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How to Read Car Window Stickers

Walk a dealership lot and you’ll see that every car has at least one thing in common — a big sheet of paper with a lot of information glued to one of the windows.

This is, colloquially, called a window sticker, and its implementation dates back to the 1950s when an Oklahoma senator fed up with dealers charging arbitrary prices for new cars sponsored a congressional act that somewhat standardized some basic information for consumers. Many dealers refer to window stickers as Monroney labels after the senator, Mike Monroney.

The layout of window stickers has changed dramatically over the years, though a few basics have remained in place. Window stickers list some standard equipment, what optional features are fitted to the car, the destination charge, federal safety information and fuel economy or electric vehicle numbers mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Window stickers are a lot like mattress labels in that consumers are supposed to be the ones who remove them from a vehicle, though this rarely happens in practice since most new car owners prefer a freshly detailed car to one with paper still clinging to the glass. Dealers are legally required to hand over a window sticker, so make sure to ask to see the one included with your car — and make sure the serial number, as well as the options listed, match the car you’re about to take home.

One tip: Don’t throw away your Monroney sticker. It’ll be just as important for the car’s next owner as it was for you.

Here’s a quick look at what information is shown on a window sticker:

Standard and Optional Features

More than half of the sticker’s real estate is typically taken up by lists of standard and optional features, as well as the make/model, the serial number and the interior and exterior colors. Look closely at this information to make sure it matches up with the car you’re about to buy — if you’ve picked a red car and the window sticker says it’s blue, that’s cause for immediate concern.

The optional equipment column also lists how much the automaker suggests the dealer charges for the features installed on the vehicle. Suggest is an important phrase here as most new cars are discounted, while high-demand vehicles may command more than the suggested retail price. More on that in a moment.

Crucially, go through the listed optional equipment and confirm everything is present on your new car. Big items like a moonroof are hard to miss, but smaller features such as floor mats may have disappeared. You’re paying for them, so make sure they’re there.

Fuel Economy and Environment

The upper right corner shows you the EPA’s estimated fuel economy as well as other data such as how many gallons the car is expected to use per mile as well as annual fuel cost estimates and a greenhouse gas rating.

Electrified cars, such as plug-in hybrids and EVs, display separate data to provide an estimate of how much it will cost to charge, what the vehicle’s miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) is, estimated charging times and more.

It’s important to note that any figure in the fuel economy and environment section is an estimate based on a barrage of EPA tests that may not be achievable for some drivers.

Safety Ratings

If the car has been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), its ratings will be listed on the window sticker. Use these figures to compare cars, but also note that more detailed information is available on the NHTSA’s website. Additionally, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, which is insurance industry-funded and generally considered more comprehensive than that employed by the federal government, is not noted on window stickers.

Manufacturing and Shipping Data

Window stickers also contain information showing where a car was assembled as well as where some of its major components were built. Additionally, the window sticker shows the dealership where the car was delivered initially, which may not match the selling dealership since dealers will often trade new cars between one another if they don’t have the car in stock that a customer wants.

Addendums

Some dealers will add additional accessories to vehicles, and they’re required to add a separate column to list features that range from window tint to upgraded wheels and tires. Don’t feel compelled to buy a car with these features unless you want them and feel that the price being charged is fair. Most items can be removed, or you can take your business to another dealer.

High-demand cars are sometimes marked up, a practice dealers generally call "market adjustment." This controversial practice also needs to be noted on the addendum.

Another major component of a modern window sticker is safety ratings. The federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates vehicles in frontal, side and rollover categories, and all are displayed on a window sticker. Above those ratings, the vehicle’s "overall" rating — essentially an average of all three — is shown.

Parts Content Information

The last major item on car window stickers is a section entitled "Parts Content Information." This section tells potential buyers precisely how much of the car’s content comes from the U.S. It also lists the country of origin for most parts, if it isn’t the U.S. Finally, it shows the car’s final point of assembly — helpful information for shoppers interested in an American-made car.

 

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