September 29, 2011

Review: Audi A4 Avant

Always on the lookout for places to put a cello (soon to be full-sized as the player is growing), CelloMom's eye fell on Audi's A4 Avant. Perhaps "station wagon" has too many connotations of suburbia, and "wagon" suggests something that goes way, way back in history. So, "Avant", to the future - or something like that.

However forward the name, there is plenty of space in the back for a cello, and the back row folds down flat for carrying large items. CelloMom loves the clean lines on the dashboard.

In the US, the choices are limited: you can only get this car with leather seating (not that CelloMom has anything against leather seating!), and you can only get it with one engine, the 2.0L TFSI that puts out 211HP, with the quattro drive. in Germany, Audi offers the A4 with a choice of 3 gasoline engines (with and without turbo option) and 3 diesel engines. Whatever misgivings one may have about the long-term efficacy of those diesel particle filters, there is no doubt that turbocharged diesel engines put out the power at impressive fuel economy.

As an example, take a look at the 2.0L TDI turbodiesel engine (143HP): In the 6-speed manual configuration it does 39mpg in real-life driving (European sticker efficiencies are over-estimates). This is doing quite a bit better than the 24 mpg delivered by the 2.0L TFSI available in the US.

CelloMom has better news than this: for the same trim level, an A4 with the more gas-frugal 2.0L TDI (143HP) is less expensive than the same A4 with the 2.0L TFSI (211HP) engine by €3,300. The difference will be less in the US, where taxes are much lower; here the MSRP for the more frugal one is probably close to $33,000. And it would still come with leather seats. it just shows once again that cars are cheap in the US. In Germany leather seats don't come standard until you get to the "S" version. For that trim, the 2.0L TFSI quattro (211HP) version with the S-tronic transmission lists at €45,180, or about $61,200 (Sept 2011 conversion). Zoom!

In the interest of full disclosure, German Audi A4 Avants also come with a larger engine: a 3.2L FSI quattro version with Tiptronic transmission. This baby puts out 265HP, with an official fuel economy of 30mpg. Its top speed is 250kph (155mph): only good for places like Montana; the rest of us perhaps don't need something that can go well over twice the highway speed limit. On offer from €45,600 for the simplest trim.

CelloMom could easily see herself living with the German engineering, the clean-lines design, the safety record, and the attention to detail that went into this car; not to mention the space for the cello. But it would be nice if car designers would just get over their infatuation with LED lighting. In this case a line of white LEDs goes underneath each headlight, and gives the car a look that frowns, underlined with negative eyeliner. It's A Clockwork Orange with white eye makeup. The kind of thing that will make our children shudder to look back on the early LED era.


Audi A4 Avant, Same-Model comparison, different engine.

2.0 TFSI 2.0 TDI
Type "Premium" "Attraction"
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO5
MSRP $ 36,400 € 33,450
($ 45,300)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 21 / 29 mpg 6.4 / 4.5 l/100km
(37 / 67 mpg)
Avg. quoted 24 mpg 5.2 l/100km (45mpg)
Avg. actual 24 mpg (DOE) 39 mpg HonestJohn

2.0L TFSI quattro,

2.0 TDI
Power 211 HP 143 HP
Gears 8-spd Tiptronic 6-spd manual
Fuel premium unleaded Diesel
Length, mm(in) (185.2 in) 4703 mm
Width, mm(in) (80.3 in) 2040 mm
Height, mm(in) (56.5 in) 1436 mm
Weight, kg(lbs) (3814 lbs) 1585 kg
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) (50.5 cuft) 490 liter
Turning radius, m(ft) (37.7 ft) 11.5 m
Top speed, kph(mph) (130 mph) 208 kph (129 mph)

September 24, 2011

Are gas sippers worth the extra purchase cost?

The high price of gas makes it more expensive to operate your car. But many cars that are more fuel efficient, such as electric or hybrid cars, are more expensive to buy. Do you really come out ahead? To make a fair and long-term comparison, you can estimate the total cost of driving various cars over the years that you plan to own it.

You don't have to start from scratch: Consumer Reports has done just this calculation for a selection of cars. They assume that you keep the car for only five years and re-sell it when you buy a new one. You need to keep in mind that all their numbers are average numbers, but you can get a feel for the trend.

For instance, according to the CR analysis, the cheapest cars to drive for five years are the Honda Fit and the Toyota Corolla ($0.46/mile), the most expensive the BMW 750Li ($1.85/mile) (June 2011 numbers).
The Toyota Prius, at $0.50/mile, is at the head of its class of family sedans. And the Toyota Camry LE (4-cyl) and the Camry Hybrid come out about the same, at $0.57 and $0.58/mile, respectively. So the feelgood factor for buying the greener hybrid comes for free. (A cynic like CelloDad would say that that's how Toyota arrived at the price differential).


Edmunds.com also offers a measure of what they call the True Cost to Own, or TCO. Select your make and model and they will give you a year-by-year detail of what it costs to own and drive your car for the first five years, assuming you drive 15,000 miles each year.

This is great as a starting point, but of course you are not that "average owner", and you and your car will have a characteristic TCO all your own. Because of the detailed breakdown, you can still use Edmund's data, as a springboard for an estimate of your personal TCO. And you can use it to look at a few places where you might find savings.

Purchase price
This is the largest item by far on Edmund's list, and the place to look first for savings. You could, of course, drive a hard bargain with your dealer. But even before you do that, you would do well to consider whether you might do with a different car.

Car size
It is worth asking yourself the hard question whether you really need that large car. For instance, the 5-year TCO for a 7-seat Toyota Sienna minivan is about $39,000; for a 5-seat Toyota Corolla it is about $29,000: That means a savings of $2000 each year. If you have a family of four you could get around in a Corolla for most of the year. Then, when the grandparents come for their yearly visit, you could rent a 7-person minivan (about $600 per week base price) to go on daytrips together, and you would still be saving a bundle compared to driving the minivan all year. If half your clan arrives, a 12-passenger van costs about $750/week to rent. Or you could splash out and rent a convertible to cruise around in the sun: you've gained flexibility.

Engine & transmission
CelloMom will never tire of saying this: for the same-sized car, you can save $1500-3000 of the purchase price by choosing a smaller engine; after purchase you enjoy the better fuel economy. CelloMom can help you find out what engines are truly available, even if outside the US, for the car of your choice; and many in that extended range are more fuel efficient than what you find in your local dealership. Ask your dealer for them. You can save a further $1500-2000 by choosing a manual transmission instead of automatic. "Smart" automatics like CVT drives cost more to buy but are more fuel efficient.

Borrowing money costs money. A 60-month can loan has lower monthly payments than a 36-month loan, but in total you end up paying a lot more. The most frugal way to buy a car? Save up for a few years (earn interest), and write a check! Thumb your nose at the credit rating agencies, and drive away with 100% ownership. Put zeroes in all the boxes marked "financing".


Premiums are determined by factors such as your age and driving record, and the safety record of your car. A large part of the insurance premium covers liability; putting in an inquiry with her insurance company, CelloMom was surprised to find that her premium varied by less than 20% from car to car. Some companies offer insurance against any mechanical malfunction not covered by the car's warranty.

Longer ownership
It is greener anyway to keep your old car for longer, even though its carbon footprint is generally larger than that of a new car. You car loan payments will have stopped, and you can start saving for the next car. The cost of maintenance & repair does go up with the age of the car, and unpredictably so (this is partly why the published TCO stops at the fifth year), and for most of us determines how long we keep a car.

Fuel cost

For their analysis, edmunds.com assumes that you drive 15,000 miles a year, and that the price of gas remains close to $4/gallon. The EPA estimates that the average mileage for passenger cars is close to 12,000 miles per year. Finding your individual annual mileage is easy if you're the first owner of your car: just look at the odometer, and divide the miles on your car by the number of years that you've owned it. Then calculate your annual gas bill as follows:

Annual cost of gas = annual miles * price per gallon / fuel efficiency

For example, in 2011 a Prius owner driving 10,000 miles would spend 10000miles * $4 per gal / 50mpg = $800. The owner of a Hummer H3 (14mpg) would need $2857 for the year.

The tricky part is in guessing the price of gas for the years you plan to own the car. (If you get this one right consistently, you could make a bundle playing the oil futures). In the last decade it has been anywhere between $1.40/gal, to about $4.00/gal.

As you can see from the Edmund numbers, the cost of gas (the fuel that actually makes the car move) is a rather small fraction of the total cost of owning a car; most of the TCO is overhead. Consider the alternatives: if you drive less than a few thousand miles a year, a carshare scheme or occasional renting might be cheaper for you. If you live in a city, you might prefer using your feet, your bike or public transport over carrying the cost of owning (and parking!) a car.

All of the above is just about dollars; it doesn't take into account what it's worth to you to reduce your carbon footprint: only you can make that call.

September 21, 2011

Review: Volkswagen Passat

CelloMom was going to review the Toyota Camry, whose popularity in the US has been boosted by its hybrid version. But the Japanese versions have the same engines, with the same fuel economy, so CelloMom has had to look further afield, and came across the VW Passat.

This review is for CelloMom's friend Amy, who likes her Toyota Camry for its roominess, because she is a big-gesture kind of driver; this is meant both literally and figuratively, for she has a habit of using the big trunk and the back seat to carry goods for her friends, and camping gear when her son's class goes on a trip. CelloMom studied the toyota.jp website for a while, but found that all Toyota sedans of this size had similar fuel efficiencies; for the Camry (2.5L, 169hp) it is 22/33mpg (cty/hwy) and for its hybrid version 31/35mpg.

One possible alternative for the Camry is the Volkswagen Passat, which is just about the same size. Until 2010 you could buy it in the US with the 2.0L engine, but for 2011 Volkswagen has bumped it to a larger engine size, so now you can only get it with a 2.5L engine with 5 cylinders. (The world will have to get used to odd numbers of cylinders, but CelloMom thought it was reserved for tiny, 3-cylinder engines). The US Passat's fuel economy is 21/32 mpg, comparable to that of the non-hybrid Toyota Camry.

As is the case with many other makes and models, you cannot get a Passat with a 2.5L engine in Europe. Even in Autobahn-loving Germany, the biggest engine for the Passat is a 2.0L. But this is one sweet 2.0L engine! It runs on diesel, which has a higher energy density than gasoline to begin with, and it has a turbocharger which compresses the air before admitting it, so that more oxygen can react with the fuel inside the cylinders (and there is a reassuringly even number of them, four). The result is that you get a cleaner-running engine that gets a nice power boost, to 140hp. CelloMom loves win-win situations like this. Because of the nature of diesel, you cannot avoid soot particles, but they are scrubbed from the exhaust stream by a diesel filter. This 2.0L, 140hp engine gets 48mpg as logged by actual users. Don't miss the hilarious opening clip on the German Passat page ("More than one idea ahead").

As Amy has the inclinations of mechanical engineers who enjoy performance in their cars, CelloMom will refrain from trying to sell her the 1.6L TDI version. But you can bet it's even more gas-frugal in return for being less powerful. And its pretax price is € 2,000 lower than for the 2.0L TDI version, so CelloMom (who is not a mechanical engineer) would be quite satisfied with that.


VW Passat, Same-Model comparison, different engines.

US Europe
Type 2.5L S Trendline 2.0TDI BlueMotion
Year 2011 2011
Emissions rating Sedan EURO5 "A"
MSRP $ 19,995 € 23.405 (pre-tax)
(approx $ 31,800)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 21 / 32 mpg 5.6 / 4.0 l/100km
(42 / 59 mpg)
Avg. quoted 4.6 l/100km (51 mpg)
Avg. actual 57.7 mpg_imp
(48mpgUS) HonestJohn
Engine 2.0L 20-valve DOCH 5-cyl inline 2.0L TDI Bluemotion
Power 170hp @ 5700 rpm 140hp @ 4200rpm
Gears 5-spd man 6-spd man
Fuel reg unleaded diesel
Length, mm(in) (191.6 in) 4769mm (187.8 in)
Width, mm(in) (72.2 in) 1820mm (71.7 in)
Height, mm(in) (58.5 in) 1470mm (57.9 in)
Weight, kg(lbs) (3166 lbs) 1432 kg (3157 lbs)
Trunk volume (15.9 cuft)
Turning radius, m(ft) (36.4ft) 11.4m (37.4)
Top speed, kph(mph) 213 kph (132mph)

September 20, 2011

Blue is the New Green!

Those who concern themselves with the plight of the oceans, and those who work to better the world's drinking water supply, have been saying for quite some time that Blue is the new Green. But you know it's a real trend when automakers jump on the blue bandwagon.

Even in 2006, Volkswagen coined the name "BlueMotion" for its clean diesel engines, and now has a corner of its US website dedicated to the "Think Blue" approach. In the same year, Mercedes Benz launched its BlueTec line, even though they still call it "thinking green".

That's a full two years before Adam Werbach, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, the sustainability arm of the advertising agency, started talking about the "birth of blue".

Early this year, Honda Automotive announced that its environmental label will be "Blue Skies for our Children", and the splash page for the Mazda Demio, launched this summer, is a cool blue all over, in keeping with the naming of its innovative super-high compression ratio engine: SkyActiv technology.

And of course, blue is the leading hue on Toyota's main pages for its hybrid vehicles such as the Prius and the Estima.

If you look at the technical specs for these cars, you will find that it's not all just pie in the sky. These cars might just ward off your gasoline-price blues.

September 19, 2011

Review: Ford Focus

It's not only foreign automakers who keep their most fuel efficient models off US roads: just look at the example of the Ford Focus. The hatchback model with the highest fuel economy available in US showrooms has a 2.0L engine and gets average mileage of 31mpg. European Ford dealers offer a 1.6L option that gets 40mpg in real life.

CelloMom's friend Debra had a Ford Focus for years, and CelloMom was always amazed and awed by how clean she kept it inside. When you get a ride with her, there's never any of that last-minute dusting, wiping, scraping of beeswax, and offering of apologies: it's always ready to receive a friend.

The Focus is 4.36m long, so it's called a "compact" car in the US. It holds five comfortably. The hectic start of the school year has so far prevented CelloMom from actually putting the cello into a Focus, but from the pictures it looks like it will fit in the back just fine.

To be quite truthful, for previous years the Ford Focus is one of those cars for which owners report a higher fuel economy than the showroom sticker suggests, by about 10-15%, so it's possible that you can get 34-36mpg out of the 2.0L model. On the other hand, the most frugal UK driver (of a 1.6L model) reported an average mileage of 44mpg. An automotive anthropologist would have a field day looking into things like this.


Ford Focus, same-model comparison, different engines.

Available in US Available in Europe
Type 2.0L 5dr 5-spd man 1.6L 5dr 6-spd man
Year 2012 2011
Emissions rating EURO5 "A"
MSRP US$ 18,995 € 16,392 (NL)
CelloMom Rating
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 28 /38 5.1 / 3.7 (46 /64)
avg. quoted, l/100km(mpg) 31mpg EPA 4.2 (56)
avg. actual, (mpg) (40mpg) Honest John
Engine 2.0L Ti-VCT GDI 1.6L TDCi
Power 160hp @ 6500 rpm 115hp
Gears Auto 6-spd man
Fuel regular unleaded diesel
Length, mm(in) (172 in) 4358 mm
Width, mm(in) (81.1 in) 2010 mm
Height, mm(in) (57.7 in) 1484 mm
Weight, kg(lbs) 1516 kg

September 18, 2011

Review: Honda Odyssey

What's in a name? It is neither hand, nor foot, nor any other part belonging to a van. In a reversal of the Romeo and Juliet story, the case of the US and Japanese versions of the Honda Odyssey minivan is one of distant cousins who have a name in common, but are otherwise quite unlike each other. Neither is a hybrid, alas.

The cousin who emigrated from Japan to the US went through a mirror and its steering wheel moved from the right to the left side of the car. Its dashboard design became more angular. Its seats became cushier. And both its body and its engine grew. There seems to be a growth ray that hits things as they pass the US border. CelloMom keeps checking to see if her wallet would be affected in the same way as we pass through US Immigration at the airport, but so far no such luck.

But back to the Honday Odyssey cousins. They look similar enough, apart from slight variations in the body design. But if you go over the details you'll soon find that the Japanese cousin (pictured) is shorter by more than a foot, slimmer by about 8 inches, and less tall as well. In the US, you can buy the Odyssey only with a 3.5 liter V6 engine; in Japan it only comes with a 2.4 liter, 4-cylinder inline engine, and similarly in Australia. In Europe you can't buy the Odyssey at all, the largest car Honda sells there is the CR-V.

Surprisingly, the difference in fuel efficiencies is underwhelming: While the US cousin has a real-life fuel economy of 20 mpg, the Japanese cousin with the smaller engine is listed as getting 29 mpg under the Japanese JC08 standard, which according to CelloMom's rough translation corresponds to a real-life mileage in the range 21-24mpg. One would have expected more mileage gain from the smaller engine.

But the truth is, minivans and larger cars in Japan in general don't have great fuel economy, from what CelloMom has seen so far. CelloDad offers the conjecture that these minivans might be used more for family outings rather than the daily commute which happens mostly by public transportation, so mileage takes a back seat relative to seating capacity.

One observation supports this conjecture: In the US the feature touted most prominently is the entertainment system - wide-screen HDMI capability for the kids' row in the back, and 650W on the audio system, enough to turn the whole van into an oversized boombox. In contrast, the feature that gets its own button on the Japanese website is the chair lift option: The front passenger seat (on the left, of course) can be rotated and lowered almost to street level. It tells you that not only is there room for grandparents in the Japanese family van, but they come often enough that getting the chairlift option makes sense for those who need the extra help getting in and out of the car. If CelloMom's dad, now in his 80's, lived close by, this feature would make the Odyssey very attractive indeed.


Honda Odyssey, US and Japan versions.

US Japan
Type LX M-FF (2WD)
Year 2011 2011
Emissions rating ULEV-2
MSRP US$ 28,225
City/Hwy (mpg) 18 / 27
avg. quoted 21mpg (EPA) 12.4 km/l (JC08)
avg. actual 20mpg (DOE)
Engine 3.5L V6, 24-valve
Power 248 HP @ 5700 rpm 173 HP @ 6000 rpm
Gears 5-spd auto CVT auto
Fuel Regular unleaded
Length, mm(in) (202.9in) 5154mm 4800mm (189.0in)
Width, mm(in) (79.2in) 2011mm 1800mm (70.9in)
Height, mm(in) (68.4in) 1737mm 1545mm (60.8in)
Weight, kg(lbs) (4337lbs) 1967kg 1600kg (3527lbs)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) (38 / 93 / 149 cuft)
Turning radius, m(ft) (36.7ft) 10.8m (35.4ft)
Top speed, kph(mph)

September 15, 2011

Why the new CAFE standard is just my cup of tea

The CAFE standard introduced in July 2011 calls for passenger cars in the US to reach an average fuel economy of 54.5mpg by 2025. Good news that appeals to CelloMom's green side, as well as her frugal side. Even better news is that carmakers already have models today that will help them meet the new standard.

Until 2010, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard required of each car manufacturer that the average mileage of the cars it sells in the US be 27.5 mpg. The new standard will raise that average by a few percentage points each year between now and 2025 when it reaches 54.5 mpg.

Setting aside the contentious issue of carbon emissions, let's see what this means for your wallet. Suppose you drive "the average car", and you drive it the average distance of 10,000 miles each year. If your car's mileage remained at 27.5 mpg, you would need 364 gallons of gas for that year, but with a mileage of 54.5 mpg, you would need only 183 gallons, an annual savings of 181 gallons.

Even at this summer's gas prices of $4 per gallon, that would amount to saving $724 a year. Should the price of gas continue their upward march, and reach European levels around $10 / gal, you would be saving $1810 every year on your fuel costs. Dude, after just a few years of saving like that, you could buy a really nice cello; no more student rentals.

You might hear that it will take years, and that it will cost you thousands of dollars extra to buy a car that gas-frugal. CelloMom doesn't buy that argument. The spokespeople of the car manufacturers who make those statements don't say that their companies already make cars that are much more fuel efficient, and that millions of satisfied customers have been driving their frugal cars for years - just not on US roads.

For the next few years, all car manufacturers would have to do in order to meet the CAFE standard, is to start selling their more fuel-efficient models in the US.

They will often be cheaper to buy. These are not only models that are smaller and lighter than the ones now for sale in the US. They could also be the same models that are available here now, but with a smaller engine, perhaps augmented with a turbocharger to boost the power (and make it clearner-burning), perhaps coupled to a clever, high-efficiency transmission, or stop&go technology that saves gas in city driving. One car that is both smaller and packed with new technology is the Volkswagen Polo, which is the size of a Honda Fit: its 1.2L TDI Bluemotion version has a real-life mileage, as recorded by actual users, of 57 mpg. And it's not even a hybrid. It beats the CAFE standard for the year 2025 right now: 14 years before the deadline.

So if you are in the market for a new car in the coming few years, try looking outside the box marked "USA", and consider a car that you can't buy here (yet). Do some research - CelloMom offers reviews, as well as tools to help you look for gas-frugal cars on the internet yourself. Find a model you like, ask your dealer to make it available to you, and add your individual challenge to the broader pressure from the CAFE standard. It's quite possible that you will end up driving the energy-frugal car of your choice, and that you will have broadened the choice for all US drivers.

September 14, 2011

What the cellos mean

Q: What exactly is CelloMom Rating, and what do those little cellos mean?

A: The cello scale is CelloMom's highly personal, completely subjective rating of the cars she reviews.

That said, perhaps it's useful to state where CelloMom is coming from, when looking at cars. CelloMom's family has just one car, so that car had better be able to do a range of tasks, from the school run (including cello and a few friends), the usual household runs (including pickup of compost and straw bales for the yard), to road trips, and the occasional hauling of construction material for when CelloMom has her contractor's hat on. For large items, such as 4'x8' sheetrock, CelloMom depends on the kindness of her truck-owning friends, or on the delivery services of the stores.

Function comes before form. CelloMom does care about aesthetic, but cares even more that a car is dependable (as she is the one doing the minor maintenance / repair and the liaison with the garage in case of more serious trouble). CelloMom has no patience for most bells and whistles, and is bemused at the use of a car as a status symbol.

A car purchase is one of those occasions where CelloMom can simultaneously indulge her green leanings, and her tendency to frugality (allright: her stinginess), both with an eye to the long term. She is willing to invest a higher initial purchase price if it returns a higher savings of energy / expense over the lifetime of the car. A car should be able to deliver at least 150,000 miles of reliable service before returning to the recycling stream.

With that in mind:

CelloMom would buy it. 'Nuff said.

CelloMom would buy it if there were no better alternatives, and would probably be happy enough driving it but would drive around with that feeling that she could do better.

This would be a compromise buy.

CelloMom might rent it for a specific purpose and a limited time.

This is not for CelloMom.

September 9, 2011

Review: Toyota Estima Hybrid, little sister to Sienna

You need a 7-seat vehicle: for your family plus the grandparents. And for your weekly outing to the orchestra with your child's friends and their cellos. Is there an alternative to the very large minivans now wielded by moms everywhere in the US?

As the Talking Heads song goes, "....and you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile". In this case a very large automobile. Indeed, an automobile that has experienced inexorable growth since the "multipurpose vehicle" or the minivan, was first introduced to the US, and I'm not talking about sales: In 1997, the Toyota Sienna was 4.84m (191in) long; now it reaches lengths more than 5.10m (200in). With the bodies, the engines have grown. And that means a decreasing fuel economy.

Rather than asking ourselves, "Well, how did I GET here?", perhaps it is well to start asking, "How do I get out of this?". You may teach your children to ride a bike to the orchestra, but how will their cello get there? And grandparents: only selected ones do bicycles. So you still need a vehicle that will carry seven.

Consider asking for a smaller minivan. For instance, consider a Toyota Estima, just 4.80m long (189in) or nearly a foot shorter than the Toyota Sienna (the larger Sienna is made specially for the US market and is available nowhere else). Go the extra step, and go for the Toyota Estima Hybrid.

No, CelloMom has not taken a test drive in an Estima: it would require going to Japan, or to Australia (where it is known as the Tarago). But the table below shows a comparison between the Sienna and the Estima Hybrid. The 2.4L hybrid gets a fuel economy of 42mpg according to the JC08 standard which tends to be an overestimate; CelloMom estimates a real-use mileage of 30-35 mpg, very good for a car this size. The price tag looks high, but check the post on how to read MSRP outside the US.

The non-hybrid Toyota Estima has a Japanese MSRP of $35,200; its 3.5L conventional engine puts out 280HP power, but gives a fuel economy of only 24mpg (JC08). Using a smaller engine (giving up a little bit of the power) would raise the mileage, and make the car less expensive to buy.

The cello would easily fit in the back cargo space. More than one friend, even with their cellos, would be comfortable if you position the sliding seats cleverly on their rails. And you don't have to be a grandparent to appreciate the optional airplane seats with footrest.


Toyota Sienna compared to Toyota Estima Hybrid

Toyota Sienna Toyota Estima
Type Hybrid
Year 2011 2011
Emissions rating ULEV-II
MSRP $ 25,060

¥ 376,0000
(US$ 48,500)

City/Hwy (mpg) 19 / 24
avg. quoted 20 mpg 18.0 km/l JC08
avg actual 22 mpg (DOE)
Engine 2.7L DOCH 4-cyl 2.4L DOCH 4-cyl
Power 187 HP @ 5800 rpm 150 HP @ 6000 rpm
Gears 6-spd auto auto
Fuel unleaded gasoline
Length, mm(in) 5088 (200.3) 4800 (189)
Width, mm(in) 1984 (78.1) 1820 (71.7)
Height, mm(in) 1765 (69.5) 1760 (69.3)
Weight, kg(lbs) 1939 (4275) 1990 (4387)
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) (39.1 / 87.1 / 150)
Turning radius, m(ft)
Top speed, kph(mph)

September 4, 2011

mpg vs. REAL mpg

Summer 2011. Gas prices at the pump have been around the $4/gallon mark, filling your tank can be a dizzying experience and "mpg" is the term of the day, featuring prominently on today's car ads. Why, even Hummers now come with a mileage specification.

But how is "The Fuel Economy" determined? And can you, as a car buyer, really trust those numbers from the car ads?

In the US, you can! Here, the fuel efficiency published by car manufacturers is based on tests that follow EPA guidelines that have been tightened in 2008. If you compare the EPA numbers to actual mileage reported by real-life drivers going about their daily business, you find that if anything the EPA number for "average" mileage is a very slight under-estimate of the actual mileage.

Elsewhere in the world, the official numbers for fuel efficiency are quite a bit higher than the actual mileage. Keep it in mind when roaming the internet for fuel efficient cars: The discrepancies can be stunning.

As an example, let us look at the 2011 Toyota Prius, because it comes with the same engine wherever it is sold. The table below shows both the "official" mileage and the real-life fuel economy for actual users. The latter averages to about 50mpg if you ignore the Dutch result (more about that below).

The EPA numbers are just about the same as the actual mileage in real life. Elsewhere on the planet, the official fuel economy varies from 60mpg, to an improbable efficiency of 83mpg according to the older Japanese 10.15 standard. After a promise like that, finding out the true mileage could be a bit of a letdown. So many dealers, at least those in the Netherlands, are very upfront about suggesting that you ignore the mileage on the nice display charts in the showroom, and proceed to tell you the street value.


Fuel Economy of Toyota Prius, selected locations

As Listed
(local units)
Translated into
Official Fuel Economy
US city / hwy 51 / 48 mpg 51 / 48
EU city / hwy 3.9 / 3.7 l/100km 60 / 64
EU avg 3.9 l/100km 60
Australia 3.9 l/100km 60
Korea 29.2 km/l 69
Japan 10.15 35 km/l 83
Japan JC08 30.4 km/l 71
Real-life Fuel Economy
US Dept. of Energy 50.3
US fuelly.com 49
US truedelta.com 52
UK Honest John 57 mpg(imp) 48
NL Dutch TNO study 5.8 l/100km 41


If you live in the US, you can contribute to the real-use efficiency data by volunteering to log your fuel use at one of several websites, including that of the US Department of Energy. The more participants, the better the accuracy of the numbers. Fuelly.com has a nice graphic interface that shows you not just the average but also the spread of mileage achieved. Truedelta sorts its data also by terrain (e.g. hilly vs. flat).

Honest John is in the UK, where they use imperial gallons, so you need to multiply all their numbers by 0.8327 to get mpg(US). For the Prius, the efficiency recorded in the UK, 48mpg, is a tiny bit lower than that in the US: apparently they still drive a little zippier there, even though the peak days of "road rage" are thankfully in the past.

The fuel economy from the Dutch study is way off. This is not because the team conducting the study made mistakes (TNO deservedly has a high reputation), but more because of the nature of the population they studied: drivers of cars leased by their employers. In Holland, this is a popular way to augment the employee's compensation package (initially, there were 240,000 cars in the study). So these drivers are (a) Dutch people (zero-patience, high-vigor drivers), (b) who work (higher stress), and (c) some of whom have their fuel expenses covered by their companies (no incentive to save). Pedal to the metal, guys.
If you must get your mileage number from this study, a guideline is that above a claimed C02 emission of 180g/km the measured mileage is within 10% of the "official" mileage, and above 230g/km it is within 5%. In any case CelloMom reckons that you can regard the measured mileage as the absolute minimum you will get in a particular car.
Self-reported mileage for Dutch drivers can be found at the Autoweek site: there the fuel economy for Prius is closer to 47mpg, but the variations are large, reflecting the range of driving style.

September 2, 2011

Strategies for increased fuel efficiency

There is a lot of advice already on the Web on how to increase your transportation mileage with the car you already own, from people like you and me contributing to the wikipedia and wikihow sites, to Consumer Reports and the EPA. So here CelloMom will regurgitate only a handful of ideas; however, she will add suggestions for things to keep in mind when you're ready to buy your next car, as well as longer-term lifestyle changes, and more systemic changes. For example, the commuting calculation (see under the header Lifestyle Change, below), shows just how expensive the car commute can be: at least $200 per month for every 10 miles you live farther from your workplace.


Increase your mileage now

  • Keep acceleration force to a minimum. Resist the urge to check, at every traffic light, your car's specification that it can accelerate from 0 to 60mph in 8 seconds, or whatever. Those specs are probably correct, anyway. Pulling up to speed steadily will burn a lot less gas. For the same reason, use cruise control, especially on long trips. Avoid stop-and-go rush hour traffic as much as you can.
  • Keep braking to a (safe!) minimum. Even in hybrid cars, which use part of the car's kinetic energy to recharge the battery, there are losses that contribute to heat. In conventional cars that don't have regenerative braking, ALL your car's kinetic energy gets converted to heat at your brake pads; there's your direct contribution to global warming.
  • Minimise your trips. CelloMom, who has a memory like a steel sieve, finds that a shopping list or to-do list can shave many miles off her errands around town. On multiple-stop errands, try to first go to the stop farthest from your house, this gives your car a chance to warm up to its optimum temperature where it will be most fuel-efficient.
  • Mellow your driving style in general. Breathe deeply. If you're mad about something as you leave work, go for a little walk before you get into the car. Wherever you go, leave on time. Stress induces "vigorous" driving which is bad for your mileage and bad for safety.
  • On highways, avoid speeding. Way back, when the 55mph speed limit was imposed on interstates, that number was chosen because it was the average speed at which cars were most fuel efficient. It's still that way, even though the speed limit has been raised on many highways.
  • Avoid idling your car. Cars that are fitted with a stop/go system where the engine is automatically switched off when you're standing, say, at a traffic light, are shown (and advertised) to get significantly better mileage.
  • Keep your car as empty and light as possible. Your car is for moving, not storage. If you feel a need to lug your toolbox wherever you go, perhaps it's time for a new car? It must be said, CelloMom's dad once went on a 4-week camping trip carrying a spare cylinder head for his VW van, because he had heard some telltale noise. It turned out he did need it, and the spare saved the trip - but not all of us can "listen" to our cars like that.
  • Keep up the maintenance on your car. A happy car is a fuel- and cost-efficient car. A clunker spends a lot of its energy crying for service. Keep your tires at the right pressure.


When buying a new car, be aware, and be realistic, about your needs.

  • Actually, way before you need a new car, visit your local car temple and ask your dealer to offer more fuel efficient cars, adding your specific voice to the general pressure from the new CAFE standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Use CelloMom's reviews and tools to find out what fuel-efficient cars are on non-US roads right now, and ask for your favorite model(s) to be made available to you.
  • Match the car size to your true needs. If you're a size 8, you wouldn't wear size 12 clothing in case you'd grow into it; so why buy a car that carries seven people for your family of three? The safety argument still holds up to a point, but today's small cars have much better crash safety than the boats that plied US streets in the 1960s, because they have now been engineered to crumple in such a way as to catch most of the blow of an impact. (However, there are physical limits: a Fiat 500, with its tiny nose, will not be as safe as a Toyota Camry).
  • Match the engine size to your true needs. If you live in the mountains and your route home goes seriously up and down, then, yes, you might need that bigger engine. If you live on flat land, the bigger engine is a liability: it eats gas, and may be dangerous to your eggs, and to your driving record. Back in the 80's, CelloMom's family upgraded from a VW Golf with a 1.3L engine, to another Golf, but with a 1.6L engine. CelloMom's mother took the new car into town and promptly got a ticket for going 50mph in a 30mph zone. She never did hear the end of it.
  • Manual transmission used to be the way to fuel savings, because automatic transmission lost a lot of energy in friction. But the new transmission systems have been cunningly devised so save fuel, for instance by maintaining the engine at its optimum rotation speed (rpm), as is the case in CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) engines.
  • Keep your car as streamlined as possible: at higher speeds, the shape of the car determines the air resistance that the engine needs to overcome in order to keep the car moving. Deer antlers at Christmas time are cute, but they wreck your aerodynamics. Rear spoilers are meant to increase stability in Formula 1 racing cars: they look a little silly on a car going at the 25mph speed limit in US towns, and they do a number on your fuel efficiency on the highway.
  • Research the engines and find the one that matches your needs. Hybrids obviously give better mileage but are optimised for more temperate climates (the batteries like neither extreme cold nor extreme heat). Smaller engines are fine for flat terrain. Turbo-charged diesel engines give a bigger punch even at smaller engine size.
    Excuse me for spoiling the "fun", but when you live in the city, you don't need something that goes from 0 to 60 in 8 seconds, nor do you need something that can go 200km/hour (120mph) when the highway speed limit is still 65mph in most places.
  • Choose the tires that match your needs. Most cars come with an optional tire set, usually at extra cost, usually thinner in the radial direction (for a more sexy look), and wider. You might appreciate the wider tires in snow or sleety weather, because they give better traction. That traction come from increased rolling friction. So if you live where it rarely snows, you may want to opt for the better mileage you'll get from the thinner tires.


When you're ready for a lifestyle change:

  • Move closer to where you work. Commuting gives wear and tear not just on your car, but on your body and soul. And it's expensive. According to Consumer Reports, it costs between $0.50 and $1.50 per mile to operate your car (depending on the make and model), so the additional cost of commuting an extra 10 miles to work every day comes to $200-$600 per month. CelloMom got those estimates by multiplying the per-mile cost of your car ($0.50 - $1.50), by 20 miles per day (there and back), by at least 20 working days per month. Driving 50 miles to work every weekday costs at least $1000 per month; your job had better be worth that.
  • Walk or bike: to work, shopping, recreation. Cost: negative, since you get a bunch of health benefits which saves you money in the long run.
  • Telecommute; or, move your work to where you live. Commuting cost: zero. (Added benefit: much reduced dressing cost, since every telecommuting day is pajamas day). Not every job is amenable to this but many are, and business (one manager at a time) will eventually come round to the conclusion that for some of their workforce, flexible work hours and work place will make for happier and more productive employees.
  • Share your ride I: For commuting, consider a rideshare. Cuts your commuting costs down by a factor equal to the number of people with whom you share a car. Use the internet to help you find a suitable rideshare partner.
  • Share your ride II: If you need a car only occasionally, consider joining a carshare program such as Zipcar. If you need a car sporadically, consider renting one whenever necessary. This saves a bundle on the overhead costs of car ownership.
  • Share your ride III: Public transportation is marvelously efficient energy-wise, and you can spend your time on the train working, reading or catching up on sleep instead of ratcheting up your blood pressure behind the wheel.


When you're ready for systemic change:

  • Demand better roads. That's better, not more, roads. Potholes make you brake, swerve, or curse; none of those actions are energy efficient. And they lead to suffering on the part of your shock absorbers (CelloMom recently suffered a $800 bill for a pair of new shock absorbers; ouch).
  • Demand more bicycle paths. CelloMom is not talking about a bike sign painted on the asphalt of an otherwise car-dominated road. CelloMom is talking a real and official bike path, set apart from the car lanes by a tire-eating curb. A place where you wouldn't mind your 10-year old going by herself. Saves you a lot of gas going to the library, the pool, the soccer field, etc., and builds exercise naturally into your child's life, and your own.
  • Help your community build better public transport: the whole community will benefit. CelloMom's favorite example is that of the Brooklyn Bridge, which currently carries 140,000 cars with 178,000 passengers daily on three car lanes (each way). Its peak performance was achieved in 1907, when it carried 426,300 passengers a day. Back then it had one lane reserved for the elevated train, one lane for a cable car, and a third for private vehicles. The vehicles were mostly horse-drawn, but CelloMom doubts they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge more slowly than today's cars at rush hour. No wonder there is a proposal to re-awaken the potential of the Brooklyn and other New York bridges by reserving one lane in each direction for public transit.
  • Help your company towards flexible working arrangements. Examples of flextime: 8 hours a day, but start and end times are flexible so you don't waste time and gas in rush hour traffic (you must be present during core hours to facilitate meetings). A full workweek of 40 hours but done in 10 hours a day for 4 days: shaves one day's commute. 1-5 days a week of telecommuting, depending on the nature of your job and your responsibilities. Many telecommuters feel they are much more productive working away from the distractions of the water fountain, supervisors barging into your office, workplace intrigue and other assorted joys of office life.


....And CelloMom is convinced that YOU can think of myriad other ways to save fuel. So let's go out and DO it!