How far can you expect to get on a single litre of fuel?
How far can you expect to get on a single litre of fuel?
It qualifies as the slowest race I’ve ever competed in: drain the fuel tank of a diesel-engined Volkswagen Polo, tip back in a single litre of fuel, and then nurse it along to discover how far you can get.
The German car maker this week attempted an unusual experiment to introduce the Australian motoring media to its fuel economy hero, the Polo 66TDI Comfortline, powered by a not-so-small 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine.
Stick to quiet rural roads and set the cruise control, however, and officially fuel use will fall to 4.0L/100km, which is even better.
But Volkswagen has thrown out a pretty big challenge to us. We’re to pick up our little Polo at Melbourne’s airport, and drive it as fuel-efficiently as we can around a 44-kilometre loop that involves intersections, roundabouts, steep hills and sweeping cuttings.
Making it even more difficult is the realisation that Drive’s Melbourne team has sent its ... ahem ... biggest-boned representative along for the ride. Considering I alone account for almost a 10th of the Polo’s weight before I get in it, I reckon I’m already at a slight disadvantage.
There’s a little relief, then, when former Australian Rally Championship driver Ed Ordynski tells me that the best fuel-use run for the morning, which reeled in about 35 kilometres before conking out on the roadside, was set by the heaviest driver.
Ordynski is probably better known for burning fossil fuels than conserving them. During his rallying career, he says it was quite normal to see fuel use soar as high as 75L/100km during competition, although tooling along the road in between stages his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo would drop to a less jaw-dropping 7.5L/100km.
Ordynski is here for two reasons; to make sure we’re absolutely clear about not cheating by switching off the engine if we’re caught in traffic, and to give us a few pointers about how to drive economically.
Basically, he tells us, the main reason someone will go the furthest distance is all down to luck, mostly in the first 100 metres of the car park. Driving out of the airport, there’s a chance you can get caught up by a long line of passing taxis, while two sets of fuel-sapping traffic lights sit between us and the open road.
Avoid them, he says, and I’m in with a chance.
We depart rally-style, with take-offs coinciding with a spotter who lets us know when the nearest set of traffic lights is in our favour. Ordynski is in the car behind me as I see the signal to go, fire up the engine and almost instantly pop the clutch in second gear to take advantage of the diesel’s pulling power that rivals that of a much larger petrol engine.
Straight away, things start to go pear-shaped. As I nose out of the car park, a stream of taxis flow across the bit of road I’m aiming to join — nothing for it but to tap the brakes and slow right down.
A gap appears, and I’m out on the road to Sunbury, chugging slowly out of the airport under a featherweight throttle as I let revs rise to about 1200rpm before snatching the next gear up.
The road forms a single lane, and very soon there’s a queue of cars behind me as I build speed as slowly as I can. Before too long there’s the telltale flash of headlights, so I’m forced to squeeze the throttle a bit more and get up near the 100km/h speed limit to appease the growing conga line. I’m cursing them, though, as much as I’m sure they’re cursing me.
A lazy run to the first roundabout is an opportunity to experiment a bit with the Polo and work out that there’s no benefit in letting the car look after the hills on its own account.
Once the engine starts to stall, the Polo’s electronic nerve centre will inject more fuel into the cylinder, delivering more power to keep the engine alive but at the expense of a fuel use figure jumping as high as 15.0L/100km.
It’s better, then, I work out, to invest in a light throttle on the downhill sections to help the Polo climb the gentle slopes on the other side. If I do this, I can keep fuel use on the uphill sides to below 10.0L/100km.
After an ugly start, I’m now having a dream run. The roundabout is a lazy curve and free of traffic, and a long, straight section of rural road means I can chug along in fifth gear at 60-odd and get my race face on.
In this instance, my race face looks a little red, sweaty and grim. In the interests of conserving fuel, I’ve switched off the radio and air-conditioning despite the blazing sun, so I’m starting to get a little hot and bored.
Cracking the driver’s window a little helps with the heat. A steep cutting — the first significant topographic obstacle I’ve faced in the first 10 kilometres — helps with the boredom.
Once again, the Polo is smarter than I am. I could easily pop the clutch and use the brakes to regulate speed while coasting down the steep, sweepingly curved decline, but the engine has a cut-off system that stops feeding fuel into the engine when it’s not needed.
I’m better off, then to use a combination of the engine’s compression and the brakes to slow the car down for corners, and use a little throttle-induced momentum to get up the other side.
I’d rather not talk about the climb. For the economy racer, it was akin to having your heart ripped out of your chest. Let’s just say the fuel-use indicator climbed to figures more representative of summer heat than ideal beer-consumption temperatures. You get the idea.
About the 20-kilometre mark dishes up a T-intersection. The grass has grown quite high on the road margins, so despite the give-way sign a safe turn requires an almost complete stop.
Not long after, Ordynski appears in his car and flashes past. It may be five years since he last raced competitively, but it looks as though the need to get in front is still much stronger than the need to conserve fuel.
It pays off as the odometer ticks over the 30-kilometre mark. Not long into it, Ordynski is pulled over on the side of the road, his litre fully expended.
Pressing on with a growing sense of Toyota Prius-like smugness, the kilometres climb higher and higher. I’m nervous as I reach, then pass, the best distance of the earlier competitors.
Tragically, I take a wrong turn at a roundabout. It’s simply fixed by completing a U-turn, but I’ve had to expend more precious fuel idling on the side of the road waiting for a gap in the traffic, and then building momentum from a complete stop.
The next think I know, and I’m past the 40-kilometre mark and in sight of the airport. I pass another competitor on the side of the road near the northern end of the runway, and the excitement builds. I’m going to make it all the way back!
Again, there’s now a long snake of traffic trailing out behind me. I’m forced to coax the little Polo along using the throttle as I hit 90km/h.
What was that? Did the Polo just give a little hiccup? I can see the sign saying ‘‘Airport’’ spearing off the left of the Sunbury road, but I’m now a little worried that it may be a turn too far.
The road dips down and then sweeps right to a fairly short but steep climb into the airport access road, the car park and the finish line.
As I come down, the little Polo gives a cough and the engine dies. It’s as far as I’ll be going today — I’m now into survival mode, trying to coax the car across two lanes of traffic as it rapidly loses momentum.
The blue ute behind me offers a few words of encouragement — ‘‘What are you doing, you d**khead?’’ — as I hit the hazard light switch, make room and swing left to the kerb travelling on nothing but hope and momentum.
I’m less than 500 metres away from the destination. After travelling 43.47 kilometres on its equivalent of a small milk carton of fuel, this last hill proves a challenge too far.
I’m not the winner. A lone car covered the extra few hundred metres to the finish line, running out of fuel only when its driver went to nurse it back into its original parking spot.
The cruel hand of fate, then, has decided that on this day, Ed Ordynski and I will not be winners.
However, If I’d kept going with the Polo’s 65-litre tank full, and assuming the same 2.3L/100km fuel use rate as our test, I could theoretically drive the smallest VW from Melbourne to Cairns without needing a single refuel.
I could never do that, though. Just like Ordynski, I’ll probably always give in to the temptation of wanting to be first past the line.
Volkswagen Australia donated $10 for every kilometre travelled during the Polo One-Litre Challenge to Queensland flood relief.