July 12, 2012

Have your Cake and Drive it Too: of Fuel Economy, Performance, and Moms

A survey by Consumer Reports, published in May 2012, shows that fuel economy is the leading consideration in new car purchases, ahead of traditional issues such as quality, safety and value. This is borne out by surveys of actual purchases by Truecar.com, which show that the average fuel efficiency of new cars in the US is climbing steadily.

Of course, the price of gasoline has something to do with this trend.

But apart from that, the most important consideration cited by respondents is a desire to be more environmentally friendly (62%) and to decrease the nation's dependence on foreign oil (56%). Women tend to be a bit more environmentally friendly (65%) than men (58%).

To get the higher fuel efficiency, 58% of respondents are willing to trade in on size. The minivan will be increasingly abandoned in favour of smaller cars or smaller SUVs.

Consumer Reports comments, "Moving down a size class can mean a significant reduction in weight and potentially a smaller powertrain. [....And] the smaller vehicle would likely cost less to purchase, own, and operate." I would agree with that!

However, the survey found that, while 45% of men were willing to compromise on perfomance to get a higher fuel efficiency, only 29% of women did so. Surprise! So it's not just the guys who are so bent on horsepower, torque and all that. Why?

There are plenty of women who love sheer performance in a car. There are also lots of women with children, who consider performance part of the safety packet. This is why muscled SUVs have been so popular with moms: They are bigger and heavier - I mean the SUVs not the moms - so they offer better crash protection. The higher seating gives a better view of the road (and a feeling that you're more in control), and their big engines give plenty of acceleration for merging into highway traffic and for keeping farther ahead of the impatient driver on your tail. So the muscled SUV is simply part of the defensive driving strategy. I mean, how many moms do you know that use their SUVs for off-road rough-housing with their toddlers in the back?

For all the moms who are - rightly - concerned with traffic safety, here are a few ideas on how to increase your fuel economy without giving up on safety. For you can have your cake, and drive it too.

One of the areas of concern is erratic or aggressive driving; both have been on the rise. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to change the driving habits of the people with whom you share the road. It hasn't helped that the prolonged recession is contributing to stress, that tends to get expressed as impatience or aggression on the road. On top of that, in-car connectivity has increased distracted driving.

Another area that's out of moms' control is the physical infrastructure: Many highway on and off ramps were designed for a lot less, and a lot slower, traffic than is actually using them. This is true especially in the Northeast where space is at a premium. At on-ramps designed for 30 mph traffic, it's scary to have to merge onto lanes packed with Mack trucks and heavy SUVs, all going at 60 mph. But this is a recession (and TARP money went to banks instead of infrastructure improvement), so chances of getting those on-ramps updated to 21st century standards are slim.

But there are a few things that are in your control, and that you can influence.

If you can, opt for public transportation. No surface transportation is safer. And you can actually talk or play with your children on the way, or else devote yourself to texting, without endangering anyone.

If public transport is not an option, then if your lifestyle / job allows it, stay off the roads at rush hour. This is when roads are packed solid with workers under time stress: not exactly conducive to a laid-back driving style.

Treat yourself to the luxury of time and start out early. Hah! it took CelloDad years to teach me that one - and on this, as on so many other things, he's right: If you start out earlier than you have to, you have this luxuriously calm feeling that you're in control, and you don't have to scoot yourself in front of that Escalade barrelling down the next lane. Instead you can - really you can - wait for a real gap, where you can ease yourself into traffic safely, and without getting your heart rate up.

Give the right example, both to your children and to other drivers: refrain from tailgating. As a rule of thumb, the safe following distance is three seconds' worth of travel at whatever speed you're going. Of course, don't text and drive.

And for your next car, you might consider a diesel engine under the hood. "Clean diesel" cars obey strict emissions control rules. They are up to 40% more fuel-frugal than cars with gasoline engines with comparable horsepower. And they deliver up to 50% more torque.

What do you want torque for? Especially if you have horsepower?

Horsepower works over distance travelled, and over time. Horsepower is what allows you to attain higher top speeds, or gets you up the hill in reasonable time. Horsepower is what gets you from 0 to 60 mph in so many seconds. (But really, how many moms are in the habit of red-lining their RPM meters to meet that spec? With children in the back?)

Torque (which your round wheels translate into forward force) is instantaneous. Torque is what allows a tow truck to haul you out when you get stuck in the mud. Torque is what gives instantaneous acceleration, what you feel as that sweet kick in the lumbar region:

It is that instantaneous acceleration that moms are after when we look for "performance" in a car, not necessarily because we enjoy the kick in the lumbar region, but for merging into traffic, and for getting going from that light before peeving off the driver behind you. Well allright, the kick in the lumbar region is nice too.

As an example, let's look at the Volkswagen Passat Wagon, a car popular with moms for its practical layout and space for up to three car seats in the back. They don't make those any more, you say. I say Volkswagen does still make them, they're just not bringing them to the US any more. If you chase them to their origin, Germany, you will find them re-named the Passat Variant, and they come with a wide choice of engines.

For the gasoline - diesel comparison, I've picked two versions with comparable power: a 1.8L gasoline with 158HP, and a 2.0L diesel with 13% less power, 138HP. Both are turbocharged, and both have direct injection. Just to compare apples to apples.

The diesel version - and this is not a hybrid - gets quoted an average fuel economy of 50mpg, or 43% more than the gasoline version, and good for the top European "A" emissions rating. That makes a green-leaning heart sing!


VW Passat Variant 2012

Variant Variant Blue TDI
Type Comfortline Comfortline
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO 5 "D" EURO 6 "A"
MSRP € 28,325 € 32,750
Fuel Unleaded gasoline ULSD diesel
Fuel Economy
(Avg. quoted)
6.9 L/100km
(35 mpg)
4.7 L/100km
(50 mpg)

1.8L Turbocharged
direct injection

2.0L Turbocharged
direct injection
Transmission 6-spd manual 6-spd manual
Power 118kW (158HP) 103kW (138 HP)
Torque 250Nm (184 lb-ft) 320Nm (236 lb-ft)
0-100kph in 6.1 sec 6.9 sec


But here is the real kicker, so to speak: the diesel puts out 236 lb-ft of torque, nearly a third more than the gasoline version.

If you compare two gasoline engines of different size, of course the one with more horsepower will give the higher torque. But it will also use more gasoline.

The magic about diesel compared to gasoline engines is that at comparable horsepower you get much lower fuel consumption, but with significantly higher torque.

What's the catch? Diesels are generally more expensive to buy: in the case of our example, 16% more expensive than the gasoline version with nearly the same horsepower. But at 43% higher fuel efficiency the higher purchase price might be worth it in the long run. Also, diesels emit particulate matter pollution - however, clean diesel engines sold in the US fall under strict emission rules.

I should add: use that torque wisely. For one thing, delicate musical instruments don't take well to excessive acceleration. The other week, CelloDad decided to put our new-ish VW Golf through its paces. Its diesel engine also puts out 236 lb-ft of torque, but the car is much lighter than a Passat Variant, so the 2.0L diesel engine is basically way too much for a car that size. CelloDad put down his right foot hard and made the car leap forward, having forgotten about the children on the back seat.

Once they recovered from the kick, they gave him an earful. Our children have a fine sense of self-preservation, they do.



  1. I love the "Treat yourself to the luxury of time" tip. And it really works! Recently we were going to a baseball game. We decided to leave early. We took our time, found a good parking spot and then had time to walk around a nearby park. We were so relaxed and had so much fun. On the flip side, we saw people racing to get in and they didn't seem to be having any fun at all. So it is a luxury to leave early and give yourself time. :-) Thanks for another great article!

  2. "Stay Off The Roads At Rush Hour" is such a great tip. It takes a little thought but it saves time, money, gas ... and helps everyone else. Everybody wins!

  3. Fuel efficiency and consumption is one of the things that I consider before buying a car due to the consistent gas price hike.

  4. I have to agree with Orlando that before buying or loaning a car, we must consider the fuel consumption of the vehicle we want. This is because price on gas increases almost everyday.

  5. An electric car would be a good option. You won't have to worry about the price hike. It would be beneficial for our environment too. There are now charging stations nationwide so you don't have to worry on running low.

  6. It's good that the majority now consider the environment when choosing a new car. And not only would choosing a car that has greater fuel efficency help reduce your carbon footprint it would help reduce the impact on your finances as well.

  7. I'm more on the news about fuel efficiency in the US going up. It seems people are starting to learn how to really use their cars efficiently and effectively.

  8. I guess it would be good if VW brought the Passat variant to the states for a change. Its specs are the kind that would make it a sure hit among our drivers. I also heard it was pretty easy to maintain.


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