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The Boston Globe

Speedometer top speed often exceeds reality

DETROIT — 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.

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So why do the Yaris and most other cars sold in the United States 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 miles per hour in most states.

Last year, speedometer top speeds for new versions of the mainstream Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu were increased from 120 or 140 miles per hour to 160, which approaches speeds on some NASCAR tracks. The speedometer on the Honda Accord already topped out at 160. All are midsize family haulers, the most popular segment of the US auto market, and like most new cars, have top speeds that seldom exceed 120 miles per hour.

The Yaris got its 140 miles per hour speedometer in a redesign for the 2012 model year, giving it the same top reading as the original 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. Even the new Nissan Sentra compact has a 160 miles per hour speedometer.

The rising speedometer numbers aren’t surprising to Joan Claybrook, the top federal auto safety regulator under President Carter. She’s been fighting the escalation for years and says it encourages drivers 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 recently conceded that marketing the higher speeds could have worked on them — at least when they were younger.

Paul Lampinen, 36, of Ann Arbor, Mich., 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 nearby Chrysler dealer.

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