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Window Stickers: The Food Labels of the Automotive World

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author photo by Scotty Reiss September 2016

As good as an all-natural chocolate-cream protein bar might sound, you want to know what's in it before digging in, right? So why would you buy a car without doing the same?

Monroneys -- or window stickers, as they're more commonly called -- are just like food labels, designed to inform the consumer about what's included in their purchase. The Monroney is the result of a federal law written in 1958 by Oklahoma Senator Mike Monroney, who believed that car buyers needed to know what they were getting.

Like those tags on mattresses, Monroneys are produced by the manufacturer and can only be removed by the customer. But unlike food or mattress labels, the Monroney is produced specifically for the model it's attached to; it even includes the vehicle identification number (VIN) number of the car it represents. But a car window sticker can be a giant wall of tiny type and numbers that, despite its intention, is confusing and even intimidating.

Until now, that is. We're here to make reading a car window sticker a whole lot easier. Here's what you need to know.

What's In a Name?

Food names can be deceiving, and so can car names, but breaking down why the car is called what it is can explain a lot. A car's name should be prominently displayed on the window sticker; it might include the model year, name, trim and some basic identifiers. For instance, you might see a Honda Civic listed as follows: 2016 (model year) Honda (automaker) Civic (model name) 1.5T (engine size of 1.5-liter turbo) 4D (4-door sedan) Touring (model trim).

Look at the Numbers

Just as you look at calories, grams of sugar and protein on a food label, you should look at price and components on a car window sticker. The sticker does list the items that add up to a car's final price, including standard equipment, options and additional costs. If there's no cost listed for a single item, then it's included in the price of the car.

So when a sales rep tells you that the sunroof is extra and it's listed on the sticker with no price associated, he or she is mistaken. If you're comparing a Honda Civic without a sunroof to a Civic with a sunroof, there will be an additional cost, although that feature may be standard on, say, the EX but not the LX version of the Honda Civic.

Miles Per Gallon: The Most Important Nutrition Fact?

We know that things like calories and protein are what make our food an efficient fuel source, but how efficient is the car you're considering? This information will be prominent and in bold type on the window sticker -- but remember, these numbers are a result of early testing, and your actual fuel economy may differ. This rating will also show how much you'll have to spend on gas for your new car and the savings or increased cost you can expect compared to the average new vehicle of that model year.

Look Closely at the Ingredients

Just as you'd scan the ingredients list on a food package to see what you're getting (or not), the Monroney should list everything a car contains, including safety features, interior appointments and exterior items such as specialty wheels, a remote key fob or a power moonroof. The window sticker will also tell you how much of the car and its parts are made in the U.S. and what percentage is sourced from overseas.

What Else Do You Get?

Food manufacturers love to tout benefits that aren't required on the food label, and so do carmakers. Most cars come with some free items; these may include 24/7 roadside assistance, complimentary maintenance, a trial period for SiriusXM, OnStar or a full tank of gas. These may or may not be listed on the sticker, so ask what free or complimentary items are included in the car's price.

Are There Warnings?

Foods have to be labeled for potential allergic reactions; cars have to be labeled for safety, too. If the car you're looking at has been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the results will be listed on the Monroney. However, many cars hit the showrooms before testing is done and are not yet rated. That doesn't mean they aren't safe; every car has to meet minimum government safety guidelines in its materials and manufacturing.

What Promises Does the Manufacturer Make?

Food manufacturers want you to be happy with your purchase, and so do carmakers. Many include warranty information on their stickers; often, there's a longer powertrain warranty and special equipment such as a hybrid battery or an electric charging system. Additionally, many manufacturers offer roadside assistance, maintenance and more. If this isn't printed on the Monroney, be sure to ask what's included.

Is What's on the Label Really What's Inside?

Answering this question is the magic of the VIN, the car's unique identifier. Never buy a car that's had its VIN plaque removed or obscured, and just to be sure, compare the VIN on the sticker to the plaque on the car. This way, you're sure you're getting what you're looking at.

Not All Labels Are the Same

Just like nutrition labels, not all car window stickers list things in exactly the same way. The law requires Monroneys to list base price, added options, fuel economy and shipping charges (usually about $900). After that, manufacturers can use that sticker space to help them sell the car: They can tout the horsepower and torque of an engine, or they can focus on the theater-quality sound system. It's up to you to decipher the items that matter to you and ask about the rest.

Can't remember everything you saw? Snap a photo, or ask for a copy. Taking the Monroney home with you allows you time away from the dealership to consider, research and understand the items included in the car so you can compare it side by side with others and ask questions.

Now that you've mastered the Monroney, here's a fun game: Go back to the dealership, and quiz the salesperson about the car you're considering. If you've really been studying a certain car's window sticker, you might even know more about it than they will.

Scotty Reiss is the founder of SheBuysCars, empowering women to be smarter, happier car owners.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Window Stickers: The Food Labels of the Automotive World - Autotrader