Nissan Versa fuel gauge. Click image to enlarge
By Jim Kerr
They say gasoline may hit a buck-fifty a litre by summer. Well, summer is very near and with the price of fuel at my local pump at $135.9, both are very close. Many people are rethinking travel plans, staying closer to home or not going at all. Vehicle fuel costs have now become a significant part of any travel plans, so now is the time to maximize your fuel economy and spend the savings enjoying the variety Canada offers.
Buying a smaller vehicle is the easiest way of improving fuel economy. It’s a simple fact: smaller vehicles get better fuel economy. They have less weight to move, have a smaller frontal area so they have less wind to push, and they usually have smaller engines that use less fuel. For example, if you are driving an average 20,000 km a year and have a pickup truck or larger SUV that averages 16 L/100 km, you would pay $4,352 annually for fuel at current fuel prices. Drive a compact to midsize car instead that uses 8.5 L/100 km and it would cost $2,312 to drive the same distance. Even better, drive an economy car or hybrid that gets 6 L/100 km and fuel would cost only $1,632 a year.
That’s about $2,700 annual savings over a large SUV and would go a long way towards car payments. In a little over six and a half years, the fuel savings would buy you a new $18,000 compact car. If fuel goes to $1.50 a litre, you could pay for the vehicle in six years.
Interest costs would increase the amount of time it takes to pay for the vehicle, but there are some very low interest car loans available. Also, a new vehicle is covered under warranty, so maintenance costs are minimal compared to older vehicles – another saving to help defray the costs of buying new.
Perhaps you need to still drive a larger vehicle. There are still advantages to buying new. Features such as variable camshaft timing, variable engine displacement (a term describing turning off some of the cylinders under light loads) and direct fuel injection are all technologies that enhance both power and fuel economy. Many new vehicles are also equipped with five or six speed transmissions. This feature alone can improve fuel economy by five per cent.
Improved aerodynamics is another advantage of newer vehicles. Engineers use computer simulation to determine the best streamlined shapes for a vehicle. Sometimes seemingly insignificant changes can reduce drag. That little plastic lip on the tailgate of a truck, the slight change in windshield angle or the placement of a small and usually unseen spoiler under the front of a vehicle all add up to make the vehicle slide through the air easier and uses less fuel. As much as technology has advanced, the engineers still admit that aerodynamics is part magic and guesswork. Just because the shape of a mirror on one vehicle reduces drag doesn’t mean that the same shape works on all vehicles. Every body shape has to be looked at as a total package. Fortunately, the manufacturers are very conscious of this and work hard to make their vehicles slippery yet stylish.
Low rolling resistance tires have been used on hybrid vehicles in the past and these tires are now starting to be used in non-hybrid applications. Individually, each of the improvements on a new vehicle may not look that impressive, but when you start adding them all together, you may be looking at 20 to 25 per cent improved fuel economy over your existing older vehicle.
For any given size of vehicle, a hybrid will likely give 15 to 25 per cent improvement in fuel economy compared to the same non-hybrid vehicle. Hybrids do cost more, but depending on the model, it can pay for itself in a few years and you have the pleasure of knowing you are helping the environment too.
Diesel engine technology has enabled diesels to perform as well as gasoline engines and with even better economy, but that subject is too involved to be covered in the space remaining, so it will have to wait for a future column.
I predict that future households will actually have more vehicles rather than less: a truck for when you need to haul loads, a mid-size car to transport the family and likely a very small economy car for running errands and daily commutes. Rather than make one vehicle fit all purposes, we will use a vehicle suited for the application, and save money at the fuel pumps doing it.