Are We There Yet?
We take a deep draught of spring while sipping fuel and brew for Earth Day 2006
By KEVIN A. WILSON
AutoWeek | Published 04/24/06, 8:00 am et
This magazine marked the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 by exploring “future” technologies. We suggested cars would change radically in “this green decade” but enthusiasts would still be having fun. They just wouldn’t use gasoline much longer.
Well, it’s 16 years later—long enough to grow a new driver from seed—and it’s fair to wonder, “Are we there yet?” In a sense the question is as premature as the plaintive plea from the back seat that it echoes. Alternative fuels have made great strides since 1990, but gasoline plays as big of a role as ever on the American road. The battery-electric car has come and, at least for now, gone again. Hydrogen and fuel cells have garnered headlines but still have a long way to go before they are viable—if ever that day arrives. The decade many had trumpeted as “green” turned out to be the high-water mark of the SUV, at best a detour on the road to sustainable mobility.
The driving concerns on this Earth Day (April 22) have shifted from the earlier focus on smog-generating toxins and onto fuel economy. Most Americans are focused on miles per gallon, whether they point to the complexities of climate change, the geopolitics of petroleum or the rising price at the pump.
So we wanted to know: What’s possible for a driver who wants to sip fuel judiciously without slowing to a crawl? Of course, we had to burn the fuel in order to save it, a turn of phrase eerily reminiscent of 1970, when the first Earth Day played out against the backdrop of a different war.
Look, we could get really heavy about this, but a simpler explanation is that it was time for a road trip. Spring was threatening to arrive, the ice was gone from the lakes, and it’s a ritual around here to point a car toward a Great Lake and go have a look. Lake Michigan is no Pacific Ocean, but it does let a man stand on a broad beach of tall sand dunes and stare out across the water without seeing the other side, and that’s a thing worth doing.
What we wanted was a one-day trip long enough to drain your average fuel tank. Where? Well, the New Holland Brewing Co. was bringing out its seasonal offering, Red Tulip Ale. Sure, it’s not Beaujolais Nouveau, but the town of Holland is on the Lake Michigan shore and this is spring in the rust belt—work with us here. The nature of our mission was to sip, not guzzle, of course, but bringing home a little art in fermented form is a suitable reward for 349 miles behind the wheel.
So we rounded up a half-dozen folks who could step off the Tuesday meeting treadmill long enough to test a few cars, and here’s what we discovered in an even handful of 2006 models. Oh, by the way, we topped off at the same station at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. and the price had gone up a nickel a gallon while we were gone.
20.3 gallons of premium gas at $2.699
17.2 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 18 mpg
A boxy seven-seat SUV is obviously no candidate for a fuel-economy championship, but we had to bring one along as a shooting platform for photographer Jim Fets and his ample gear. We contemplated a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe on E85 ethanol, but a quick check of the availability of that fuel on our route and a reminder that we were trying to do this on a single tank (a gallon of E85 contains less energy than a like amount of gasoline, so you burn it faster) had us thinking otherwise. Michigan has four E85 stations—not much better than in 1990 when we ran a story about the flex-fuel Ford Taurus.
Anyway, we had this Commander in the fleet, and the news editor reminded us it had a Hemi with the Multiple Displacement System. MDS shuts down half the cylinders when you’re just cruising at highway speed, a circumstance that described about 80 percent of what we were planning.
With 330 hp and 375 lb-ft of Hemi V8 power to motivate nearly 5000 pounds of SUV, the Commander had recorded fuel economy as low as 12 mpg in around-town use. A mindful driver on a long highway drive can attain nearly half again that efficiency: 17.2 mpg. The only feedback for the driver, though, is the “miles to empty” gauge, which started sending our managing editor mixed messages late in the day. Rather than risk running the 20-gallon tank dry, he topped off 285 miles into our drive. It only took 17 gallons, suggesting a remaining range of 51 miles—not quite enough to have completed our route, though it might have done the job if we had been willing to hold back just a little on speed. Which brings us to the next-best performer.
12.8 gallons of premium gas at $2.699
27.3 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 27 mpg
Who puts a 400-hp V8 sports car in a fuel-economy run? Well, we do. The Corvette not only made the trip on one tank, it had more than 100 miles range left. If you drive a Vette like you drive a hybrid, would it contend? Not quite, at 27.3 mpg, though here’s an idea: The Displacement on Demand feature on other small-block V8s is not yet used in Corvette. We suspect that if the DOD were, the mileage ratings could have stretched into the low-30-plus-mpg range, rivaling the Honda Accord hybrid.
Corvette drivers are more accustomed to measuring efficiency in terms of time, extolling the car’s ability to make short work of the run to 60 mph or the quarter-mile pole. Putting it in this group was our way of assuring we wouldn’t be dawdling around—drive as if the readout on the dashboard fuel-economy gauge is all that matters and soon you’ll be going slowly enough to make our little daytrip into an overnighter.
The Vette paced the group at 75 to 80 mph with manual operation of its automatic transmission holding it in sixth gear, the drivers treading gently, ever so gently, on the accelerator as the big V8 buzzed along, hovering at 1700 to 1800 rpm all day long. Shift up as soon as the car lets you—24 mph for fourth, 33 for fifth, 40 for sixth. You lose a little miles per gallon past 65 mph, a tradeoff for reasonable travel time, but the Corvette makes hay of the “haste makes waste” argument at speed. As long as you hold the throttle steady, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re doing 65 or 85 mph, the fuel economy changes little.
One disadvantage of the automatic was that it made it virtually impossible to use the cruise control even for brief periods. Hit a slight uphill grade (slight upgrades are all this flatland offers) and the cruise control would kick the gear down to fifth or even fourth, revving up the power and degrading the economy.
In a group of purist sports cars, the Corvette tends to stand out as the roomy, comfortable, quiet one, leading some to mistake it for a GT. Among these family cars, though, the exhaust rumble, the road noise from the wide tires and the sharp ride motions set it apart and make its sporting intent clear. We also found it useful in a fuel-economy sense to maintain momentum by charging through off-ramps—traffic permitting—at high lateral g-loadings, the better to keep the trans up there in overdrive. Performance that delights speed freaks can sometimes serve another purpose.
HONDA ACCORD V6 HYBRID
10.3 gallons of regular gas at $2.599
33.9 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 34 mpg
With 255 hp on tap, there’s plenty of mojo in Honda’s performance-oriented hybrid, and you pay less of a penalty than you do in the Vette if you choose to use what it has. This mix of both economy and performance is what landed the Honda dead-center in our fuel-sippin’ exercise at 33.9 mpg. The Honda had no trouble keeping up on the highway, though locking it into top gear wasn’t as easy as with some cars. Instead, the software wanted us to give the car control.
On the interstates that made up about 300 miles of our journey, the Honda was the one car that clearly rewarded use of cruise control—a driver on his own could occasionally light the “eco” indicator on the dashboard that tells you the V6 is running on half its cylinders (just like the Jeep’s MDS). Use cruise control, which hands over the throttle and transmission management tasks to the ECU, and that “eco” indicator lit up more often and stayed lit longer.
It also tended to smooth out the ride experience—most of our drivers complained there were abrupt changes among the various modes of hybrid operation and that once you were up to cruising speed the Honda felt heavy and clunky. There was also plenty of road noise, attributable, as with the Prius, to the hard, fuel-economy-oriented tires.
8.3 gallons of regular gas at $2.599
42 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 51 mpg
Well, it didn’t make its 51-mpg EPA highway estimated, but 42 mpg on a long road trip would please most American drivers. Part of the shortfall was due to the pace we maintained. At a more hybrid-friendly 55 to 65 mph, the dazzling dashboard display showed numbers closer to 50 mpg, but it was also telling us we were averaging 44 to 45 mpg when our tank reading said otherwise. That instant feedback loop, monitoring economy in short increments of time and distance—not to mention letting the driver see exactly where the energy is going to and coming from—is a big part of why Prius drivers are so prone to telling the rest of us, “You have to drive it differently.” We found that isn’t quite true; the Prius responds to the same economy-minded driving techniques experts have been advising for 30 years or more. Steady throttle openings, gentle accelerations, concentrate on maintaining momentum and avoiding abrupt starts and stops, and it rewards you. The difference in the Prius is it offers up immediate gratification of the video-game variety, right there on the dashboard, no waiting to fill the tank and do the math yourself.
However you measure it, the second-generation Prius is much better suited to long road trips than was its forebear. It rides better, has more gumption to carry you over grades without fuel-sucking downshifts or a floored gas pedal, and even its braking performance (influenced by the regeneration feature, which varies according to the state of battery charge) is more even and predictable. It did really well. It just wasn’t the mileage champion.
VOLKSWAGEN JETTA TDI
7.0 gallons of B20 biodiesel at $2.749
49.9 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 42 mpg
Our fuel station was offering up B20 biodiesel, 20 percent veggie oil, which means that from an environmentalist’s perspective the German diesel didn’t just beat the Japanese hybrids, it trounced them. Not only that, it had more than half of its 14.5-gallon tank left at the end—it could have made the same trip again without refueling! Our example was pretty much a stripper, absent even the usual VW trip computer, so we had no instant feedback loop on our performance. Maybe if we’d had that, we could have nudged the economy from 49.9 mpg into the 50-mpg range.
As it was, we just drove gently, stayed with the caravan and employed the manual mode on the six-speed automatic transmission when it seemed useful. Spoiled by the Vette, perhaps, we sometimes screwed that up because first gear in the Jetta is so low that pulling away from a light runs you up beyond 3000 rpm rapidly, turning fuel into roar with not much accelerative reward. Most of us ended up slotting it into “D” and leaving it there.
At about 11 seconds to 60 mph, the Jetta’s published road-test numbers are not as good as the Prius’ (around 10 seconds, thanks to massive electric motor torque at 0 rpm), but at highway speeds its 177 lb-ft at 1800 rpm and 100 hp at 4000 rpm feel stronger than the Toyota and smoother than the Honda. The diesel spins harder than the Vette at 80 mph, running at 2500 rpm or so, but still it is a long-legged German car with autobahn-able credentials.
For comfort, quiet and highway handling, our drivers found the TDI had significant advantages over every other car in the test. It would have been our choice, in other words, for an easy daytrip on the interstates, regardless of fuel economy. And we topped the hybrids by driving with just a little attention to fuel economy, not making it an obsession. Maybe this German family sedan was inspired by our mission—we understand VWs make a lot of beer runs in their homeland.
Although we had our qualms before the storm, we think our little road trip shows the technologies are out there to promise massive gains in fuel efficiency in short order, should circumstances warrant it. Imagine a Prius-like hybrid that ran on biodiesel instead of gasoline. We may not be there yet, and adapting diesels to use the cylinder-cutoff technology found in the Jeep and Honda might be a tough task, but look how far we’ve come already.