faster top speeds than those sold elsewhere because they can be driven over 240 km/h on sections of Germany’s Autobahn. So to sell the same car or speedometer globally, the numbers have to be higher, said Kurt Tesnow, who’s in charge of speedometer and instrument clusters for General Motors.

Also, some mainstream cars have some souped-up cousins that go faster and need higher speedometer numbers. A Chevy Malibu with a two-litre turbocharged engine, for instance, can go 250 km/h, far higher than the mainstream version. The little Toyota Yaris gets its speedometer from another Toyota model that’s sold in other countries. “It’s not that each speedometer is designed for that specific vehicle,” said Greg Thome, a company spokesman.

Lastly, research has found that most people like the needle to hit highway speeds at the top of the speedometer’s circle, said Yazaki’s Baltaji. So the common freeway cruising speed of 125 km/h is right in the middle on a 255 km/h speedometer, he said.

The rising speedometer numbers aren’t surprising to Joan Claybrook, the top federal auto safety regulator in the U.S. under president Jimmy Carter. She’s been fighting the escalation for years and says it encourages drivers — especially younger ones — to drive too fast. During her tenure, she briefly got speedometer numbers lowered.

“They think that speed sells,” she said of automakers. “People buy these cars because they want to go fast.”

Some drivers at dealerships Tuesday conceded that marketing the higher speeds could have worked on them — at least when they were younger.

Paul Lampinen, 36, Ann Arbor, Michigan, said he bought a Ram pickup with a V-8 engine because he likes a powerful truck. The higher speedometer numbers could have influenced him when he was in his 20s, but they wouldn’t work now, he said. “I don’t want to pay any tickets,” he said while getting his truck serviced at a Chrysler dealer in Saline, Michigan.

For years, most speedometers topped out at 190 or 200 km/h, even though that was far over the limit in Canada and the U.S. Then, in 1980, Claybrook, who ran the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, limited speedometers to 85 mph [135 km/h], even though cars could go much faster.

The move, designed to end the temptation to push cars to their limits, drew outrage from gearheads nationwide. Some automakers got around the rule by ending the numbers at 85 mph but leaving lines beyond that to show higher speeds. The government also forced automakers to highlight 55 mph [90 km/h], which at the time was the fuel-saving national speed limit in the U.S.

The limit was short-lived, overturned two years later by president Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on a pledge to end onerous government regulations. Cars with 85-mph speedometers lingered for several years until they were redesigned and the maximum speeds for most bumped back up.

By the 2000s, however, speedometer speeds crept higher. Even compact cars showed 200 or 220 km/h. The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette speedometer and some Jaguar models now peak at 360.

At present, the U.S. government has no plans to reinstate speedometer limits or regulate top speeds, saying there’s no evidence to show it would prevent crashes. (Canada follows the U.S. lead on speedometer ranges, although our faceplates register speeds in km/h, not mph.)

“Ultimately, drivers are subject to speed limits mandated by the states regardless of the top speed listed on a vehicle speedometer,” NHTSA spokeswoman Lynda Tran said.

But Claybrook isn’t satisfied. “To have a car register any more than the maximum speed limit is really a statement by the company: Drive faster. It’s OK,” she said. “It’s encouraging people to violate the law.”