Exciting stuff, rear legroom. Pictured above, for reasons that will become clear: the Ford Fusion.

With truedelta.com, I’ve done my best to provide apples-to-apples comparisons to help people with car-buying decisions. Car buyers often want to know whether they and their stuff will fit, so we provide interior dimensions. But what if these dimensions aren’t really comparable?

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It’s been clear for some time that cargo volume dimensions often aren’t comparable, in part because there are multiple legitimate methods for measuring them. The 2001 Volkswagen Jetta had 71 cubic feet of cargo volume. The 2002 had 52 cubic feet. The car itself did not change. Instead, VW’s method for measuring cargo volume did. For this reason, initially we didn’t post cargo volumes. But people asked us to, so we now do. (Official curb weights have been similarly suspect.)

But I didn’t wonder about headroom, shoulder room, and legroom specs. Then Ford found itself in a tight spot. When designing its current generation of cars and compact crossovers, it made rear legroom a low priority, with predictable consequences. What to do, to keep the cars competitive in online specs comparisons? It wouldn’t be practical to completely redesign the cars for at least eight years.

Hyundai Sonata rear legroom. Just an inch more than in the Fusion? Or would you believe an inch-and-a-half less?

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The SAE provides two standards for measuring front legroom, one (L34) with the front seat positioned for a 95th-percentile male driver and another (L33) with the front seat set all the way back. The SAE provides only one standard for measuring rear legroom (L51) which doesn’t explicitly specify the position of the front seat. Still, as far as I can tell, manufacturers have traditionally positioned the front seat the same when taking both measurements, perhaps because of common sense. Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, and (in some cases) Subaru have used the L33 method, while everyone else has used the L34 method. You can’t fairly compare single rows of cars measured using different methods, but combined legroom (calculated by adding the legroom specs for the rows together) can be compared.

A few years ago, when it became clear that the redesigned-for-2012 Focus’s rear legroom was not only down about three inches compared to the 2011’s, but also well short of the competition’s, someone within Ford had a brilliant idea. Why not use the L33 (all the way back) front seat position when measuring first-row legroom, but the L34 (95th-percentile male) front seat position when measuring second-row legroom? Voilà, the new Focus gained 1.8 inches of combined legroom, enough to move it from the bottom of the class to near the top.

I didn’t notice when they did this, as they continued to provide the L34 spec on the media site. Only John Voelcker of Green Car Reports noted that Ford had started listing only the L33 front legroom spec on its consumer site—without changing the rear legroom spec commensurately. I did notice when they did the same with the redesigned-for-2013 Escape, for a gain of 2.7 inches, and wondered if they might have to recall the brochures. But no one else seemed to notice, or if they did notice they did not care, so nothing changed.

The waters tested, Ford appears to have similarly hacked the specs of the 2013 Fusion, 2013 MKZ, 2015 MKC, and 2015 Mustang. I say “appears” because with these they stopped bothering to include the L34 spec even on the media site, making it unclear which method was used. At a drive event for the 2013 Fusion, I asked the program manager if they’d used different front seat positions when measuring front and rear legroom, and she denied it. Maybe she wasn’t in the know? But sit in the cars and it’s obvious. (In the photos, the front seat has been set for a roughly 45th-percentile male, apparently one with a slight gut.)

VW seems to tweak their specs in the other direction. Based on the official specs, the Passat has 0.4 inches more combined legroom than the Sonata and an inch less than the Fusion.

Most recently, the refreshed-for-2016 Ford Explorer gained 2.3 inches of combined legroom. It’s amazing what new fascias can do! Because I want to provide car buyers with comparable specs, TrueDelta has continued to use the 2011-2015 front legroom spec for the 2016 Explorer. Unfortunately, Ford has never publicly released L34-based front legroom specs for the current Fusion, MKZ, MKC, or Mustang, so I don’t know what these are. But I can estimate. So I’ve revised the front legroom specs for these models by subtracting 2.5 inches from the official specs. The effect on the midsize sedan combined legroom rankings:

  1. Ford Fusion (official): 82.6 inches
  2. Volkswagen Passat: 81.5 inches
  3. Hyundai Sonata: 81.1 inches
  4. Nissan Altima: 81.1 inches
  5. Honda Accord: 81.0 inches
  6. Subaru Legacy: 81.0 inches
  7. Mazda6: 80.9 inches
  8. Toyota Camry: 80.5 inches
  9. Chevrolet Malibu (2016): 80.1 inches
  10. Ford Fusion (TrueDelta estimate): 80.1 inches

Though even the revised spec might overstate the amount of combined legroom inside the Fusion—the difference between it and the roomiest seems like much more than an inch—the contra-hack is enough to move the midsize sedan from best-in-class to worst-in-class.

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Personally, I don’t see the point of having specs unless they can be fairly compared between car models. I’d like Ford to stop shifting the front seat forward about 2.5 inches between measuring front and rear legroom. Maybe they’ll stop if enough people seem to care?

What are your thoughts? Is Ford’s legroom tweak smart marketing, no big deal either way, or something that makes you wonder what else they’re finessing? Is it something they should stop doing?

Update: It looks like Kia has done the same with the specs for the 2016 Sorento crossover. I have adjusted its front legroom spec from 44.1 inches to 41.3 inches, the same as the 2015 and the related Hyundai Santa Fe (which has a “max front legroom” spec of 44.1 inches).

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Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of car comparisons, including reliability stats, pricing, and specs.