How to Decode a New Car’s Window Sticker: What You Need to Know

New Car Window Sticker Monroney

It’s Called a Monroney and New Cars Have to Have it. It’s the Law

It’s supposed to protect you but often, it’s the first thing that baffles you when looking at a new car and makes you think, well, I can live with my old car for another year: The Monroney, a/k/a window sticker. These are actually designed to let the buyer know what they are getting, but they can be dense, filed with jargon and can be hard to decipher. We think so too, so we spent some time breaking them down for you. You, too, can master the Monroney in no time.

First, Learn the Name (That’ll Baffle a Salesman!) and What It’s For

The Monroney is actually based on a consumer protection law written in 1958 by Oklahoma Senator Mike Monroney. He believed that car buyers needed to know what they were getting. The resulting window sticker has to include certain key information on the exact model it’s attached to.

Remember those mattress tags that could only be removed by the consumer (those terrified me as a child!) the Monroney has the same rule. They’re produced by the manufacturer and can only be removed by the customer. But unlike 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. It should stay with the car forever — a used car dealer should have a copy and if you can’t find it, the manufacturer should have it, too.

New Car Window Sticker Monroney When something is complicated, break it down

Breaking down all the elements on the Monroney will help you to understand what it’s trying to tell you. For instance, it explains exactly what the car’s name is, and car names can be deceiving but should be prominently displayed on the window sticker, including the model year, name, trim and some basic identifiers. For instance, you might see a Honda Civic listed as follows: 2018 (model year) Honda (automaker) Civic (model name) 1.5T (engine size of 1.5-liter turbo) 4D (4-door sedan) Touring (model trim).

Other key ingredients include content (features and amenities) standard and optional equipment, safety ratings, fuel economy and more.

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Now, what are the numbers telling you?

Now you’ve looked at all the lists: Standard equipment, options and packages. These items should add up to a car’s final price. 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 theater system is extra and it’s listed on the sticker with no price associated, he is mistaken. If you’re comparing a Honda Civic without a sunroof to a Civic with a sunroof, there may be an additional cost, although that feature may be standard on, say, the EX but not the LX trim. You can find out what features are included standard on each trim level by looking at the manufacturer’s spec sheet on their web site.

Labels tell the story of a sweater; the Monroney tells the story of a new car. Photo: Creative Commons

New Car Window Sticker Monroney

The 2017 Mini Clubman Monroney

Fuel efficiency can save you $$$, so know the MPG

Just how efficient is your potential new car? And will it save you money or cost you more? If this matters, find it prominently displayed on the Monroney. These are estimates based on early testing, as is the amount of money the Monroney thinks you’ll spend or save by buying this car. (In our experience test driving many cars, the estimates on the Monroney are usually pretty close to actual fuel economy).

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Content is king, right? What content is in this car?

The Monroney should list what comes with the car, including safety features, interior details like leather (or not) seats, heated steering wheel and touch screen, to exterior items such as running boards, roof rails or a panoramic sunroof. It will also tell you about things you can’t easily see such as what’s under the hood, engine specs, performance details (horsepower, for instance), anti-theft features or warranty information.

The content listing on the Monroney is subjective and automakers use it as a bragging tool, so while it may tell you all about the engine, it may not tell you if there is a spare tire (if there’s an inflation kit, that’s a clue that there’s no spare). 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 outside the country.

It may also list some free items, such as 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.

New Car Window Sticker Monroney

No they are not all alike. The Monroney defines what is included in each one.

Some –but not all– safety information

It seems everything is labeled for safety these days, including cars – to a point. 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, all cars have to meet government quality and safety standards before they are sold, so there is an assumption, for instance, that the bumpers will absorb an impact and that the brakes will stop the car. Because of these laws, many cars hit the showrooms before testing is done and are not yet rated; you might see “Not Rated” on the Monroney under the heading “Government 5-Star Safety Ratings,” but that doesn’t mean the car isn’t safe, it just means it hasn’t been tested yet.

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Warranties: Know what is covered 

In our “buyer is always right” culture we are used to bringing an item back if it doesn’t perform right or something is wrong with it. Same with cars. All cars come with a warranty, but time frames differ and what is included can be different. Some key things to know:

  • Powertrain warranties are typically longer than the bumper to bumper warranty
  • Special equipment such as a hybrid battery or an electric charging system typically have a longer warranty
  • Many manufacturers offer roadside assistance for several years
  • Maintenance may be included for several years

If these items aren’t on the Monroney, be sure to ask what’s included. Also ask specifics about what is included in each warranty item.

The VIN: Your car’s Social Security number

Just like your Social Security number is the key to so many things in life, a car’s VIN identifies it from the moment it’s born until the minute it’s crushed in a junkyard and headed to the smelter. You’ll know where it came from, what it came with and its history since it left the dealership by tracing a VIN, including (in theory) every oil change, repair and maintenance checkup. Never buy a car that’s had its VIN plaque removed or obscured, and just to be sure, compare the VIN on the Monroney to the plaque on the car. This way, you’re sure you’re getting what you’re looking at.

So many cars, so many Monroneys. Be sure to check the VIN on the car against the one on the Monroney to know what you are looking at.

What a Monroney must list (and what is just bragging)

Not all car window stickers list things in exactly the same way. The law requires the Monroney to list base price, options that were added, fuel economy, shipping charges (usually about $900), origins of production and assembly, and safety ratings. After that, manufacturers can use that sticker space to help them sell the car, You’ll notice cars designed to appeal to men who want a performance toy will list the horsepower and torque of an engine; those geared for families may brag about the theater-quality sound system, wireless headphones and automatic folding rear seats. It’s up to you to decipher what matters to you and ask about the rest.

One last tip: take a photo

If you can’t remember everything you saw (and who can?),  snap a photo or ask for a copy of the Monroney (yes, the dealer should have one). Taking the Monroney home with you allows you to consider, research and understand it, compare it side by side with others and ask questions, all on your own time and in the comfort of your home, not under the pressure of a salesman who wants to sell you a car.

Terri Marshall grew up road-tripping around the country. Her love for the open road remains strong today. A travel... More about Terri Marshall