Alpha Lane

Why I'll never win a fuel-economy run

The roster of 'cheats' is frustrating


One of my routines when testing a car is to note the estimated fuel consumption. When I'm back to filling up my own car, I also compute the mileage divided by liters replenished for a fair estimate of how I did. But I don't split hairs over a few points here or there. But I admit I am bothered for a few minutes when the number isn't what I hoped for. ("Maybe that timed run up the hill wasn't a good idea.")

I also haven't joined a car manufacturer's fuel-economy contest in a long time. Car manufacturers hold such contests a lot of times to hype up how thrifty their car is. Here's why I don't join: I can't stand it. I think it's an excruciating, pointless exercise.

For someone who spends an average of two hours through traffic everyday, feathering the throttle whenever possible, the thought of driving untold miles to stretch every possible liter--and then using every fuel-saving trick known to man or at least according to the rules--is just unbearable. Who drives like that in real life anyway? For me, cars are meant to be enjoyed. I just don't enjoy babying a car, imagining there is "an egg underneath the accelerator." Of course, if someone were loony enough to make a contest for "most liters consumed," I'd sign up right away. Floor that sucker, baby!


There's another, basic reason I don't like fuel-economy contests: I play to win, and unfortunately, my talent must lie elsewhere. I'm a pretty efficient driver, but not "winnable." In the past, I did every possible trick in the rulebook to gain one more km/L here and another km/L there. Tricks included:

* Inflating the tires to hot air-balloon settings;

* Ditching the spare tire;

* Drafting off trucks, buses and other vehicles;

* Short-shifting like there was a gun to my head;

* Turning off the A/C;

* When the above wasn't allowed, turning off the compressor;

* Killing the engine on a downhill, which is not a good idea at all;

* When the above was too dangerous, putting the transmission in Neutral;

* Surreptitiously removing the air filter in a secluded field, far from the eyes of marshals, on the advice of someone from a rival manufacturer. Now that I think about it, maybe he only had his best interests in mind. The Trooper seemed okay, though;

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* Staying off the brakes as much as possible, to the possible fright of crossing pedestrians and wayward vehicles straying in "our" lane (sorry about that, folks);

* Involuntarily losing around 10 pounds of water weight between me and my co-driver as we sweated out four hours in the said Trooper with the A/C off, the windows up and under 35°C weather and unholy humidity; and

* Pushing an SUV the last 500m to the gas station "finish line" on a slight incline, no less (the contest was just for liters consumed, not km/L)

For all my troubles, I only got as high as fourth place, and my hamstrings hurt so much after that SUV-pushing incident that I needed rehab for two weeks. That was more than 10 years ago, so you can tell the scars run pretty deep. I am sure many other people can get impressive FC numbers and positively live for such contests. But not me.


You can do all the tricks in the book and then some, but at the end of the day "driving style" and a little bit of luck, especially with traffic conditions, can mean the difference between winning and losing, or anywhere from 5-10% efficiency north or south. For example, my wife can do no better than 6-6.5km/L with her SUV, but put me behind the wheel and the number climbs up to eight. No sweating, pushing or ditching of spare tires needed.

Which is not to say that I don't value fuel efficiency. Back when I had a 70km daily commute, my old Accord made me happy if it got 8km/L. It made me sad with seven. But thanks to modern engine technology and a six-speed manual transmission, I'm quite happy to average 10-11km/L with my current car. No trickery needed, Italian tune-ups once in a while, and I'd even spend a few minutes napping in my car in between meetings. It's an offsetting system: gas saved from being thrifty is gas I can use for fun time. Worst case, if I'm a little over my fuel budget, I'll just cut the Starbucks budget. That's what instant coffee is for.


My driving behavior can be summed up in two points:

* In heavy traffic, try to waste as little as possible; and

* On open roads, enjoy the car. Responsibly.

That said, I'll take every manufacturer's fuel-consumption claim with a grain of salt. Generally, the smaller the displacement, the higher your chances of doing better than 10km/L--assuming you don't have a lead foot. But the harder you work the engine, the higher the fuel consumption. In this regard, small engines can actually drink more than bigger ones. So, it's possible that a 1.3-liter that tiptoes along at more than 9km/L in the city, can drink more at full throttle than a 1.6-liter working at a lower engine speed. One would think this is obvious, but it's surprising how many folks still come up to me complaining that their car isn't working "as advertised." Or conversely, they have a car that performs better than expected.


It's actually surprising how well modern drivetrains fare these days. The Ford Mustang GT, for example, swills fuel at the rate of less than 3km/L in the city, but what do you expect from a 5.0-liter V8? That's more than three 1.6-liter four-bangers working together. Yet on the highway, cruising at 100kph under the watchful eyes of the radar-toting officers, it delivers 7-7.5km/L. Not bad for a 400hp car.

Finally, this brings to mind a conversation I had with a good friend who was surprised that--despite my comparatively heavy load of city driving--I still chose to go with a manual transmission. "I like to feel more connected to my car, and it gives me control over the shifting points," I said. He had just bought an automatic-equipped SUV and concurred. In our experience, the less experienced you are at "efficient driving," the more your transmission choice should skew toward an automatic. But the more you understand how to work an engine's power and torque profiles as well as how to "read" the flow of traffic, you're better off with a stick shift. It's just a lot more fun. Assuming, of course, that the car you have in mind has a manual option, the rarity of which I find disappointing these days.


But that's another topic entirely.

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