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Save gas. Buy a Turbodiesel.
VOLKSWAGEN JETTA 1.9 TDI
-7.0 gallons of B20 biodiesel at $2.749
-49.9 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 42 mpg
TOYOTA PRIUSOur fuel station was offering up B20 biodiesel, 20 percent veggie oil, which means that from an environmentalist’s perspective the German diesel didn’t just beat the Japanese hybrids, it trounced them. Not only that, it had more than half of its 14.5-gallon tank left at the end—it could have made the same trip again without refueling! Our example was pretty much a stripper, absent even the usual VW trip computer, so we had no instant feedback loop on our performance. Maybe if we’d had that, we could have nudged the economy from 49.9 mpg into the 50-mpg range.
As it was, we just drove gently, stayed with the caravan and employed the manual mode on the six-speed automatic transmission when it seemed useful. Spoiled by the Vette, perhaps, we sometimes screwed that up because first gear in the Jetta is so low that pulling away from a light runs you up beyond 3000 rpm rapidly, turning fuel into roar with not much accelerative reward. Most of us ended up slotting it into “D” and leaving it there.
At about 11 seconds to 60 mph, the Jetta’s published road-test numbers are not as good as the Prius’ (around 10 seconds, thanks to massive electric motor torque at 0 rpm), but at highway speeds its 177 lb-ft at 1800 rpm and 100 hp at 4000 rpm feel stronger than the Toyota and smoother than the Honda. The diesel spins harder than the Vette at 80 mph, running at 2500 rpm or so, but still it is a long-legged German car with autobahn-able credentials.
For comfort, quiet and highway handling, our drivers found the TDI had significant advantages over every other car in the test. It would have been our choice, in other words, for an easy daytrip on the interstates, regardless of fuel economy. And we topped the hybrids by driving with just a little attention to fuel economy, not making it an obsession. Maybe this German family sedan was inspired by our mission—we understand VWs make a lot of beer runs in their homeland.
-8.3 gallons of regular gas at $2.599
-42 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 51 mpg
HONDA ACCORD V6 HYBRIDWell, it didn’t make its 51-mpg EPA highway estimated, but 42 mpg on a long road trip would please most American drivers. Part of the shortfall was due to the pace we maintained. At a more hybrid-friendly 55 to 65 mph, the dazzling dashboard display showed numbers closer to 50 mpg, but it was also telling us we were averaging 44 to 45 mpg when our tank reading said otherwise. That instant feedback loop, monitoring economy in short increments of time and distance—not to mention letting the driver see exactly where the energy is going to and coming from—is a big part of why Prius drivers are so prone to telling the rest of us, “You have to drive it differently.” We found that isn’t quite true; the Prius responds to the same economy-minded driving techniques experts have been advising for 30 years or more. Steady throttle openings, gentle accelerations, concentrate on maintaining momentum and avoiding abrupt starts and stops, and it rewards you. The difference in the Prius is it offers up immediate gratification of the video-game variety, right there on the dashboard, no waiting to fill the tank and do the math yourself.
However you measure it, the second-generation Prius is much better suited to long road trips than was its forebear. It rides better, has more gumption to carry you over grades without fuel-sucking downshifts or a floored gas pedal, and even its braking performance (influenced by the regeneration feature, which varies according to the state of battery charge) is more even and predictable. It did really well. It just wasn’t the mileage champion.
-10.3 gallons of regular gas at $2.599
-33.9 mpg vs. EPA highway rating of 34 mpg
From Autoweek:With 255 hp on tap, there’s plenty of mojo in Honda’s performance-oriented hybrid, and you pay less of a penalty than you do in the Vette if you choose to use what it has. This mix of both economy and performance is what landed the Honda dead-center in our fuel-sippin’ exercise at 33.9 mpg. The Honda had no trouble keeping up on the highway, though locking it into top gear wasn’t as easy as with some cars. Instead, the software wanted us to give the car control.
On the interstates that made up about 300 miles of our journey, the Honda was the one car that clearly rewarded use of cruise control—a driver on his own could occasionally light the “eco” indicator on the dashboard that tells you the V6 is running on half its cylinders (just like the Jeep’s MDS). Use cruise control, which hands over the throttle and transmission management tasks to the ECU, and that “eco” indicator lit up more often and stayed lit longer.
It also tended to smooth out the ride experience—most of our drivers complained there were abrupt changes among the various modes of hybrid operation and that once you were up to cruising speed the Honda felt heavy and clunky. There was also plenty of road noise, attributable, as with the Prius, to the hard, fuel-economy-oriented tires.
- Although we had our qualms before the storm, we think our little road trip shows the technologies are out there to promise massive gains in fuel efficiency in short order, should circumstances warrant it. Imagine a Prius-like hybrid that ran on biodiesel instead of gasoline. We may not be there yet, and adapting diesels to use the cylinder-cutoff technology found in the Jeep and Honda might be a tough task, but look how far we’ve come already.