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Improving MPG: Hi-tech vs Low-Tech Methods

With continued high gasoline prices, many people are seeking to improve their fuel economy. Some people are purchasing new, hi-tech gasoline-electric hybrid cars. Alternatively, you can also improve your gas mileage simply buy changing your driving techniques.


When I wrote an earlier piece on not using cruise control, my friend Kevin inquired if I was familiar with hypermiling. Hypermilers change their behaviors to maximize fuel-economy. Dennis Gaffney wrote a fascinating article in Readers Digest on how a driver of a traditional automobile can get 100 mpg or more:

Wayne believes that if we all boosted our fuel economy by 25 percent (less than the 50 percent improvement he gets), we could halve the amount of Middle Eastern oil we import for our cars. That would be a boon to a broader economy and a step against global warming. “I’m not doing this just for myself,” he says. “I’m doing this for my country and the world.”

In 2002 Wayne bought a Toyota Corolla to replace his 1999 Nissan truck. Online he saw “guys in Priuses bragging about 44 mpg, and I was doing better in a Corolla.”

Besides not trying to maintain speed when going uphill, other good techniques include not racing up to red lights, avoiding jackrabbit starts, and slowing down early before turns. The Readers Digest article also mentions coasting in neutral. Coasting in neutral is actually a 3-point violation in my home state of Virginia, but it is not clear how you would get caught doing so, unless a police officer happened to be sitting in your passenger seat. When using techniques to improve your fuel economy, the main thing to remember is to use common sense. You won’t want to do anything unsafe like obstructing traffic, which could lead to a rear-end collision. Other common sense ideas include not carrying extra weight and keeping your tires properly inflated.

Is old-tech better?

So if Wayne Gerdes, from the Reader’s Digest article, can achieve such great fuel economy in a traditional automobile, does purchasing a hybrid make sense? Matthew Yglesias asks:

Are Hybrids a Scam?

26 Jun 2008 12:06 pm

Spokeytown writes:

Talk about the hybrid car scam! With the exception of the Prius, it seems like most hybrids have highway mileage somewhere in the 30–35 mpg range. This is a little better than those same car models with a gas engine. But I own a 1984 Honda hatchback, obviously not a hybrid, which gets 40-odd mpg on the highway…

My thoughts are that hybrids are not a scam and that Wayne Gerdes could likely achieve even better results driving a hybrid such as the Toyota Prius or the hybrid version of the Honda Civic. Some good friends of mine own a Honda Civic hybrid and they are highly satisfied. However, it is interesting that cars manufactured many years ago do just as well in terms of petrol economy.

Kris De Decker, of Low-tech Magazine, published a recent article on 1940s and 50s Citroen automobiles getting 50+ miles per gallon:

If you sometimes wonder why more energy efficient technology does not bring about more energy efficient cars, you should take a look at this collection of Citroën brochures…

Despite the fact that new technology has improved the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, Kris explains that fuel economy has not improved in modern vehicles due to manufactures building cars with increasingly high horsepower ratings.

23 Years Too Early?

American automakers have been criticized for not increasing fuel efficiency and for focusing on building trucks and SUVs. However, in 1985, Chevrolet teamed up with Suzuki to produce the Chevy Sprint, a three-cylinder engine vehicle rated for 47 mpg in the city and 53 mpg on the highway. At the time, the car was considered severely underpowered and was subject of numerous jokes. I would bet the car would do considerably better today.

The Bottom Line

If you need to buy a new car, hybrids deserve a look. But if your old vehicle is not worn out, you should consider utilizing some low-tech driving techniques to maximize your fuel economy. Let’s hope that automobile manufactures consider building lower horsepower cars that achieve even higher gas mileage.


  1. S.P. Gass wrote:

    I received this comment today via email:

    Good write-up S.P.
    As you pointed out I’m sure the author of the article you reference could achieve even higher MPG in a hybrid, but perhaps not enough to justify the cost. Safety is another thing that has kept newer cars from achieving increasingly higher fuel efficiency over the years. Unfortunately, as you eluded to, vehicles on the road today with are much different than they were in 1990, I’m referring of course to SUV’s and minivans. I don’t know about you but I certainly wouldn’t want my wife and child to be in a Honda CRX when and inattentive Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada, Lincoln Navigator, etc… driver who couldn’t be bothered to check the air pressure in their tires decides that checking email on their blackberry is more important than focusing on operating their 3 ton vehicle and has a blowout, misses a stop sign, or crosses the centerline into my family’s path. So thanks to that reality today all cars today are required to have a variety of enhanced safety features, such as side impact door beams, multiple airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, tire pressure monitoring systems, and soon to come (I guarantee it) lane departure and rear end collision warning systems. All these systems cost $$ and add weight.

    Additionally, car manufacturers don’t spend money on research into making more efficient cars b/c it would just make their cars more expensive and (until now) people didn’t seem to care about mpg (evident by the choice of vehicles people have been making for the last two decades).

    Another issue I see for why cars today don’t seem to measure up to mpg economy that was achieved years ago in similar sized vehicles is actually a misconception in some ways. One word, Speed, it doesn’t just kill people,it also kills mpg. As hypermilers are discovering, without going to extremes (i.e. pushing your car to get it rolling before you start it, shutting the car off when going downhill, and rolling through stop signs) modern cars can easily exceed EPA estimates. Tire pressure, alignment, and all of the things you mentioned in your write-up are factors, but in my experience, speed is a huge one that is often overlooked. The amount of power (and consequently fuel) required to move a vehicle grows exponentially with increased speed. The optimal speed for fuel economy is the slowest one can safely go in top gear without lugging the motor. In my unscientific observations the difference between 60mph and 70mpg in my Honda Civic Hybrid is ~2.5mpg, and the difference between 70mph and 80mph is ~5mpg.

    Monday, June 30, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Kevin wrote:

    Additional suggestion for gas saving: Roll your automatic windows up before fully parked. That way, you can shut the engine off immediately. This alone could saves 5 to 10 seconds of gasoline per trip.

    Alternate recommendation for enhanced safety: Turn off engine before rolling up automatic windows. Then turn the electrical system on, typically a one counter-clockwise click, without engaging the engine.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 2:22 am | Permalink
  3. S.P. Gass wrote:

    Kevin, thanks for thinking of everything. Though I favor manual crank windows (, I believe the automatic ones can be safely operated while in motion. That is not nearly as dangerous as texting while driving:

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Max wrote:

    Improving MPG: Hi-tech vs Low-Tech Methods thanks for this post!

    Monday, July 21, 2008 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

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