A dubious conservation tip: buy your car in Europe


Let me begin by saying I don’t really believe what follows. But I can’t find any explanation. So please if you know, get in touch so I can sleep better. Thanks.

A few weeks ago, while I was still in London, I helped a friend buy a new car. I was a little wary. She’d just got a new job and a handsome pay rise with it. I knew she was interested in buying something with…let’s just call it a little extra “performance”.

Performance comes with a cost, both environmental and financial. Still, I figured I had a better chance of making the point if I was along for the ride, so I braved an afternoon of Vorsprung Durch Technik™ in Ultimate Driving Machines™ Unlike Any Other™.

We started at the Audi dealer. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve driven these things, and they’re fun. But they have miserable fuel economy. Or at least so I thought. As we entered the showroom I made a beeline for the technical brochure. The A4 2.0L TFSI 200hp (6-speed manual) promises what I thought to be an impressive (for its size and power) 36.7 average miles per gallon.

I struggled to reconcile this with my recollections of the gas-guzzling US equivalent. And I’m still struggling. The US Audi website also lists a 2.0L TFSI 200hp (also 6-speed manual). But its combined efficiency is 23 mpg.

So why the massive 50% increase in consumption for a few thousand miles across the Atlantic? Well first, because a US gallon is smaller than the UK gallon. No need to get into it here — but you can find the details on Wikipedia. (For those that ever wondered, this is why the pint in the Queen Vic is 20% bigger than a pint in Cheers).

To avoid confusion, I’m converting into a third measure: liters per 100km (L/100km). A very handy conversion tool by Mark Porthouse shows that the UK A4 uses 7.7 L/100km while the US car drinks 10.2 L/100km. So we’ve narrowed the gap, but that’s still a 25% efficiency improvement for the UK version of the car.

I’ve scanned through the technical data, I’m pretty certain I’m looking at the same car. The only remaining difference I can think of is the testing methodology. It’s true that the EPA guidelines for measuring fuel economy are different from those in the EU (you can compare the two) but I still can’t discern any obvious reason for such a big difference.

So, unless I’ve missed something obvious, this week’s conservation tip: If you buy a European car, buy it from Europe, because it’s more fuel efficient.

You may (reasonably) be wondering about the carbon impact of the shipping. I’ve calculated (xls) that at roughly 0.08 metric tonnes (approximately 175 lbs carbon) per vehicle. By my calculations, and using this data, you’ll save that in around one month of driving the European car. It’ll cost you a bit more though. At current gas prices, you won’t see the financial payoff for 60 years!

Now, please, tell me where I’ve gone wrong!

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  1. Adam Stein - September 11, 2007

    I’m kind of the opposite of a car guy, so take this with a grain of salt, but I suspect these are just different cars. They may be different in a bunch of ways, but the engine is probably the important one. Manufacturers make dozens of different versions of a car. Even within the U.S., models vary a lot by geography.
    By the way, differences in the way that fuel economy is measured is unlikely to account for the difference, because the EPA is notoriously lax in how it measures mileage. If anything, the gap may be wider than the official figures indicate.

  2. Anonymous - September 12, 2007

    Different Emissions controls?

  3. Gerry Miller - September 12, 2007

    1. Audi sold here start off in Germany, so the cost of shipping is a given, both in terms of energy and $. The $ is either in the price of the car or a separate bill.
    2. The cars are often specked differently and thus performance is affected. Emission controls have been traditionally more lax in the UK. Incentives encourage optimistic fuel economy figures. Cars with more pay less annual road tax.

  4. Dave Beck - September 12, 2007

    I agree with the “different emission standards” sentiment. So the UK spec car may well get better mileage. My contribution is that car can’t be imported to the US. Only “vintage” cars and cars that meet the US emissions spec can be imported. If you bought a new Audi in the UK (or Germany say to get a LHD version)for export to the US it would have to be “chipped” to the US standard, the chip runs the engine and therefore sets the emission standards. Mind you, if you wanted to obtain the European chip for a US car I might know a chap in Holland that could help.

  5. Hannah Banks - September 12, 2007

    In 2005, we rented an Audi A4 station wagon, drove for 2 weeks, putting 2,600 miles on the car. I can only remember filling up 4 times! That makes it 39 mpg with their 16.6 gallon tank.

    ! I thought then that they sell more efficient engines in Europe. Why don’t they sell the same engine everywhere?

    And if I want to get a more efficient car the next time around, should I buy it in Europe? Will it meet EPA requirements?

  6. Chad - September 12, 2007

    Other comments are on the right track. In addition to the lax emission controls (allowing higher engine compression and higher combustion temperaure, among other things – note the higher octane fuel requirement for the Euro model), safety requirements are also much more stringent in the US requiring substantially more steel in the frame. Based on the stats, the U.S. version weighs about 300 more pounds unladen, that is a 10% increase in vehicle weight. Back in the early 70’s , before catalytic converters and CO standard, we had a station wagon with a 400 hp V-8 that would get 22 mpg combined. There is a huge trade-off between emissions and efficiency. And no, most European models will not pass US emissions requirements without modification, especially in CA or the Northeast.

  7. Captain Chaos - September 12, 2007

    If the emmission standards are different, and they reduce mpg, do they also reduce harmful emmissions? Is there a trade-off between the two?

  8. intensive driving - September 12, 2007

    I think different emissions equipment might make the difference. It would be interesting to hear from Audi on the subject…

  9. dan - September 12, 2007

    So an interesting question presents itself: you might save gas with the English model but would be releasing more pollutants into the atmosphere. Where’s the balance point in the equation?

  10. Gerry Miller - September 12, 2007

    Traditionally American cars were/are very inefficient because they never had to be otherwise. Gas was cheap, cars were big and the open road long. It’s a big country, much of it was empty and people drove great distances. Hence the 457 cubic inch Detroit monsters. In Europe, gas has always been dear, the place crowded and the cars smaller. Much higher compressions ratios, higher winding engines helped get performance out of smaller engines, and now diesel cars (traditionally cheaper) are very popular. The $8-$10 a gallon helps design the cars.

  11. Kevin Wright - September 12, 2007

    Most European car manufacturers have offered European delivery options for years. You fly to Europe, pick the car up at the factory (usually includes a tour of the factory) and then drive the car to any one of a dozen or so shipping ports for the car to be delivered to you in America. Traditionally (with a stronger US$) you essentially get a free European vacation with purchase of your car. The cars are all American spec and are not actually legal to drive in Europe except for the small time you are there on vacation.
    The European version of the cars are generally very similar to the American versions in the frame and architecture however they may differ in suspension components (Audi uses alluminum 4-wheel independent suspension on both sides of the pond so no real weight difference there) as well as creature comforts and sound insulation. Americans want cushy and quiet while Europeans want light and nimble. I checked Audi’s website and as Chad states there is a 300 pound weight difference in the non-quattro. Due most likely from the added features the American car comes with like A/C, ABS, DSC, DVD, 6-CD changer, power heated mirrors, etc… The testing in America might have been on a Quattro version while the Euro test performed on a front wheel driver. Quattro (all wheel drive) adds weight and drive line resistance.
    Also, for 2008 the EPA has revised it’s mileage testing procedure to get more realistic results. It is expected that the mpg figures will drop 20% from the 2007 numbers. I’m not sure how the mpg/L per 100Km is calculated in Europe so that could make a difference as well.
    The engine is most likely the same with only minor tweaks if any to control emissions.

  12. David - September 12, 2007

    Generally, European cars are tuned to take advantage of higher speeds and less congestion than US market vehicles. Even though there are traffic jams on the autobahn, the average highway speeds are higher in Europe.
    This plays out in this scenario because the European Audi claims a whopping 48.7 UK mpg (40.5 US mpg), and factors this figure into the “combined” efficiency. The “urban” spec of 25.9 UK mpg (21.6 US mpg) is comparable to the US version. Specs such as gearing and final drive ratio can allow more efficient, high speed cruising than the US model, which ends up hurting it’s combined efficiency. The benefit the US model has for it’s “inefficient” high speed gearing is that it would be quicker and more responsive at lower city speeds. I can’t verify the differences in gearing between the cars, since they’re not listed on these sites, but that and other factors of a car tuned for european vs american driving habits could likely factor in.
    Also is the undisclosed method by which they calculate combined economy from urban and extra-urban driving (it seems slightly lower than the mean of the two). Regardless, it is highly unlikely that the european version of the car will save you money and emissions, not to mention the huge hassle of importing a vehicle to the US. Audi has no reason to intentionally cripple fuel economy as it is a significant selling point for almost every car buyer. The engineering efficiency of these engines is probably within a few percent. US and especially California model vehicles do have significant emissions controls that are all designed to reduce emissions (and they do so very well) and striking THE balance between emissions and efficiency. If you really want to make the least impact on the air, buy a California car.

  13. Marsha Eisenberg - September 12, 2007

    Can you please tell me what is the most environmentally friendly and also mileage given car? I would like to replace my Lexus ES with something better and a hybrid just doesn’t seem enough.

  14. Rob - September 12, 2007

    A bike!
    But if that’s not an option, and you do lots of city driving, a hybrid is probably your best bet. If that really actually doesn’t seem enough to you, then you should seriously consider using a bicycle, and if it doesn’t work, changing your life so it does.
    If you only drive very occasionally, I’ve seen convincing arguments that a Toyota Echo is probably a better car in the long run; the Prius is complex and (even ignoring R&D) has a lot more embedded energy than a relatively simple Echo.

  15. Joe Madden - September 12, 2007

    I’ve felt this way for a long time. Half the cars in Europe are diesel, and some of them – notably, the Honda Accord diesel, get impressive mpg (92 Imperial MPG in one test). However, the “same” car reaches US shores in 2009 or 2010, and is rated at 40 US mpg. The Smart Car, which comes with a diesel in Canada rated at 65.5 US MPG highway, is only expected to achieve 40 mpg here – a number I reach in my 1972 Datsun (another example from the era, the Honda z600, has been known to achieve 136 US MPG in a test for maximum fuel economy). Asian and European markets receive fun, small cars with excellent fuel economy. When will the specifications of US-market cars stop being dictated by the SUV? I hope the US catches up with sulfur-free diesel and green incentives so the technology in our cars stops suffering. So while I’m waiting for the cars other markets get, I also wish for a pony.

  16. Misanthropic Scott - September 12, 2007

    The U.S. version is heavier by 293 pounds. Add some more for the fact that the U.S. occupants are likely to be heavier as well. Both of these will make a contribution to the difference but probably not explain it completely.
    I’d love to know the gear ratios, especially the top gear ratio. Spinning the engine more slowly at the same speed on the highway is a great way to save gasoline. Unfortunately, that info is not on these websites. I suspect that the lower gear ratios are the same since the acceleration is nearly identical.

  17. Steffen Matt - September 12, 2007

    I’m not sure this really is the explanation for the much better fuel economy number of the European A4 (I’m not a car guy either), but, being from Germany, I remember that cars run on higher-octane fuel in Europe. Premium-grade gas in the US is 91oct, the equivalent in Europe (called “Super”) is 95oct. Higher octane fuel apparently does get better fuel economy and power out of an engine IF it was built to run on that type/grade of fuel. I found at least one website that confirms that. Unfortunately, according to that web site, putting 95oct in the engine of a car manufactured in the US apparently doesn’t have an impact on either bhp or MPG. See http://www.wanderings.net/notebook!

  18. Richard - September 12, 2007

    All good comments. The topic is pretty well covered so I feel safe in going completely off topic.

    Get a new copy reader.

    “She’d just got a new job and a handsome pay rise with it. I knew she was interesting in buying something with…” Interested not interesting.

    Now have some tea and go play. Don’t forget your rubbers.

  19. Alex - September 12, 2007

    The answer is easy: Europe and the US both factor in the weight of their average citizens.
    Our morbid obesity results in a bulimic fuel economy.

  20. Tobin - September 12, 2007

    This discussion of diesel prompts me to ask if you could do a post on the current pros and cons of diesel cars versus hybrid or gas cars. I understand that Honda is coming out with a diesel model in 2009 and I’d like to know whether this might be worth waiting for.
    What are the things to consider when it comes to environmental impact of these options?
    Any thoughts?

  21. Pete - September 12, 2007

    Thanks. I’ve corrected it. We’re looking for a new editor you know…

  22. Dave R - September 12, 2007

    Europe does not rate the octane of gasoline the same as the USA. So you can not directly compare octane ratings, just you can not directly compare EPA ratings for cars here with whatever standard Europe uses for their ratings.

  23. Anonymous - September 13, 2007

    UK uses petrol uhile US has Gas (mixture of petrol and other organics) a different chemical composition in both would also account for the differnece you are seeing

  24. Anonymous - September 14, 2007

    Deleted. Take the insults elsewhere. — Ed.

  25. Tom Arnold - September 14, 2007

    Pete may be the new guy on the team, but we checked that the comparison is gasoline to gasoline…
    The Diesel version is just short of 50mpg
    Thanks for the thought though.

  26. Patrick - September 14, 2007

    I don’t know if this is a factor with the Audi and other cars, but I do remember reading an article on SmartCars that essentially said that mileage in the US wouldn’t be as good because we all tend to drive above the optimum fuel consumption speed of 55 mph. If they are measuring overall efficiency, they may be taking into account the driving habits of their clientele (I believe that’s what the EPA recently did when they adjusted the mileage estimates downward to numbers closer to actual performance.)

  27. Anonymous - September 17, 2007

    Check the technical data….No the comparison I made between two different engines (gasoline US vs petro Uk)…Read both technical data info….

  28. Dr Paul Vaso - September 17, 2007

    Problem Solved!
    UK engine spec:
    Engine-type Inline four-cylinder spark-ignition engine with petrol direct injection, exhaust turbo-charger with intercooler, 4 valves per cylinder, double overhead camshafts (DOHC).
    US engine spec:
    Engine-typeInline 4-cylinder spark-ignition engine with gasoline direct injection, exhaust turbo-charger with intercooler, 4 valves/cylinder, DOHC
    Arrangement: Front mounted, longitudinal
    Claerly the differnt one run with petrol the other with gasoline…..

  29. Rick - September 18, 2007

    Not sure if this helps but I suspect it is a combination of the emissions controls,fuel and possibly transmission gearing. I could not find gear ratio’s for the 2 cars but in tests the North American car has been seen to best the UK version to 60 mph by a slight margin.
    US Model: Emission Control System
    Dual 3-way catalytic converters with individual oxygen sensors.
    UK Model: Close-coupled ceramic primary catalytic converter with catalyst heating function via homogenous split dual injection, 2 heated oxygen sensors.

  30. Jeff - September 29, 2007

    Perhaps it because in the USA you don’t have corners like we do in England, therefore the fuel doesn’t get thrown around – therefore uses more!!!

  31. Anonymous - November 2, 2007

    I wonder if someone would forward information of a site (?) that would have information about how you could buy and ship a European Ford Focus diesel to the US? Plus what all might need to be altered to be legal in US?
    I just would SOOOOO LOVE to have a 50mpg diesel Focus!!!
    bamakodaker AT bellsouth.net

  32. Marty - February 15, 2008

    Sorry, no focus diesels will be allowed, courtesy of the US EPA. You would be dismayed
    at the cost for the conversion required, i am a machinist, and i own diesel autos–they are older, i used this site’s carbon calculator,
    and they leave gas-powered vehicles in the ‘dust’ (can’t think of better term)
    Interesting thread–the real solution has always
    been smaller more efficient engines, that means higher concentrations of NOx and co2, but in the end there are less totals involved.
    Instead we have the monster v8 engines of toyota sequoas, choked by clean-burn requirements…
    PS: my diesel gets 36 mpg city, and i burn soybean oil in it. I don’t need a terrapass
    to feel good…