As an automotive writer, I get to test drive lots of hot new cars. But once my test drives are over, I slide back behind the wheel of a decidedly unfashionable, gas-sucking minivan. As fuel prices rocketed this past year, I found myself paying outlandish amounts to fill up my 2004 Chevy Venture and wondering what I could do to numb the pain.
Buying a hybrid was out of my budget and downsizing to a smaller vehicle just wasn’t practical for me. Then I heard about something called hypermiling, the brainchild of Wayne Gerdes, an Illinois driver who has won numerous contests aimed at squeezing the maximum number of kilometres out of a tank of gas. He claimed to have doubled his everyday fuel economy simply by altering his driving habits. His boast sounded implausible, but as fuel prices headed higher this summer, anything seemed worth a try. So I decided to park my skepticism and give hypermiling a go.
Boiled down to its essence, hypermiling is all about taking it easy on the gas pedal, anticipating the traffic ahead and keeping your vehicle well maintained. To put hypermiling to the test, I needed an accurate gauge of how much fuel my minivan was using, so I purchased a fuel economy meter called a ScanGauge ($190 from www.scangaugecanada.com). This little digital device plugs under the dashboard and gives you an instant read on how much gas you’re guzzling.
Chances are that you’re using more than you think. The official mileage for my van is 12 litres of gas for every 100 km traveled in the city and 7.8 litres per 100 km on the highway, but those are government figures obtained in ideal conditions. Under real-world driving, most vehicles use at least 10% more fuel than the official rating. I discovered that my van was no different, logging an average of 13.4 L/100 km in the city and 8.5 L/100 km on the highway.
Having read lots about Gerdes, I knew that my first step toward hypermiling was to get my vehicle in tip-top shape, so it was off to the garage for an oil change with synthetic oil, a new air filter and proper inflation of the tires. Synthetic oil is more expensive than regular oil, but it’s great at reducing friction in the engine, which can improve fuel economy slightly. A clogged air filter and underinflated tires can also hurt the efficiency of your vehicle.
Once I had my van tuned to its rather limited mechanical peak, it was out the door — and straight into the slow lane. Hypermiling is all about taking your time. I stayed under the speed limit and crept away from stop signs and red lights. Braking heavily was a no-no. Instead, I watched upcoming traffic lights. If I sensed that a red light was coming, I eased off the accelerator and coasted to the light.
The net effect of all this was to turn me into my grandmother. As noble as my intentions might be, I discovered that other motorists didn’t necessarily applaud them. I was never honked at or flipped off, but the impatient glares from rushed drivers could have burned a hole in my neck — and I wasn’t pushing hypermiling to its maximum.
Serious hypermilers shut off their engines at red lights to save fuel. Contrary to popular belief, starting up your engine consumes only the equivalent of about seven seconds worth of gas at idle, so turning off your car at any stop longer than seven seconds saves you money. I decided not to make a habit of this, because I worried about the time required to start my car back up (what would happen if an emergency vehicle suddenly appeared behind me?) and because a mechanic has warned me that too much starting and stopping could wear on my starter, battery and alternator. As a compromise, I shut off my engine at lengthy red lights that I had just missed, but for the most part kept my van running.
So what was the impact of my new driving habits? Even with limited application of the full stop technique, the savings surprised me. In the city, I routinely averaged 9.2 L/100 km, cutting my fuel consumption by nearly a third. Assuming those results are typical and you’re mostly a city driver who spends an average of $200 a month at the gas station, hypermiling could save you $768 a year.Out on the highway, the results were less dramatic, but I still managed to shave about 9% off my fuel bill without doing much at all. Keeping a steady pace of 90 km/h in the right-hand lane was the key, since driving at or above the maximum speed limit increases wind resistance and engine friction.
I was impressed. Hypermiling resulted in serious savings without a lot of effort. In mycase, it was equivalent to getting the mileage of a mid-sized car while driving a much larger minivan. For sports car enthusiasts or anyone who runs late, the idea of tootling around town in the slow lane can be a bit discouraging. But I came away convinced that hypermiling is worth the effort. So if you’re driving through Toronto and see someone driving slowly, please don’t honk — it could be me.