Speedometer top speed often exceeds reality

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DETROIT (AP) — The speedometer on the Toyota Yaris says the tiny car can go 140 miles per hour.

In reality, the bulbous subcompact’s 106-horsepower engine and automatic transmission can’t push it any faster than 109.

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

The answer has deep roots in an American 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 are 65 to 75 mph in most states.

“You reach a point where it becomes ridiculous,” says Larry Dominique, a former Nissan product chief who now is executive vice president of the TrueCar.com auto pricing website. “Eighty percent plus of the cars on the road are not designed for and will not go over 110 mph.”

The Yaris got its 140 mph 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 compact has a 160 mph speedometer.

There are several explanations for the speedometers.

When people are comparison shopping, cars with higher speedometer readings appear to be sportier, and buyers favor them even though they have no intention of driving over 100. “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.

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.

Also, some mainstream cars have some souped-up cousins that go faster and need higher speedometer numbers. A Chevy Malibu with a 2-liter turbocharged engine, for instance, can go 155 mph, 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 70 to 80 mph is right in the middle on a 160 mph speedometer, he said.

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

“(Automakers) think that speed sells,” she said “People buy these cars because they want to go fast.”

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