It was the annual MPG Ma
rathon last week, and I took part as I have done many times in the past. I actually drove in the first event, over a decade ago: back then, it was jaw-dropping that an Audi RS 4 could return an average of 28mpg. In recent years, other huge-engined cars have been entered to tick over on the route for two days and deliver exceptional percentage economy improvements. This year, the organisers decided to level the playing field, and ban anything emitting more than 160g/km CO2.
That’s how I found myself in a BMW 320d EfficientDynamics for two days. 380 miles ahead and a 68.9mpg combined average to beat, which we did with surprising ease. The BMW is a very easy car to drive economically, thanks to a turbo profile and engine smoothness that thrive on running at 1100 rpm. Simply stick it in sixth at 45-50mph and let it trickle along, only changing down when the revs hit the automatic idle of 800rpm. Believe me, the car took it, without shuddering the engine to pieces and without swooning in off-boost distress at the first sniff of a hill.
The seal on the fuel tank was cut on the eve of the second day, and the tank was brimmed by official AA technicians. It took them about 20 minutes, so precise was the measurement. So when they tell me I averaged 84.91mpg, I believe them. Because it’s an impressive 23% better than the official combined figure and, thus, proof that you can hit the government’s figures when you try to.
It wasn’t the best, though, no matter how impressive a sporting rear-wheel drive saloon car with 163hp and a 0-62mph time of 8.0 seconds returning nearly 85mpg is. No, this year, two cars actually beat the 100mpg barrier, something the tiny smart fortwo diesel has been trying but failing to do for years.
A Kia Rio 1.1 EcoDynamics was the first in, with an average of 102.2mpg. The AA crews were delighted: they’d tried to squeeze more fuel in but it wasn’t taking a single drop extra. Then came a Ford Fiesta Econetic, driven by a rally driver turned motoring journalist. Sounds like a recipe for a disastrous result, but he clearly knows his onions: he averaged an amazing 108.8 over the two days. For a cooking supermini the same as the one you can buy from Ford’s biggest dealer network? Little short of amazing.
Expect to see this figure promoted heavily by Ford. It deserves to be. As a fellow competitor, I know the route was realistic and real-world, taking in A-roads, B-roads, motorways and back roads. The climbs were severe, the traffic ever-present and the need to stick to a strict timetable was enforced with even stricter penalties if you didn’t. This was a real world challenge by real world cars, driven by eco-minded but otherwise normal journalists. The figures count. And the figures show we don’t need electric cars just yet.
What we do need is the sort of public education that will show ordinary drivers how to achieve impressive results too. They may not be able to beat the combined figure by huge percentages, but they might be able to at least match it, day in and day out, simply by thinking a bit more about how they drive and the car they do it in. Other than a few basic economy techniques, I didn’t do anything particularly clever, but I still got a strong result as the car encouraged and thrived on economy driving. Find one that works with your style of green driving and there’s no reason to think you can’t too.
And what do I mean abut a green-friendly car? Well, one that is happy to run at low revs without the crankshaft feeling like it’s going to rip a hole in the side of the engine bay. A torque delivery that doesn’t completely disappear below 1500rpm. A clutch and gearchange that let you shift accurately and swiftly to ensure hard-earned turbo lag doesn’t tail away completely during gearchanges and then have to be wastefully recommenced when you engage the next gear.
BMW’s thought about this, with a special damper that soothes away low-speed engine vibrations and a carefully calibrated fuelling system that ensures it’s able to run at low rpm with impressive cleanness. Other cars struggle here, which is why they can perform less well even when the driver’s trying to be green. If it’s frustrating for people, they’re not going to do it. Manufacturers should remember this and ensure it’s not a painful experience.
The MPG Marathon for me wasn’t a burden this year. I quite enjoyed this new twist on performance driving. The gauntlet’s been thrown down good and proper for next year, though. Who’ll be the first to beat 110mpg? Well, don’t be surprised to find some of the key players returning next year to find out…
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