Steady as she goes

Written by erin


A couple weeks ago, Aussies John and Helen Taylor smashed the World Record for “lowest fuel consumption on a U.S. nationwide drive,” completing their 48-state, 9,419-mile tour in 22 days. Their overall fuel efficiency came in at 58.82 miles per gallon, well above the earlier record of 51.58 mpg. Their vehicle: a 2009 VW Jetta TDI Diesel.

Meanwhile, the Willie Run attempted to send a 2006 Jetta Diesel from New York to Los Angeles on biodiesel without stopping to refuel. Though the Willie Run team made a great effort, they made an unscheduled pit stop in Flagstaff Arizona because their supplemental fuel jugs weren’t quite a full as they thought. Nonetheless, the cross-country continuous journey was completed in about one and a half days at an approximate 40 mpg. (Tip #1 for improving mileage: slow down!)

These efforts inspired me to think again about ways to improve driving efficiency. I’ve become practiced at nudging my Prius into stealth mode, but most of the time I drive a stick shift Scion xA which presents a whole different set of questions. While teaching my son to drive, I’ve seen him develop habits which are understandable but not good (example: in an effort to prevent stalling, the bane of all new stick shift drivers, he over-compensates by gunning the engine in first gear).

I’m not wild about serious hypermiling, but I wanted some practical tips which I could both practice and teach. Having tried several, I have to say the one tip I hadn’t heard but is making a big difference in my driving, is this little quote buried within Taylor’s list of tips:

“Fuel efficiency is all about smoothness.”

This reminder reinforces several other tips aimed at keeping both the car and the engine turning at nice, even, not-too-fast speeds.

Easy to say, harder to do. After several days of practice, I’m going to admit that one of the things I like about driving a stick shift is its responsiveness, the sense of power and control you get over the car. Yeesh. I can hardly believe I care about wielding control over a machine! Of course I can control it, right? Still, and maybe it’s because I grew up in Los Angeles, I really like the feel of pumping the gas pedal, rapid shifts, quick lane changes…sigh. I have not yet overcome my addiction.

But I am working on it. I am practicing making driving more like floating, with smooth, almost imperceptible changes in speed and motion. I am sure it will become addictive in its own right; I hope it’s soon!

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  1. michael

    We have company cars where I work. Mine is in for repairs so I am using a car driven by one of the folks who works for me. Both cars, though not identical, have on board computer fuel monitoring systems. When I stepped into my borrowed car, the average fuel mieage was 21.4mpg. I’ve been driving the car for two weeks and the average fuel consuption according to the on board computer is now 27.3mpg. Nothing else has changed but our driving styles. These are combine city/highway numbers.
    I truely enjoy the 500 – 1,000 miles of track driving I participate in each year. Although this brag may come across as counter to energy conservation, learning how a car works is key to making it work well…and true high performance to my way of thinking is learning how to coax as much fuel out of a car for a given driving venue on any given day.

  2. Paul

    Try these three simple tricks to increasing your miles per gallon:
    1. Drive just a little slower.
    2. Don’t accelerate up hills.
    3. Coast whenever possible with the transmission in neutral. (You will be surprised how far your car will coast down even the slightest hill.)
    Using these driving methods, my 1992 Saab 900S went from 28 mpg to 36 mpg. That’s a >25% increase!

  3. Steven

    Please be very careful about coasting in neutral….it is much-much safer to keep your engine engaged while going downhill, just how much gallon of gas your life worth? Keep the speed down, relax, and drive like you have all the time in the world. Best way to learn this by getting a ’98 VW Vanagon…yes, the millage sucks, but it does teach you how to relax.

  4. Paul

    What is the danger coasting in neutral?
    For real hypermiling, I even shut off the engine whenever possible. Be sure your car’s brakes and steering still work before trying this! Controlled tests show an additional couple miles per gallon.

  5. michael

    …shutting the engine off will disable almost all of the safety equipment including brake boost, and, electric power steering found in so many cars today. I wouldn’t suggest trying this.
    Coasting can be helpful but be careful if you own an automatic…automatics do not always like the abrupt change from zero rpms to sudden highway rpms – a standard is different as long as you match the rpms for a given speed before re-engaging. And finally on that note, the fuel consumed by a motor while adrift down a hill maybe marginally better than one engaged at 55mph without load – meaning foot off the gas. With today’s electronic engine management systems, the negative vacuum created inside a motor caused by zero load may actually lead to better economy.

  6. Paul

    I only suggest shutting off the engine while coasting to those people who understand the implications and experiment in a parking lot first.
    As for coasting in neutral:
    Automatic transmissions do not care if they are shifted from neutral to “drive” at highway speeds. The loads when shifting between gears while accelerating are far higher.
    Manual transmissions have sychros that easily deal with re-engaging from neutral to a gear normally used at whatever speed you are going.
    To add even more fun, I restart the car by gently letting the clutch out in an appropriate gear to save wear on the starter motor. If done smoothly, you can’t even tell I’ve restarted the engine!

  7. Paul

    I’m not sure I understand “the negative vacuum created inside a motor caused by zero load may actually lead to better economy”?

  8. michael

    …negative vacuum is probably not the best term, my bad. ECUs typically shut injectors off if: there is no throttle load – foot off gas – and the engine is still spinning, since it still engaged in gear…so the wheels keep the engine spinning. While coasting, an ECU sees an idling condition.
    The big deal here is, while coasting, the ECU sees an idle condition and the car uses the same amount of fuel as it would at idle – out of gear for either type of transmission. Because there is no negative vacuum – engine braking or engine drag – the car will probably coast farther than the next scenario – foot off gas while still in gear. Here, alhtough there is no fuel going to the injectors, engine braking will not allow the car to travel as far before running out of speed.
    The actual conditions, the type of car and condition will determine the outcome…just thought I would throw that out there.
    Re the slushbox…I’ve never owned one, but my current loaner is one so I am cautious about costing out of gear – zero rpms – then placing the car back into gear where the matched rpms are a near instant 3,000 rpm jump…

  9. Paul

    Interesting thought. I wonder what the Prius does?
    Try the coast/neutral shift in your loaner. I’d like to know the result.

  10. michael


  11. michael

    Prius is different…regenerative braking and a host of other things make this one waaaaay above my head.

  12. Jacob

    Take your foot of the gas and coast if there’s a red light coming up. Why spend extra gas just to get to a red light faster?
    I often have maniac drivers pass me and gun it to the red light, only to have me catch up a few seconds later. I see drivers go for miles like this and get where there going no faster than me.
    Tortoise and the Hair anyone?

  13. michael

    It worked…but boy was I nervous.
    And quite by coincidence, Car & Driver devoted a few pages tp mpg myths…and the very technique described above is but one – in gear, off the gas cuts electric current to fuel injectors…read on my friends!

  14. Albert

    What’s the big deal about the Aussies achieving 58.82 miles per gallon, and calling it “world record smashing”? After all, they drove an alternative fuel car and they drove presumably at a steady speed most of the way.
    I have 66mpg registered on my 2002 Honda Insight using regular gas. That’s 66mpg since I got it. I drive mostly in town with occasional short out-of-town trips. So, will someone tell me why 58.82 so spectacular? On one 500-mile trip, I got 78mpg.
    I confess I practice all 30 of Taylor’s Tips, plus a few of my own. The only Taylor’s tip I disagree with is #22. I don’t understand why the car uses no fuel whatsoever when coasting downhill in gear.
    Like Paul, I often start my car by coasting, if I can and WHEN IT’S SAFE, then shift into gear to start the engine. Just make sure the key is at the “on” position. When I see a traffic light turning red a quarter of a mile ahead, I instinctively shift into neutral (if traffic is light), let the car coast and anticipate to shift into 3rd or 2nd when I get close to the intersection, before stepping on the brake. There’s no need to be nervous when practiced regularly.
    The key to good driving is to be totally mindful and completely engaged.