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Saving fuel when driving – Tips from the professional

How to please your purse (and the environment) in spite of soaring fuel prices. Classical and unfamiliar tricks for diesel and petrol cars.

Fuel-saving world champion Gerhard Plattner with his VW Golf Plus TDI after his record-breaking trip to Jesolo
Picture by Porsche Austria

What's the fuel consumption of your car?

If you want to save fuel you first should calculate how much your car consumes. Therefore you refuel the tank completely, reset your mileage counter, drive at least 300 kilometres and then refuel. Add two zeros to the sum of litres (e.g. 32 litres = 3200) and then divide it by the number of driven kilometres. For example, for 420 km you would need 7,62 litres per 100 km.

For Austria’s fuel-saving champion, Innsbruck’s motor journalist Gerhard Plattner, these are just the basics. As a former rallye-driver he is now testing new vehicles for big car producers. This also includes such exceptional practical records like a journey from Salzburg to Jesolo with only 4,28 litres per 100 km with a common Golf Plus TDI with top box.

Plattner: "It’s often the small things that make the difference. If for instance you want to save fuel on a vacational journey you should calculate the planned route in advance, not at the critical junction with the engine running."

Choosing higher octane "for your car’s sake" (e.g. 95 instead of 91) will only make the gas station owner happy. There are no real advantages that balance out the higher costs of the expensive fuel. The same is to be said for the so called "higher quality" fuels, that are now promoted by some gas companies: The higher price is in no economical relation to what you save in fuel consumption.

How to save fuel in the city

Especially in the city it is easy to save fuel. First, here you have the highest consumption, and second, a lot of emotions are transmitted on the accelarator while weaving through and being caught up in traffic jams. "Saving fuel should be considered as a kind of sports," expert Gerhard Plattner explains: "A bit of ambition never harms, and besides of that it is healthy."

15 to 20 per cent of the fuel consumption depend on your driving manners. You cannot do anything about red traffic lights, but you can change to idle if you are not fast enough to cross the junction. And if you need more than 20 seconds to reach the intersection together with the red-light-phase, you should shut the motor down. But watch out: the power brakes will fade out.

Even popstar Sting saves fuel with his Toyota Hybrid-Prius
Picture by Toyota

Plattner: "If in the end its only 15 seconds, never mind. It's better to be out in your estimations twice, but to estimate correctly ten times. In German cities you often find a time indicater which shows when the lights turn green or a blue lamp indicating whether it is useful to shut the motor down or not. Vienna, as an environmental city, should join this idea as well."

Two extreme saving tips: Most diesel cars can be accelerated up to 50 km/h in idle just by cautious gear shifting. If the traffic lights change to green while you are running idle without engine, it's better to start the engine with the ignition key and not with gear. This would slow down the car unnecessarily.

How to save fuel on highways

A car consumes the least at the highest gear with around 2000 to 3000 rpm, explains fuel saving record driver Gerhard Plattner: "This will turn out to be at around 110 km/h in most cars. At higher speeds the drag increases strongly. To my opinion everyone should try out once and for a whole highway trip, how relaxed car driving can be at that speed and how much fuel you save."

Stops should never take too long so that the engine doesn't cool down totally. Then on returning to the highway speed up quickly and shift gears at 2800 to 3000 rpm. It is always bad to floor the throttle, because then the engine gets more fuel than it can burn.

On open plain courses you can also use the slipstream of a truck to save fuel. Plattner: "About 30 metres behind the truck a kind of suction is created. Once in the United States I tried this with a Volkswagen Golf. The consumption decreased two litres. Unfortunately this technique is very difficult in Europe, because if you keep a distance of 30 metres somebody will overtake and move into the gap infront of you. In most cases your own personally prefered speed will prove best. This way can avoid abrupt braking overtaking and enqueueing situations."

By the way, the drag also decreases in tunnels. If you drive through a long, steep highway tube, you can often let your car roll out in idle with constant speed.

How to save fuel in the mountains

Saving fuel when driving uphill is even difficult for professionals like Innsbruck's fuel-saving champion Gerhard Plattner: "If possible you should step on the gas on the steep counter-hillside. And then, when you are driving uphill, don't change the position of the gas throttle anymore; even if you slow down a bit. Accelerating when driving uphill really wastes a lot of fuel! One of the reasons why it is very important to think ahead when driving."

When you drive uphill in a clever way, you will be rewarded downhill in terms of consumption: There is nothing wrong with going into idle downhill at 100 km/h. Quite unknown: If the incline is steep enough to let a gear put in without braking the car, diesel cars and petrol injection cars save more fuel this way than with the idle trick. The engine "notices" that no more fuel is necessary and stops the injection totally until your next step on the gas.

But please never forget safety when saving fuel: In narrow curves it is necessary to engage the clutch again. And never shut down the engine when driving downhill. The sudden loss of power steering and power brakes can cause bad accidents.

Whenever you can avoid mountain routes you should do so: The engine power drops in higher altitudes. The consequence: You have to accelerate more.

How to save fuel in summer

Summer is the time for air-conditioning. And this is one of the main fuel saving points for Gerhard Plattner, Austria's fuel-saving expert: "Big cars, like the Audi A8, can cause the fuel consumption to jump up two litres when the air conditioning is turned on full throttle. Most people who have an air conditioning on entering their overheated cars make the mistake to switch it on at highest level and lowest temperature. This not only causes a higher consumption of fuel but also an enormous cold."

More effectively and correct: First, when you start driving, open all windows, so most the overheated air gets blown out. Then switch on the air conditioning, if you prefer with full power but with a reasonable temperature, for example 21 degrees.

More tricks how to save fuel in summer: The tyre pressure may be 0,2 bar higher than the instruction allows. But a much too high tyre pressure worsens the road holding qualities of the car.

Also a fuel waster: To drive around with your bike, surfboard or even the luggage carrier on the roof without necessity.

Apart from the fact that it is prohibited and inconsiderate to drive with fog lights at clear sight, it also causes higher fuel consumption.

If you drive in the pouring rain the consumption can increase on 0,5 litres, because the car pushes water wedges with its tyres. A safe solution that avoids a waste of fuel: take a break and wait until the rain shower is over.

How to save fuel in winter

Many tricks how to save fuel in winter are self-evident, but mostly ignored: Don't heat up the engine before driving off, drive off immediately after starting the motor. Remove the snow from the top and the ice from the windows before you turn the ignition. Removing the ice from the windows with the rear window heating during driving consumes more fuel. Snow on the car roof increases drag and also consumption.

To quickly clear a foggy windscreen, Gerhard Plattner recommends: "Put down the sun visors, so that they almost stand horizontal. This kind of ,interior spoiler' noticably improves air circulation at the window."

What also wastes a lot of fuel is the seat heating, which is often turned on unused at the front passenger's seat. In contrast to the seat heating system the ordinary interior heating doesn't consume additional fuel (but the fan does!), because it uses the waste heat from the engine. So, if you want to drive wearing your shirt at minus degrees, you can do so with a clear conscience.

Key-word tyres: Winter tyres cause higher fuel consumption than summer tyres because of the softer rubber mixture. Spikes need even more petrol. If you want to decrease consumption don't buy wide base tyres for winter, better take the smallest approved dimension.

When driving in the snow clean the wheel cases at intervals. These snow wedges not only often slow down the tyres, they are also quite an additional weight.

Special not-recommended fuel saving tricks

Fuel-saving world champion Gerhard Plattner with his VW Golf TDI before his 100-Euro-record journey
Picture by Porsche Austria

Innsbruck's fuel-saving record-keeper Gerhard Plattner has already achieved some of the weirdest records possible. For example: He managed to drive through 12 countries just with one tankful. And with only a 100 Euro bill he travelled more than 4700 km from Oslo to Den Haag. Last, he reveals some tricks which are not very reasonable, but still very interesting to here about.

For every record-driver it's most important to know his ways. Therefore, Gerhard Plattner takes pre-test drives and notes down on tape critical sections to recall them later. Why he doesn't like drive with a co-pilot? "This person would just increase the weight of the car and distract me." When driving at night Gerhard Plattner listens to marches to stay awake. "Classical music makes me too emotional. Only marches leave me cold as I'm no fan, but keep me fit."

Of course he drives without air conditioning, which can be very exhausting in summer. Additional fuel is saved thorugh extremely high tyre pressures, and the oil level is put to a minimum, because too much oil brakes (but this is relevant only at record levels).

Gerhard Plattner: "The best attitude is to consider fuel saving a kind of sport. Everybody who has enough money for a strong car, can drive fast and hit the pedal. But saving fuel requires concentration, self-control and cleverness. It's a challenge with the nice effect of saving you money that you can use for other more important things."

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© A report by Tobias Micke (19-09-05) – Contact