Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

How far can we go?

By Paul Williams

The idea was simple. Put 50 litres of fuel in 10 compact cars that cost less than $20,000 new, and drive them on a scenic route through southern Quebec and eastern Ontario until their tanks ran dry. Then, see which one lasted the longest.

It was Autos’s 50-litre Challenge ™!

Trouble was, after 14 hours of driving and well over 800 km, two of the cars were still running.

At the end of a very long day, everyone was beat, it was dark, and we wanted to go home. But the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla would not stop. Two of our drivers volunteered to drive them around a Canadian Tire parking lot, because surely they were running on fumes by now.

But fifteen minutes later our drivers admitted defeat, and drove the Civic and Corolla home for the night.

The next day, more driving. Finally, the Corolla ran out of fuel at 911 km (5.5 L/100 km, or 51 mpg (Imperial gallons)). But the Civic soldiered on until it ran out of gas after an astonishing 1,022 km (4.9 L/100 km or 57 mpg). To put that in perspective, think of the distance from Ottawa to Fredericton; Toronto to Charlotte, North Carolina; or from Edmonton to Calgary and back three times, with gas left over. That’s fuel economy.

Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Honda Civic in foreground

Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Nissan Sentra (front) and Volkswagen Golf

Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Ford Focus, Chevrolet HHR, Nissan Sentra, Suzuki Aerio and more. Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

So the “winner” of the 50-litre Challenge™ was the Honda Civic, but consumers are all winners, really, when it comes to the fuel efficiency of this class of cars. Our point with this exercise was not only to see which car would go the furthest, but to demonstrate how your choice of vehicle combined with a conservative driving style can act as a foil to gasoline prices that are now above $1.00 per litre.

And you don’t have to endure tiny vehicles with no creature comforts to achieve these results. All the vehicles in this class came with air conditioning, a CD player (except one) and remote keyless entry. Many had power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, side impact airbags, anti-lock brakes and automatic transmissions. All were comfortable, peppy and felt solid on the road. All were pleasant to drive.

Our conclusions? If you’re concerned about fuel economy, and you use a car regularly, the compact class is the way to go. If you really need a big vehicle or an SUV, maybe you also need a compact for general duty. It could almost pay for itself in fuel savings!

As auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers recently wrote, “These entry level products offer so much that there isn’t a lot of compromise on many of the basics that consumers value in their purchase equation (power, options, durability, reliability).”

The 50-litre Challenge™: What we did

The route through Western Quebec and Eastern Ontario
The route through Western Quebec and Eastern Ontario. Courtesy of James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge

Our journalist colleagues from the Ottawa Citizen and Essai-Auto in Quebec helped with driving and logistics, and the event received terrific support from Canadian Tire, which supplied maps, walkie-talkies, portable gas tanks and Canadian Tire gift cards for fuel and incidentals (they even let us store the vehicles overnight). The CAA helped with emergency kits and safety cones and triangles. The car manufacturers generously delivered their vehicles to Ottawa for the event.

Ten drivers, two helpers, ten vehicles and a support Chevrolet HHR with driver met at the Merivale Canadian Tire store in Ottawa at 7:30 am on July 30, 2005. The pre-planned route was divided into several sections to permit vehicle swaps while underway.

Vehicle MSRP
Honda Civic $19,100
Toyota Corolla $18,885
Ford Focus $17,915
Kia Spectra $17,995
Nissan Sentra $17,098
Chevrolet Cobalt $21,545
Mazda3 $19,695
Volkswagen Golf $18,530
Saturn Ion $19,640
Suzuki Aerio $23,395

Manufacturers were asked to provide the most fuel efficient model among their compact line-ups. Ten jumped in, eager to demonstrate the fuel efficiency of their products. The contenders were the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3, Saturn Ion, Chevrolet Cobalt, Volkswagen Golf, Suzuki Aerio and Kia Spectra. Although not all of the vehicles supplied could be purchased for less than the $20,000 cut off we set, all could be bought for less than $20,000 in a different trim level (see price chart).

We expected that most entries would be manual transmission cars, but surprisingly half the group were powered by automatics. It’s a common belief that manuals are more fuel efficient than automatics, but take a look at Natural Resources Canada’s fuel efficiency guide – the gap between manuals and automatics is closing and, in some cases, automatic cars have a better fuel consumption rating than manuals. The Aerio is such a car. So to is the Golf, although Volkswagen opted to send us a manual-equipped car (see specifications chart).

Most of the vehicles conveniently have 50-litre gas tanks. However, four cars have gas tanks that hold more than 50 litres – the Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf, and Kia Spectra at 54.9 L, and Ford Focus at 53.3 L. What were we to do?

With technology to prevent fuel siphoning, it is not possible to take fuel out of a tank without, in some cases, removing the gas tank. The only way we could be sure all vehicles had the same amount of fuel would have been to run them dry – that is, burn over 500 litres of fuel, then fill them up again with 50 litres. Not only would this be time consuming it would be wasteful. Instead, we calculated how much fuel we needed to burn according to the Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption rating for city driving, then ran the cars enough kilometres to burn it off (give or take, of course, a few kilometres).

Vehicle Engine Transmission
Honda Civic 1.7-litre 5-speed manual
Toyota Corolla 1.8-litre 5-speed manual
Ford Focus 2.0-litre 4-speed automatic
Kia Spectra 2.0-litre 5-speed manual
Nissan Sentra 1.8-litre 4-speed automatic
Chevrolet Cobalt 2.2-litre 4-speed automatic
Mazda3 2.0-litre 5-speed manual
Volkswagen Golf 2.0-litre 5-speed manual
Saturn Ion 2.4-litre 4-speed automatic
Suzuki Aerio 2.3-litre 4-speed automatic

All these vehicles are rated for regular fuel, realizing another saving for consumers.

Our route took us from Ottawa to Montebello in Quebec, then along to Oka and further to Montreal. From Montreal, we headed to Cornwall, Ontario, through Kemptville, Perth, Madoc, up to Bancroft, to Renfrew and back to Ottawa: about 880 km in total (which we thought would be sufficient).

Apart from going through many small towns and cities, we drove at speeds ranging from 80-115 km/h on secondary roads and expressways. Most of our driving was on two-lane highways and at altitudes ranging from 19.5 metres (64 ft.) to 427 metres (1,402 ft.) above sea level. It was a hot day, and all the drivers used air conditioning.

Autos contributor James Bergeron brought along a portable GPS device to measure actual kilometres travelled (odometers in cars are not as precise), and were able to determine where on the route each vehicle ran out of gas.

Vehicle Distance travelled
Fuel Consumption
L/100 km (mpg)
NRCan Highway Rating
L/100 km (mpg)
Honda Civic  1022    4.9 (58)    5.7 (50)
Toyota Corolla    911    5.5 (51)    5.3 (53)
Ford Focus    786    6.4 (44)    6.8 (42)
Kia Spectra    786    6.4 (44)    6.8 (42)
Nissan Sentra    780    6.4 (44)    6.2 (46)
Chevrolet Cobalt    771    6.5 (43)    6.6 (43)
Mazda3    755    6.6 (43)    6.2 (46)
Volkswagen Golf    744    6.7 (42)    7.1 (40)
Saturn Ion    711    7.0 (40)    n/a
Suzuki Aerio    636    7.9 (36)    7.0 (40)

The results were interesting, and divided the cars into four groups.

Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Suzuki Aerio, Nissan Sentra, Chevrolet HHR and Honda Civic

Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Suzuki Aerio and Kia Spectra

Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cobalt, Saturn Ion. Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla were the long-distance champs. Their range, both cars over 900 km, is considerably more than all the other vehicles.

The Mazda3, Chevrolet Cobalt (automatic, with the 2.2 litre Ecotec engine), Nissan Sentra, Kia Spectra and Ford Focus (automatic) all ran for more than 750 km. You could drive from Toronto to Chicago, Regina to Edmonton or Thunder Bay to Winnipeg in one of these cars on one tank.

Interestingly, the Sentra, Spectra and Focus finished in a near three-way tie for third place, as the Kia and Ford stopped within a few feet of each other, six kilometres after the Sentra stopped running.

The Volkswagen Golf showed a quarter tank left for most of the trip, but didn’t run out until over 700 km. The Saturn Ion – an early-production 2006 model with an optional 2.4 litre engine – just made it past 700 km. Calgary to Saskatoon, or Niagara Falls to New York City are within their range on one tank.

The Suzuki Aerio was the only all-wheel drive vehicle in the group, which surely took its toll on fuel economy. It was also an automatic transmission model. The Aerio was the first to run out of fuel, but its 635 km range would take it from Toronto to Montreal with fuel to spare.

Observations and comments

Where they ran out
Where they ran out. Courtesy of James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge

At the beginning of the event, all the drivers guessed how far the vehicles would go. All but two of the drivers underestimated the range of these vehicles.

We drove the vehicles normally. We accelerated briskly and passed when required. Although much of the driving was on highways, we didn’t creep along, trying to conserve fuel. Distance travelled on 50 litres will vary depending on a range of conditions including driving style, speed, season and payload.

Autos 50-Litre Challenge

Autos 50-Litre Challenge

Autos 50-Litre Challenge
Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

None of the vehicles felt underpowered. The Honda Civic had the smallest engine, at 1.7 litres and 115 hp, but it has the same horsepower as the 2.0 litre Volkswagen Golf. The Golf has 12-more pounds-feet of torque than the Civic, however.

We calculated the distance you can drive once the “low fuel” light comes on. The distance ranged from 76 kilometres for the Saturn Ion to more than 181 for the Ford Focus.

When we ran out of fuel, all the vehicles started with no problem when four litres (carried in an approved container in the trunk) were added to the tank.

For 2006, there will be a new Volkswagen Golf and Honda Civic. A new Sentra is also scheduled, but not until 2007. Look for changes in specifications for those vehicles.

The Honda Civic we used was a “Reverb” version, a coupe with rear spoiler and body kit. We didn’t specifically ask for this car – it was available in the press fleet, and has the same engine, manual transmission and general specifications as the DX/SE/LX Civics.

Both the Suzuki Aerio and the Chevrolet Cobalt exceeded our $20,000 price cut-off. The Cobalt Coupe starts at just $15,495, but with LS options including sport appearance package and automatic transmission, came to $21,545 (see pricing table). The Aerio, being the only all-wheel-drive car in the group topped the price scale at $23,995.

The drivers - Autos 50-Litre Challenge
The drivers – Autos 50-Litre Challenge™: (from left to right) Chris Chase, Paul Williams, Geoff Chase, Benjamin Cyr, Grant Yoxon, Derek McNaughton, James Bergeron, Rob Bostelaar, Rene Gervais, Jeff and Dylan Burry and Bruno Bouchard. Photo: Tracy Girard. Click image to enlarge

A two-wheel drive version would have performed better in the Challenge and would have cost less – a base sedan with 5-speed manual transmission starts at $18,995.

Thanks to drivers Chris Chase, Geoff Chase, Benjamin Cyr, Bruno Bouchard, René Gervais, Rob Bostelaar, Derek McNaughton, Jeff Burry, James Bergeron, Grant Yoxon and Paul Williams. Thanks, too, to navigators Dylan Burry and Tracy Girard.

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