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By Paul Williams

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Autos 50-litre ChallengeTM

Back in 2005, the topic of conversation was the rising price of gasoline. It was nudging one-dollar per litre at that time, and consumers were feeling the pinch. That year, Autos ran its first 50-litre ChallengeTM to highlight the fuel saving benefits of driving a compact car, and to promote a fuel efficient driving style.

Why 50-litres? Many cars in the Compact Car segment have a 50-litre tank, and those that don’t are very close (sub-compacts have a 45-litre tank; midsize cars usually 65-litres). While it’s not really a typical “fill-up,” we thought it would be instructive and interesting for consumers to compare the driving range from one representative tank in each of the cars in this segment. Would you get exactly the mileage we did in everyday driving? Not likely, unless you drove our 50-litre ChallengeTM route in the same conditions at the same speeds. But in 2005, we had 10 cars in our fleet, driving in convoy on the same day over the same terrain. We believe that you can get a good sense of their relative fuel consumption in this manner.

Fast forward to 2008, and as we’re sure you’ve noticed, fuel prices have continued to rise. In fact, in some Canadian locations, prices are up 50 per cent from three-years ago, and many economists gloomily predict that there’s no relief in sight. You’ve likely read the stories: owners of recreational pickup trucks and big SUVs are trying to trade them in or get out of their leases, small car and hybrid sales are up, truck plants are closing, and the cost of transportation in general is causing people to stay home, rather than go on vacation. The implications are major, and affect people right where it hurts.

But consumers can regain some control. While apparently we can’t affect the actual cost-per-litre of fuel, we can affect how many litres are required to drive a given distance. The 2008 50-litre ChallengeTM continues with that theme: drive a fuel efficient car fuel efficiently, and save money at the pump.

For the 2008 50-litre ChallengeTM we lengthened our drive route and our list of participating vehicles. Some of the models (like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla) you’ll recognize from the 2005 “Challenge,” but they’re all-new this time around. Others, like the Pontiac G5 and Dodge Caliber, are new to the group.

The vehicles we drove consisted of the following models, listed alphabetically:

Model/Transmission
Base price range
Type Engine/HP/Torque (lb-ft) Weight – Kg
Dodge Caliber (CVT)
$14,995 – $25,395
Four-door hatch 2.0L I4/158/141 1,378
Ford Focus (MT)
$15,999 – $21,494
Two-door coupe 2.0L I4/140/136 1,174
Honda Civic (MT)
$16,990 – $26,680
Four-door sedan 1.8L I4/140/128 1,227
Hyundai Elantra (AT)
$15,845 – $23,195
Four-door sedan 2.0L I4/138/136 1,246
Kia Spectra (AT)
$15,995 – $22,375
Four-door sedan 2.0L I4/138/136 1,255
Mazda3 (MT)
$16,895 – $31,095
Four-door sedan 2.0L I4/148/135 1,249
Mitsubishi Lancer (MT)
$16,598 – $47,498
Four-door sedan 2.0L I4/152/146 1,325
Nissan Sentra (CVT)
$16,798 – $24,298
Four-door sedan 2.0L I4/140/147 1,327
Pontiac G5 (AT)
$15,595 – $22,815
Four-door sedan 2.2L I4/148/152 1,249
Pontiac Vibe (AT)
$15,995 – $24,995
Four-door sedan 1.8L I4/132/128 1,390
Suzuki SX4 (AT)
$17,195 – $22,695
Four-door sedan 2.0L I4/143/136 1,235
Toyota Corolla (AT)
$14,565 – $21,655
Four-door sedan 1.8L I4/132/128 1,235
Volkswagen City Golf (AT)
Price $15,300 – $16,900
Four-door hatch 2.0L I4/115/122 1,277

Note that some were equipped with automatic transmissions (AT or CVT) and some with manual transmissions (MT). The manufacturers selected which vehicle to supply, and perhaps contrary to your expectations, in some cases the automatic transmission will achieve better fuel economy than the same vehicle equipped with a manual transmission (you can compare the “official” fuel consumption estimates in our Buyer’s Guide, along with other vehicle specifications).

What we did

With support from the CAA, who kindly supplied maps and safety triangles, and Ottawa’s Atwill Service Centre, who staged and prepared the vehicles for us, Autos sourced 13 compact cars from manufacturers’ press fleets that have a 50-litre (or slightly above) gas tank, and can be purchased for under $20,000. These represent the Compact Car segment in Canada (there was one exception — the popular Pontiac G5 — which has the same drivetrain and 49-litre tank as the Chevrolet Cobalt).

The 50-litre Challenge team
The 50-litre Challenge team. Click image to enlarge

Our plan was to run these vehicles in convoy, changing drivers every 100-km or so, on a predetermined route through eastern and central Ontario until each vehicle ran out of fuel (vehicles were carrying a five-litre can of fuel to get the car to the next gas station). Our support vehicle was a Ford Escape Hybrid, and we purchased carbon credits from Less.ca for the entire event.

We also assembled a large team of drivers, including Autos’s Technical Contributor Jim Kerr and Editor, Greg Wilson, along with several local journalists and drivers associated with motorsports or enthusiast car groups.

And this year, we teamed with Motoring 2008, Canada’s longest-running automotive TV show, to produce some great video coverage of the event. Their team came from Toronto for the weekend, and covered the day’s activities from beginning to end.

The route

Our route consisted of a combination of main and secondary highways, and took us from Ottawa through Hawkesbury, Ontario, then to Montreal, Quebec. Back in Ontario, we drove to Cornwall, Brockville, and Belleville along the north shore of Lake Ontario, then headed northwest to Peterborough, and north to Bancroft. From Bancroft we drove to Renfrew, and then toured through Almonte, Richmond, and back to Ottawa along minor roads south of the city. The route consisted of mainly flat roads with very heavy traffic in the morning, changing to fairly steep hills and remote forested areas in the afternoon. Skies were mostly grey, but the temperature was a pleasant but somewhat humid 24-degrees.

Rather than relying on each vehicle’s trip odometer to calculate distance travelled, we tracked the entire event using a GPS, as we did in 2005.

GPS map showing where each car ran out of gas. Note that the label for the Ford Focus is hidden behind that of the Spectra; the Civic's is obscured by the Corolla's, and the Mitsubishi Lancer's label is hidden by the Pontiac G5's
GPS map showing where each car ran out of gas. Note that the label for the Ford Focus is hidden behind that of the Spectra; the Civic’s is obscured by the Corolla’s, and the Mitsubishi Lancer’s label is hidden by the Pontiac G5’s. Click image to enlarge

On the road

As you might expect, it was an uneventful morning. We stopped every 100-km (approximately) to stretch our legs and switch vehicles. This way, our drivers were able to experience time behind the wheel of at least eight vehicles as the day progressed, and ingest the required number of double-doubles from the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s en route.

Our speed was typically 10 km/h over the limit on highway sections, which is not to suggest that Autos endorses exceeding the speed limit, but the flow of traffic on major highways (especially if you’re driving in convoy) is such that driving at precisely the speed limit significantly impedes traffic. Also, we wanted to drive at speeds that were close to real world practices, and 90 km/h on secondary highways and 110 km/h on four-lane highways seemed reasonable for the conditions.

We employed a fuel-efficient driving style, which meant we avoided “jackrabbit” starts, brought the cars up to speed with a light right foot, and attempted to maintain smooth progress on the road. On occasion, speeds increased or decreased significantly, as our convoy was affected by the movement of other traffic, highway construction, and other typical highway encounters. And we braked for chipmunks, just in case you were wondering…

Conclusions

The car that went the furthest on 50-litres of fuel in the Autos 2008 50-litre ChallengeTM was the 2009 Toyota Corolla, followed very closely by the 2008 Honda Civic. Third place went to the Pontiac Vibe.

None of the vehicles consumed over 8.0 L/100km, and based on fuel consumption of under 6.0 L/100km, 6.0-7.0 L/100 km and over 7.0 L/100 km, they fall into three groups, as follows:

Group One Kilometres L/100 km
Toyota Corolla 1017 4.9
Honda Civic 947 5.3
Pontiac Vibe 854 5.9
Group Two
Hyundai Elantra 812 6.2
Mazda3 784 6.4
Pontiac G5 755 6.6
Mitsubishi Lancer 754 6.6
Kia Spectra 742 6.7
Ford Focus 742 6.7
Nissan Sentra 717 7.0
Group Three
Volkswagen City Golf 670 7.5
Dodge Caliber 653 7.7
Suzuki SX4 637 7.9

As well as tracking the total kilometers travelled, we also tracked when the low-fuel warning light came on in each car. Why? Well, people often wonder how far they can drive after the light comes on. Do you have to find the nearest gas station in a panic, or can you lower your stress level, and feel confident that you won’t immediately run out of gas? We have the numbers.

The chart below indicates when the low-fuel light came on, how far the car ran afterwards, and the total number of kilometres driven on 50-litres of fuel in our event. Vehicles are listed alphabetically.

Low fuel warning KM on low fuel light Total KM (GPS adjusted
Dodge Caliber (CVT) 494 159 653
Ford Focus (MT) 614 128 742
Honda Civic (MT) 821 126 947
Hyundai Elantra (AT) 654 158 812
Kia Spectra (AT) 649 93 742
Mazda3 (MT) 650 134 784
Mitsubishi Lancer (MT) 595 159 754
Nissan Sentra (CVT) 612 105 717
Pontiac G5 (AT) 640 115 755
Pontiac Vibe (AT) 667 187 854
Suzuki SX4 (AT) 525 112 637
Toyota Corolla (AT) 829 188 1017
Volkswagen City Golf (AT) 588 82 670

Final thoughts

All of the vehicles driven in the 2008 50-litre ChallengeTM achieve very good to excellent fuel economy, but this is only one parameter when choosing a vehicle. The Mitsubishi Lancer, for example has great styling; the Dodge Caliber provides a high seating position that many drivers like, and large cargo capacity; the Mazda3 was acknowledged by many in our group to have the best platform and handling; the Hyundai Elantra impressed with its solidity and pleasant interior. And everyone thought that the Suzuki SX4, even though it ran out of fuel first, was bolted together really well.

Why do some compact cars use significantly less fuel than others? Technology, engine management systems, weight and aerodynamics all play a part. But as a whole, this category of vehicles continues to offer Canadians the prospect of very economical operating costs, more interior space than you may think, and a complete range of available safety and convenience features. Couple these attributes with a fuel efficient driving style, and you can find a car that will work with you to better manage fuel costs.

All for under $20,000!

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