There is no denying that one of the greatest hindrances to hypermiling is the stoplight. They force you to ruin a perfectly good head of steam and then force you to make the car accelerate from a dead stop. As mentioned in another article, it would be best to use the brakes as little as possible by timing the stoplights such that stopping is not required. Some suggestions were provided in that article but they only scratched the surface. This article aims to dig deeper and provide some suggestions and insight into dealing with various types of stoplight intersections.
NOTE: These examples are based on my experience with stoplights. There are some places were the order of progression is different from those given below. For example, in some locations, left-turn lights precede straight whereas in other places, straight precedes turns. If the lights are different where you live, then please try to work out the differences as they apply.
The Standard Stoplight
In this case, the stoplight is green and you can continue through it. But is it really that easy? How long has the light been green? If you know your route, you have a general idea how long before this light changes to yellow and then red.
If you just saw this light turn green, take your time. However, if you feel this light is “stale” or have no idea when it might change, then it might be best to accelerate through it. Sometimes it is better to burn a little gasoline speeding through a light than take the massive hit brought on by dead-stop acceleration.
Red Means Stop
Here is a typical red light.
Most people would look at this and see that the light is red and therefore, you will be required to stop. A hypermiler, on the other hand, looks at the side lights and sees they are yellow. With some luck and good timing, you should be able to coast up to the light just after it turns green. Always watch the side street for people running the yellow or red.
Bonus Points: If you are turning left at this intersection, you are most likely going to stop. Many left turn lanes are triggered only when there is a car waiting. Since this scene does not show a car, there is a good chance the “straight” light will change green while the left-turn light will stay red. If you have the option, consider continuing straight and trying your luck with the next light.
Left Turn Light
Notice that the left turn light is green and there is a car waiting to go straight.
If you are going straight through the intersection, there is no need to rush. The left-turn light is delaying the oncoming traffic. Even after the left-turn light changes to yellow and red, the oncoming traffic will have their entire turn during which time you will have the green light.
This is also important when there is a line of cars in front of you. Perhaps only ten cars can get through the light normally; when the left-turn light extends the straight light, perhaps fifteen or twenty.
Car Turning Left
Notice that the oncoming car is going straight while the car in front of you is turning left.
In a very real way, this situation is about ten seconds prior to the previous image. The car in front of you will trigger the left-turn light when your light turns green. The oncoming car is not in the left-turn lane and will sit there. You will have an extended green light to proceed at whatever rate you desire.
Red Light with an Oncoming Car Turning Left
Notice the yellow lights on the sides and the oncoming car in the left-turn lane.
As you approach this intersection, there’s simply not much you can do. The oncoming car is going to get the left-turn light and you will have an extended red.
This is the situation no one likes to see. Yellow lights as you approach the intersection. In this situation, you will stop.
Bonus points: Notice this image has the addition of a right-turn lane. If the white car is turning left, there is a strong chance you will get a right-turn light. If this is the case – and you will know this because you have memorized your route – then you should be able to slow enough to wait for the turn light and then zip through the intersection. However, you must look at the white car to make sure it is in the left turn lane. Additionally, be on the lookout for cars in front of you who do not know there is a right-turn light; they will probably come to a complete stop.
Two Lanes, Two lines of Cars, No Right Turn Light
No picture for this one. As much as I preach staying in the right lane unless passing, this is the situation in which I always get into the left lane. The reason is simple: there’s a high probability at least one of the cars in the right lane is going to turn right. This means cars will lurch forward to go through the intersection but have to slam on their brakes when someone slows to make the turn. On the contrary, every car in the left lane is going straight unless there’s a left-turn lane and some of the cars shear off to the left. Double-bonus!
I’ve presented some intersection and stoplight possibilities. There are, of course, many more. But hopefully, with these examples, you have seen how important it is to identify the condition of other lights, the position of other cars, and the conditions they might bring about. When you start to notice these things and reacting appropriately, the number of complete stops will dwindle and overall mileage will increase.
So many times, when it comes to achieving higher mileage, people focus on their car and how they drive. Most times, they just assume the commute is an unavoidable variable. A predefined route that some days has good traffic while other days has bad traffic. This article will explain why the route you take and how you drive it plays as much a role as all other variables. When it comes to improving, never consider anything to be predetermined. The goal is to scrutinize everything.
Find a Mileage Friendly Route
If you happen to live in a large city, there’s a very good chance there are multiple options when it comes to the daily commute. Personally, I have three choices that I will call “Fastest”, “Easiest”, and “Hypermiling”.
“Fastest”: I have the opportunity to hop on an interstate for about ¾ of my commute. Doing so would save about ten minutes and is an attractive option when time matters. The downside is that the interstate maintains a relatively constant 70 – 80 MPH except when it comes to a screeching halt for no particular reason before slamming back up to 70 MPH. In other words, exactly the opposite of hypermiling.
“Easiest”: There is a state highway that runs is literally a straight shot from town to town. Albeit, one with multiple stoplights. Like the interstate, traffic is either racing along (though closer to 50 MPH), stopping for the red light, or accelerating Grand Prix style at the green light. It’s a multi-lane stop-and-go early-morning ball of stress. In no way do I look forward to starting or ending my day on this drive.
“Hypermiling”: This drive is 5 miles and 9 minutes (on average) longer than the “Easiest” route. This drive has longer stretches without stoplights and some stoplights are timed. It passes two schools and one nature preserve. The highest speed limit sign is 45 MPH. It is on this route that I see joggers, walkers, and the occasional wildlife. On nice days, I drive this route with my windows down enjoying the sights and sounds. All the while, the speed is conducive to attentive hypermiling and plays into the capabilities of my car.
By selecting a different route, I can not only achieve better mileage, I can choose how my day starts and ends. If you find that you arrive at work already stressed and you return home mentally ragged, do yourself a favor and seek out a more casual and hypermile-friendly route.
Memorize Your Route
Here is an analogy parents can appreciate. Let’s say your son goes to the first day of school and is presented with a difficult, lengthy exam. How would you expect him to score on that exam? Probably not very good. On the second day, he is presented with the exact same exam. Should he do better than the day before? Perhaps. Let’s pretend your son is presented with the exact same exam every day for the entire 180-day school year. You would expect him to be acing that exam with absolutely no effort, wouldn’t you?
Now what about people working an average 250 days per year? Most of them drive the exact same route every day, to AND from work. Even after all this repetition, it has been my experience that people drive their daily commutes as though it’s their very first time. Every time.
You are a human (I hope). You are preprogrammed to identify and memorize patterns. It’s what we do.
If you drive a hybrid, consider basing battery usage on drive segments. Pick up some charge during the fast segments in order to run farther on battery during the slow segments. Or vice versa: consider going deep into the battery pack if you know an upcoming faster segment will allow you to recharge. Recharging will impact the instantaneous mileage. Ignore that; it’s the average that matters.
It’s all about driving the same route every day, figuring out what works best, and repeating it.
If you have the opportunity, drive a route that returns the highest mileage. If it turns out to also be least stressful, then it’s a double-win. The only way to know which route is the most fuel-efficient is to document each pass in order to develop an average and recognize patterns. Once the best route is identified, memorize how to handle each segment with the intent of getting better with each day.
According to FuelEconomy.gov, under-inflated tires can lower your mileage by 0.3% for every 1 psi drop of all four tires. Other sites put the figure at 0.4%. Even though it doesn’t sound like much, the point of this ongoing series of articles to make clear that all things – when taken together – can account for a significant improvement in overall efficiency.
When to take the Measurement
Hot air expands.
That’s it. Now you understand how the temperature of the tire will affect the temperature of the air and therefore the measurement of pressure. Always measure the tire pressure before driving the car. Taking the measurement after a long drive – especially at high speeds – will return a deceptively high reading.
Ideally, you should measure your tire pressure every month. First of the month? Check your pressure.
Winter versus Summer
In addition to hot air expanding, cold air constricts. Most sources put the anticipated psi drop at 1psi for every 10 degrees of temperature drop. In some locations, the difference between the hottest Summer day and the coldest Winter morning could be more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. For tires, that’s a potential 10psi swing.
When Autumn comes, don’t be surprised if the tires start reading low. It will be necessary to add air to maintain pressure. In the Spring, – and this is important – it might be necessary to remove air to keep the tires from becoming inadvertently over-inflated.
Tires are Part of the Suspension System
Before getting into maintaining and manipulating tire pressure, it should be mentioned that the tires are an integral part of the car’s suspension system. Having shock absorbers is great and all, but it’s the pliability of the tires that cushions the car from all the bumps in the road.
Over-inflating your tires will create a rougher and bumpier ride. It does. There is no way around that. If you decide to over-inflate your tires, you must realize that you do so fully understanding the impact it will have on the smoothness of your ride.
At the Very Least: Maintain Recommended Pressure
Every car has a sticker somewhere indicating the recommended tire pressure. Usually, it’s on the driver’s door jamb but some cars have the sticker on the inside of the trunk hatch.
It is important to keep in mind that the tire pressure on the side of the tires might actually differ from the pressure recommendation on the sticker.
The reason for the potential variance is that the tire is manufactured for a wide range of cars. The tire manufacturer does not know the size and weight of the car it will be mounted on. The manufacturer of the car, on the other hand, knows all the variables and calculates their recommendation. This is why you should always refer to the sticker on the car rather than the sidewall number.
If you do nothing else, absolutely maintain the recommendation on the sticker.
The Dangers of Under-Inflated Tires
Most people who have ever ridden a bicycle have ridden on under-inflated tires. Squishy tires make controlling the bicycle very difficult because the rim is sliding from side to side. The same is true on a car except that cars travel much faster and corner much harder. An under-inflated tire could potentially create the situation in which a quick decision cannot be realized with a quick movement.
Do you remember when all those Ford Explorers were losing control and sometimes flipping over? In every case, one of the tires exploded, which make people suspect it was the fault of Firestone. After a bunch of investigating, it was found that in almost every case, the pressure of the remaining tires was low. As a result, it was determined that the exploding tires were cased by under-inflated tires overheating and rupturing resulting in sudden loss of control. Under-inflated tires create additional friction and could possibly become so hot they weaken and rupture.
It has been proven that under-inflated tires are more prone to skidding in the rain, making stopping more difficult. At the very least, braking distance is increased. Worst-case situation: braking distance is farther than the distance to the car in front of you.
Under-inflated tires do not contact the road the way they are supposed to. This affects overall handling and tire wear. Some estimates put the impact of under-inflation as high as 25% faster tire wear.
So there you have it. If you take nothing else away from this article, please check your tire pressure once a month to make sure you are safe.
Exceeding the Recommended Tire Pressure
NOTE: This is a contested concept for the reasons explained below. It is assumed you are a mature and responsible adult capable of making decisions for yourself that affect the operation of your vehicle. If any part of this bothers you, don’t do it. Just because you read about it on the internet doesn’t mean you have to do it.
There are many people on PriusChat.com working to improve their mileage. They employ many techniques and reliably report their results. I mention this because there is substantial anecdotal evidence that increasing your car’s tire pressure can return higher mileage.
The recommended tire pressure for a 2004-2009 Prius is 42psi front and 40psi rear (42/40). The 2psi difference is explained as additional support for the engine in front. Some people increase to 45/43 and report repeatable mileage improvements. Some have gone as high as 50/48 and continued to report even better overall mileage. However, above this pressure, on real significant improvements are realized.
These results – though shunned by many – seem to indicate there is a mileage improvement to over-inflating tires. To a point.
Concerns of Uneven Wear
Many opponents to over-inflating tires use the argument that the tires will develop a bulge and develop a bald stripe along the radial axis. This was true a long time ago. Modern steel-belted radial tires, however, are reinforced in such a way that over-inflating does not bulge the tire.
Concerns of the Tires Exploding
The level to which some drivers over-inflate their tires is only a few psi. Perhaps as high as 10psi. This sounds like a great amount. But the realization that it’s intentionally a fraction of the tire’s potential is not something you will ever see advertised.
I had the pleasure of meeting an actual tire engineer at a car show. I can’t mention his name or which manufacturer he works for. To be honest, it has less to do with confidentiality and more with a horrible memory.
In our discussions, I mentioned that I had inflated my tires above the recommendations and was mildly concerned. He gave a “pa-shaw” sound and rolled his eyes. He then explained that the sidewall tire recommendation is based more on the risk of litigation than the potential of the tire. This gave me a certain level of ease.
As I look over this article, it’s clear that much of it addresses arguments against over-inflating tires. It’s just that this article only addressed potential mileage gains of over-inflating tires the comments section would light up with those very arguments. So they are pre-emptively addressed in an attempt to make it clear that I’m fully aware of those arguments and am not making blanket suggestions without realizing potential consequences.
Make sure to check your tires’ pressure every month. At the very least, maintain the tire pressure recommendations listed on the sticker in your car. If you choose to over-inflate your tires, be aware that you will experience a bumpier ride because the tires are part of the car’s suspension system. Though there are concerns of damaging tires with higher pressure, the evidence simply isn’t there to support them.
Anyone who has watched Star Trek: The Next Generation understands the futility of the sleek design of the Enterprise when compared to a Borg ship. I call it futility because someone spent a lot of time designing a sleek and aerodynamic design for a ship that will only ever travel in a vacuum, devoid of air (except, of course, when it’s crash landing on Veridian III).
My point here is that when there is no air, the cube shape of the Borg ship is equally as aerodynamic as any Starfleet vessel. Unfortunately, we do not maneuver our vessels in a vacuum; we have to deal with wind resistance and the impact it has on our fuel consumption.
Because we have to deal with air resistance, we must pay special attention to the way air flows around our cars. One thing is for sure: when a manufacturer puts a car into a wind tunnel, they don’t strap a Thule cargo carrier on the roof and a couple bikes onto the back. In order to earn the lowest coefficient of drag possible, the manufacturer tried to make their car as streamlined and “slippery” as possible. The goal is to disturb the air as little possible. Anything attached to the car will create a lot of disturbance and defeat the intentions.
In this article, we’re going to explore aerodynamics and how keeping your car free from external add-ons will make your car more efficient, improve your mileage, and save you gas money.
Let’s Geek Out on Aerodynamics for a Minute
Before we can delve into how things impact aerodynamics, we should sidebar for a minute and discuss what aerodynamics actually is. The easiest and simplest definition is that Aerodynamics deals with the way air flows around objects. As it turns out, the invisible air we take for granted does some really cool and strange things when objects are pushed through it.
For example, we don’t even consider it but when a car is being pushed through the air, the car is an object that wasn’t in that particular spot just a few second ago. So what? Have you ever pounded a nail into a piece of wood? That nail represents your car and the wood represents the air. The wood was perfectly happy at a state of equilibrium until you came along with your “I have a hammer and therefore everything is a nail” mentality. The nail is literally ripping the wood apart in the same way the car has to separate the air in order to pass through it. Nails are pointed to make it easier; clip the point off the nail and try again. The added effort required represents the wood’s resistance to a having a blunt object pushed through it. That’s visually the same thing as driving a Corvette compared to driving a Hummer.
Cars and air are different because the car keeps moving, which forces the air to collapse behind it. Air is, for most sakes and purposes, a fluid. Fluids take time to flow from one location to another. Therefore, when the air is collapsing behind the car, there is not an immediate “everything’s back to normal.” In fact, because of the car there is literally a hole in the air. Since the air cannot fill the hole as quickly as the car is moving, there is less air in the space immediately following the car, causing a zone of pressure that is negative compared to the surrounding air. This negatively pressurized space literally pulls the car backwards as it collapses. The engine is working to push the car forward, splitting the air and at the same time, fighting the pressure attempting to pull the car backwards. The goal, therefore, is to make one or both of these aspects more efficient.
All manufacturers have to deal with Aerodynamics. Some don’t care; like when manufacturing extra-large SUVs and trucks. Some spend weeks or months in a wind tunnel tweaking and tuning every last bend and curve to improve the frontal and rear aerodynamics. The goal is to split the air and return it to normal as efficiently as possible. To that end, some people are so obsessed that they render – and sometimes create – their own impressions of what a super efficient, super aerodynamic car would look like.
OK. That should be enough to get the point across. The smoother and slicker the car, the more efficiently it will travel, the higher the mileage, and the more money you’ll save on gasoline.
For a really good explanation and much more information, go to BuildYourOwnRacecar.com. This is where I got the two images from. http://www.buildyourownracecar.com/race-car-aerodynamics-basics-and-design/
Remove Things from the Roof of your Car
The roof is a great place to lug a cargo carrier, kayak, Grandma, or whatever might need to be moved from one place to another, out of sight, and without taking up interior cargo room. But when these things are no longer needed, do yourself a favor and remove them. Too many times, it’s just easier to leave the things on the roof. It makes sense because it was probably difficult to get it all strapped in to begin with and removing it will be a hassle considering you’re going to need it again at some point. But if that “at some point” is in two years when you take another family trip, remove it.
Remove Things from the Back of your Car
By now, this should be pretty obvious. Not only does the bike rack full of bikes represent turbulence, it disrupts the air’s ability to smoothly exit the back of the car. This turbulence creates eddies that increase drag. When you’re not taking your bikes to go riding, remove them from the back of your car.
Make sure your Next Car is Aerodynamic
Perhaps your current car isn’t the most aerodynamic. There’s not much you can do about that now. But you can think about the future. Whenever you’re in the market for a new car, try to make sure the new one is more aerodynamic than the one you are trading in. By doing this, you will continuously make strides towards better mileage.
The study of aerodynamics is actually really neat and if you have time, dig into it. You should try to purchase vehicles that are designed with a low coefficient of drag because they most efficiently move through the air. Mounting things to the roof and/or the back of the car interrupts the smooth movement of the air, creates eddies and turbulence, and should be removed when not in use.
First of all, I want to make it clear that this is not an article about drafting. To prove that point, let me explain what drafting is and why it’s dangerous, illegal in some places, and a really, truly, and seriously bad idea.
In auto racing, drafting is also referred to as “slipstreaming” because the goal is to ride in the slipstream of the car in front. In order to do this, the trailing car must be close enough to the leading car to stop the air from collapsing around its back. By doing this, the airflow moves around both cars as though they were one single vehicle. Since much of the effort of propelling any object goes into wind resistance, the trailing car is able to travel much more efficiently. This is shown in the following image, stolen from efluids.com.
Drafting is most beneficial at high speeds where wind resistance is great. This is why racecars draft and some people draft behind semi trailers on interstates. Drafting is rude because the trailing car is much too close to the leading car. It is also extremely dangerous because driving can be unpredictable and drafting leaves virtually no room for sudden movements or braking. To reiterate: don’t do it.
So What’s the Difference
Driving behind a large vehicle at a safe distance is similar to drafting only in that the vehicle in front takes the brunt of the air resistance. Unlike drafting, the trailing vehicle is following at a safe distance. The benefit to the trailing vehicle is that the lead vehicle has disturbed the air in such a way that it does not represent as much resistance to the trailing vehicle.
Notice in the illustration above that the air flow lines are drawn parallel to each other in what’s called “Laminar Flow”. Air is illustrated as strata – or sheets – of air that don’t interact with each other. This does a great job of showing that air is moving around the car, but this is not how air really flows. The goal of most automobile manufacturers is to perturb the air as little possible in order to make their car more efficient.
However, there are many not-so-efficient vehicles on the road such as delivery vehicles, semi tractor-trailers, etc. These vehicles have large flat backs and leave huge eddies of air as they travel. Anyone who has ever been standing on the side of the road when a semi tractor-trailer rolled by understand just how strong their wind currents can be. Depending on the aerodynamics of the truck and their speed, their wake can extend hundreds of feet. This is illustrated in the following image.
This image is probably the best to illustrate the difference between following at a safe distance and versus drafting. Someone drafting would want to be in front of the red, disturbed air, between the truck and the first marker line. Notice how the dark blue actually curls up and towards the back of the truck? This will literally pull the trailing vehicle towards the truck’s bumper. Following at a safe distance has the trailing car behind the disturbed air, in the light blue area, almost two truck-lengths away. Even at that distance, there is benefit thanks to the disrupted air.
The Other Reason to Follow Other Vehicles
Deserved or not, hybrid drivers have a stereotype of being slow drivers. Sadly, I have seen some cases in which this reputation is strongly earned. Having said that, there are times when I am on a multilane road and I just don’t feel like driving like a bat out of Hell, acting as though commuting is a competitive sport with a trophy handed out if you get to work faster. Perhaps I only want to drive a few MPH above the speed limit and have no concern with keeping up with the general flow of traffic.
Sometimes, I come upon a delivery vehicle or lawn care truck that is driving close to the speed I prefer. In this situation, I will maintain a safe following distance and stay there. There is a very good chance – like many of my phobias – that it’s all in my head, but I like to think that rather than me being the slow car now it looks as though I’m the poor car stuck behind the slow vehicle. But I don’t care because in the end I get to drive at my desired speed. This might sound like a stretch, but I was a little relieved to see a post on an online forum in which someone asked if they were the only ones to apply this technique. Multiple people admitting to it.
At a slower speed, any benefit from perturbed air is minimal if there is any at all. The primary point in following a large slow vehicle is the benefit of not feeling as though you are being pressured to driver faster than you would prefer.
Drafting is a really stupid idea and extremely dangerous. Following large vehicles at a safe distance can reap aerodynamic benefits without risking your life. Sometimes following slower vehicles gives you the opportunity to get out of the roadway racetrack and drive at a more comfortable speed.
Yesterday was Earth Day: a perfect time to talk about hypermiling and reduced emissions. But I’m not going to. You see, if we really try, we can do even better than hypermiling. In fact, focusing exclusively on driving more efficiently is not always the best approach. After all, it assumes that you will always be driving. Also, there are stories about people literally driving farther than necessary just to make sure their engines warm up so they can register better mile-per-gallon averages.
Today we’re going to shift our focus from driving more efficiently and focus on driving less. There are several approaches to reducing our dependence on our vehicles. This article might not get to them all but hopefully it will serve as a good start and get you thinking.
The most obvious alternative to driving is walking. OK, I know what you’re thinking: “I live too far from work” or “I have to haul things” or whatever. Yeah, I get that. I have those things too. Walking is not an all-or-nothing alternative. The point here is not to walk everywhere all the time. The point is to know your walking speed and acceptable distance. Then, when you have to get yourself from one place to another, ask yourself whether it is within your acceptable distance. If it is, seriously consider walking.
On a more personal note, we have become a sedentary society. We sit in our car, at our desk, and in front of the television. No matter who you are or what your current state of health might be, we can all benefit from taking more steps every day.
Stepping up from walking is riding a bicycle. The same concept applies: know your acceptable distance and situations. If the current need fits your parameters, ride your bike. From time to time, someone at the local fitness center will wonder why there are so many parking spots and so few bike racks. This is a perfect example of when to ride your bike.
Not only does bicycling extend the distance and shorten the time compared to walking, mountable carriers allow for light grocery shopping. If you need to run to the local store for a few things in order to complete the recipe, don’t bother firing up the vehicle; hop on your bike.
Some of us are lucky in that we have coworkers who live within a mile or two of our homes. This makes carpooling pretty convenient. Some companies have bulletin boards where people can post interest in ride sharing opportunities. Some are actual bulletin boards in a common area such as the cafeteria whereas tech savvy companies might have information on their intranet.
When it comes to driving less, any improvement is an improvement. Let’s say you have a coworker who lives halfway between you and work. Even if you drive to their house and park your car, you are not driving the entire trip. Even if the coworker lives a few miles out of your way, the fact that you are not driving every day means that you are driving less.
Of course, carpooling means taking turns. Don’t be a carpool leech! The only acceptable exception is that you do not have a car at all.
Some people have mass transportation options and don’t even realize it. Make sure to check your community’s internet site or other information to see what mass transportation options exist.
Some people place a stigma on riding the bus or train. Their belief is that not rolling up in your own set of wheels somehow makes you less of a person or they see mass transportation as a lower form then car ownership. But these people are spending money on gasoline and potentially on parking fees. They log more miles on their car, which will result in faster wear-n-tear maintenance. They aren’t aware the amount of money they are spending just because of their personal belief.
Those who ride the train and/or bus to and from work do not have to drive in the rain or snow. They save money on gasoline and potentially parking fees. Ridding as a passenger is much less stressful than driving and provides ample opportunity to get a little more work done, sit quietly, or catch up on that podcast.
Plan your routes
Have you ever been our in your car running a few errands and realize that you’ve crossed town twice already and will need to do it again? Hopefully, it occurred to you that had you planned your errands a little better, you wouldn’t have to do so much driving around.
Not only does better planning reduce the miles you log in your car, it saves you time and money. You save time because, of course, you spend less time in your car. You save money because gasoline is not cheap.
Next weekend – or whenever – when you are about to run a series of errands, consider writing them down and then numbering them based on a preferred route. You would be surprised how much time you end up saving this way and how much better you feel for having gotten through them faster.
Reducing the miles driven in your car by any amount is an improvement. Even if carpooling and mass transportation are not available in your area, you can still find other ways to drive less by biking and walking from time to time.
Here is my biggest rub. I pulled these tips from international sources. These things are tightly integrated into the very fiber of most Europeans. Trains and buses are used to capacity and many companies have as many bike racks as parking spots. Some European companies charge their own employees for parking in their garage as a way to encourage carpooling and mass transportation. Sadly, these things are usually either ignored or rebuffed by most American citizens. I shutter to think how bad things would have to get before more people here started acting more like the people over there.
Special Note: The Avalon Hybrid I drove was on loan from Wayne Mitchell, a dear friend and great guy. This review would not be possible if not for his generosity. Thanks, Wayne!
The Avalon is an established car. Like all established cars, it has its own set of stereotypes and demographics. It’s Toyota’s largest, most nicely appointed, and highest priced car. These are the very things that cause most people to assume the target demographic is aged somewhere between 65 and dead. Toyota is aware of this stigma and reimagined the current generation of Avalon in order to attract younger buyers. Someone in their 50s, perhaps.
Another interesting facet of the Avalon story is that it’s the car people buy when they don’t want to buy a Lexus. For multiple reasons, some people would rather have the Toyota nameplate than Lexus: perhaps they don’t want others to think they are trying to put on airs, perhaps they are concerned a Lexus would be a target for vandals, or maybe they just don’t like the overall feel of Lexus cars. Add to those personal factors the very tangible fact that the Avalon costs less than its ES Hybrid brother.
First of all, I am not a large vehicle driver. When I first sat in the driver’s seat, I felt like a kid trying to wear his father’s shoes. The Avalon is a 195.3 inches long. That’s more than 16 feet! The free-throw line on a basketball court is 15 feet. Yes, I admit it: my own inexperience with large vehicles is what caused me so much uncertainty with the length of the Avalon. Let me say this, though: after a few days, I got accustomed to it and the overall size of the car never crossed my mind again.
The side view of the Avalon is a study in elegant lines. Nothing too fancy or elaborate. Mostly straight lines extending from the front of the car to the rear. The slope of the roof backwards from its highest point is subtle and continuous creating a stubby truck door but also creating a huge rear window. Both of these provide excellent rear visibility.
The front fascia is where Toyota added some excitement. Toyota has updated the grill with their now-standard large grill and vertical fog lights. The Toyota emblem is high in front, on a horizontal accent between the LED projection headlamps. This does two things: simplifies the front for a cleaner appearance and provides a more aggressive – dare I say manly – presence in a rearview mirror. Certainly, it might not be for everyone but it does show that Toyota wants younger buyers.
Avalon uses Smart Key technology allowing the driver to keep the keys in their pocket or purse and interact with the car. One feature that is much appreciated is that the interior lights come on when the fob approaches. The nicest touch is that the lights do not blink on instantly but rather ramp up over the course of a couple seconds as the fob approaches and slowly dim when the fob moves away. It’s a subtle difference that makes a world of difference.
Smart Key also allows the driver to unlock the doors by grasping the handle and lock the car by swiping the door handle from the outside. After using smart key to unlock the doors, owners will find it confusing when other cars don’t work the same way.
I previously mentioned that the Avalon Hybrid was the brother of the Lexus ES300 Hybrid. Here is a breakdown of the numbers, just in case you aren’t convinced.
(all in inches) Avalon ES300
Wheelbase: 110.0 110.0
Length: 195.3 193.3
Width: 72.2 71.1
Height: 57.5 57.1
The inch or two differences can easily be explained away with sheet metal bending, grill styling, etc.
Toyota badges their hybrids high behind the front wheel. Lexus badges their hybrids low in front of the rear tire. The Avalon Hybrid, which is part Toyota and part Lexus, wears its hybrid badge low behind the front tire. It’s closest to the front tire like other Toyotas but low like Lexus. There is no way that is a coincidence.
Many car enthusiasts will talk endlessly about how much they love their cars; the Avalon Hybrid is a car that takes the relationship to the next level and will love you back. The big comfy seats are a sheer joy to sit in. With six different seat control settings, if you can’t find a comfortable arrangement it’s not the car’s fault. Once that perfect seat position is identified, you can program it into the seat memory system. Not only will pressing the memory button return the seat to the preferred settings, the memory system can be linked to each of the two fobs so a couple can share the car in comfort.
When climbing into the Avalon, the driver seat is back and low. This provides relatively unhindered access for the driver. When the car is started or the seat belt clicked, the seat adjusts automatically (either the last memory button pressed or the fob used). On the one hand, the way the seat assumes your perfect contour in a controlled glide is like being hugged. On the other hand, it is triggered by clicking the seatbelt, which means the belt tightens as you slide forward. Though the belt is allowed to extend with you, there were a few times when I felt it was necessary to readjust the belt after the seat stopped moving. It’s pretty trivial and after a while, I adjusted my routine to power on the car, let the seat adjust, and then fasten the seatbelt. No biggie.
It should come as no surprise that the Avalon has dual front climate zones. With a touch of a button, you can sync the passenger to whatever the driver has set. Or the passenger has temperature controls to create their own climate zone. Additionally, the rear seats have an adjustable climate zone. The controls and vents are located in the back of the front armrest along with on/off controls for the heated rear seats. Seeing all this rear climate control reminded of the numerous times my mom would ask, “are you getting air back there?”
About the overall climate control, in my opinion, the best thing the driver can do is set it to AUTO and leave it alone. The Avalon never seemed to struggle when it came to maintaining temperature. This led me to believe that it was efficiently using the air conditioning system and being stingy with energy. Even when it was cold outside, the cabin warmed quickly.
Adding to the cold day comfort are front heated seats. The driver and passenger have rheostat knobs with three stops to the right for heating and three to the left for cooling. If someone buys the Avalon hybrid over the conventional hybrid because they are concerned about fuel consumption, the heated seats certainly help in that area. By directly heating the body, there is less need to waste energy heating the cabin.
The hybrid Avalon borrows parts from the conventional version, including the driver’s central dashboard setup of a digital information display planked by two analog dials.
The most notable difference is that the tachometer of the conventional Avalon is replaced with a Power Meter dynamically indicating the flow of energy. The dial starts at what would be the 9:00 position on a clock. As the dial moves clockwise, the driver can gauge how hard to press the accelerator to remain in battery-only mode before the gasoline engine engages. If the driver exceeds the 12:00 position, the car is officially in “Power” mode. It’s when the dial is pointing between 8:00 and 9:00 that the driver knows energy from the tires or brakes is being recaptured and used to regenerate the hybrid battery.
The message center, in the center of the dash, is a beautiful full-color display of system information and driver messages. Though the screen is relatively smallish, the graphics are well designed and rendered very nicely. Seriously. Above the message center is one of my hybrid annoyances: The [READY] light. That light is there to let the driver know that even if the engine is not running, the car is ready to be driven. I get that. However, once the driver has shifted into gear and started moving, why doesn’t the light go off? When on the interstate, I was continuously reminded – at 70 MPH – that they car was ready to drive. Really?
Pop quiz: how many times have you looked all around the inside of a car trying to find the button that opens the trunk? Some manufacturers seem to enjoy a certain level of thrill in hiding the trunk button. The Avalon takes a completely different approach; the trunk button is clearly marked and easily within reach to the left of the steering wheel. That is a simple example of the little things Avalon gets right; there are no hidden buttons. Everything is easy to find.
The steering wheel uses a simple design but packs a whole lot of functionality. Typical for Toyota vehicles, audio volume is controlled with the left thumb. Additionally, the left thumb controls the message center. The message center has multiple screens to flip through; a few provide the opportunity for interaction. With a 4-directional outer rocker and a central push-button, the Avalon allows the driver to quickly find the desired screen and perform any desired configuration. Once the driver gets the hang of the screens and buttons, it’s very intuitive.
On the right side of the steering wheel are the phone controls: pick up an incoming call or hang up the current call. Additionally, the driver can invoke voice-activated commands with the press of the button. On the bottom of the right side is the button to enable/disable the dynamic radar cruise control, which will be covered later.
The infotainment center features a 6.1-inch multi-functional display. This screen is used to view navigation, control music, make phone calls, and display how the car is managing energy. If equipped, this screen also provides real-time weather and traffic.
Toyota continues to promote its Entune suite of applications, including Bing Internet search, iHeartRAdio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Pandora. When enabled and connected to the Internet, the map screen provides real-time traffic information. Though the Avalon Hybrid doesn’t need fuel as often as the conventional version, when the time comes, it is surprisingly easy to look up nearby gas prices and station locations. When the best one is located, a single touch will provide navigation information straight to it.
It has to be said: the volume and tuning knobs are HUGE! The only possible explanation is that after laying out all the buttons, there was a lot of extra space so they beefed up the knobs just to fill the space. They are ridiculously oversized considering they each do only one thing: change volume and change tuning. The tuning knob is not only very large, it is on the passenger side of the screen. At first, you might think this is no big deal; but it is an established –albeit undocumented – rule of the road that the passenger is not allowed to mess with the radio. Placing a tuning knob of gargantuan proportions closest to the passenger is just begging for a fight. #CarFoul
For my money, one of the best technologies introduced applied to a car’s central console is the capacitance button. I simply love the clean, smooth look of buttons that both are and aren’t there. Avalon‘s use of capacitance buttons creates a clean and smooth central console. The matching widths of the multi-function screen, CD slot, the climate screen, and the buttons below create a level of geometric symmetry that is so precise yet subtle that most people probably won’t even notice it.
One of the hot tech additions to cars these days is the Qi charger, which will wirelessly charge Qi-compatible smartphones. By the way, it’s pronounced like “Chee”. In the Avalon, the Qi charger has a secret: it slides up to reveal a secret compartment. It’s not huge, mind you, but it’s got a USB port, cigarette charger, and the power button to the Qi charger. It’s large enough to hide a wallet and a few other little things that might be best left out of sight. Notice, in the following image, that there’s a slot in the bottom of the shelf; this way, even if your phone requires a cable to charge, you can feed it through and keep the cable mess tucked away. I love efficient uses of space and this little gem made me giddy.
The Avalon Hybrid gets is power form a 2.5 liter 4 cylinder engine capable of producing 156 horsepower. It is coupled with a 105 kW electric motor. Combined, these two components can get the Avalon from 0 to 60 in about 8 seconds. Not too shabby for a car of such heft and comfort as the Avalon. The way Toyota has tuned the acceleration makes for the smoothest 0 – 60 acceleration I’ve ever experienced.
It did not take long to figure out why the Avalon has blind spot monitoring. It’s because I literally could not see anything behind me to the right. Until I made the seat almost as tall as possible, I literally could not see anything. At 5-foot 9 inches, I felt tiny. When considering the entirety of driving the Avalon, that was the only negative I encountered. But when considering road safety, it’s a big one. The blind spot monitor became my best friend.
The Avalon Hybrid has three different driving modes. These modes are used to adjust the ratio between pedal pressure and motor response. In Normal mode, there is a 1-to-1 ratio in that the car responds in concert with the amount of pressure applied to the pedal. When Eco mode is engaged, the dash takes a green hue and the amount of response to pedal pressure is reduced. In Power mode, the display is red and the response is increased. When in Power mode, the amount of “gitty up” is startling. For a large vehicle, it really has some spring in its step.
In addition to these three modes, there is also EV mode, which forces the gas-powered engine to stay off and power the car exclusively from the hybrid battery. This mode is intended only for short distances such as shuffling cars in a driveway and should not be used as an attempt to improve overall fuel efficiency.
Allow me to rant a little bit. If the driver moves the shifter all the way to the bottom, the car is in drive. Move the shifter to the left and now the driver has gear control and can shift up or down manually. To be clear, the Avalon Hybrid uses an electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT). It uses software programming to continuously and instantly find the most efficient gear ratio for the situation. With a flip of the wrist, the driver can override that. Rather than write several paragraphs about how silly it is to electronically introduce fake gear settings to a CVT so the driver can play make-believe sports car driver, I’m just going to make it clear that I’m not a fan.
I had to drive the car from Chicagoland to the North side of Milwaukee. It’s entirely interstate and this is where the Avalon really shines as a large, comfortable, cruising vehicle. As though the seats weren’t comfortable enough, as though the highway mileage was high enough, the icing on the cake was dynamic radar cruise control (DRCC). If you are unfamiliar, here’s a quick explanation: You know that 2-second gap you are supposed to leave between you and the car in front? At the press of a button, Avalon will use radar to dynamically maintain that gap for you.
There are a few things to keep in mind, though. For one, there are really two things going on here. You set the speed you want to travel, say 70MPH. And you also set the distance from the car in front. Avalon will adjust to whichever is the slower of the two. This means if the car in font slows down then you slow down also but if the car speeds up to 75MPH you will not follow because Avalon will top out at 70MPH, where you set it. This way, you can set the upper speed limit you are comfortable with and know Avalon will never exceed it.
One interesting twist is that if the car in front slows more than desired, just changed lanes. As soon as the Avalon realizes there is no longer a car in front, it will accelerate to the set speed. You will pass the slow car and continue on until catching another car and the DRCC kicks in, maintaining a safe distance.
The Avalon is a top-notch family car. After so many iterations of the car, Toyota has nailed it down. The front seats are as comfortable as you will find in a sedan and the rear seats are equally as nice. Though you technically could seat three in the back, it would seem as though that’s not really the intent. Two very comfortable people can enjoy the back seat with an armrest between them.
There is ample headroom all around, even in the rear, which is typically where cars fall short. To further increase the comfort of the back passengers, the Avalon has a rear window sunshade. With the press of a button, the driver can raise the sunshade. Showing that Toyota has thought of everything, when the car is shift into reverse, the sunshade automatically drops for rear visibility and raises up again when the cars shifts out of reverse.
The trunk is an ample 14 cubic feet. This is a sizable trunk considering most manufacturers sacrifice trunk space for the hybrid battery. For example, the Honda Accord Hybrid’s trunk is 12.7 cubic feet and the Ford Fusion Hybrid is 12.0 cubic feet. That 14 cubic feet is large and spacious compared to the Fusion Hybrid trunk, which has odd shaped walls as they bends around the battery.
It should be assumed that the purchaser of an Avalon Hybrid is interested in mileage. To facilitate this, when the car is turned off, the Message Center in front of the driver displays fuel economy information about the trip. In doing this, it allows the driver to compare today’s commute to yesterday’s, for example. The only downside with this display is that it seems to come and go much too quickly. The driver must be actively looking for it, and even then, a blink will miss it.
Once the engine was warmed (which didn’t take long), the transmission transitioned from gasoline engine to electric motor seamlessly. Drivers of early hybrids reported rough shut-downs in which the engine would shudder or even kick when shutting down. This was never the case with the Avalon. Whether sitting at a stoplight or rolling down the street, the switch was always easy to miss.
The EPA rating for the Avalon is 40 city / 39 highway / 40 combined. With a 17 gallon tank, around 680 miles per tank should be expected. I had the car for only 479.5 miles, not long enough to completely deplete the tank. The bulk of my driving was my regular workday commute; there was one day of interstate driving. When I gave the car back, it reported that there were 212 miles remaining to empty, which equates to 691.
The Avalon reported my overall mileage at a respectable 43.5 MPG. This is a respectable 8.75% above the EPA estimate. However, Wayne filled the tank to his satisfaction and when he did the math by hand it calculated only 40.5 MPG. This is almost exactly at the EPA estimate. I cannot account for the variance other than to speculate that the onboard mileage calculator skews the results upward. In fact, searches online reveal this is not uncommon for cars that report their own mileage. At the end of the day, the hybrid’s 40 MPG is substantially better than the conventional Avalon’s meek 24 MPG.
The Avalon Hybrid has two primary actual ‘competitors’: the conventional Avalon and the Lexus ES Hybrid. Nearly doubling the Avalon’s fuel economy and priced $5,000 less than the Lexus are two very strong selling points.
The Avalon does not fall into the “family sedan” true sense of the phrase in that no owner in their right mind would risk damaging the gorgeous leather with car seats and kids prone to throwing things best left outside the car. It’s not really a car you would see hauling kids to and from a muddy soccer field. The Avalon is a grown-ups’ car that adults will respect and enjoy, whether riding in the front or the back. The only kids riding in the back of an Avalon are home visiting from college.
But the true question is: can the Avalon’s new styling, Sport mode, and advanced technology capture a younger crowd than its predecessors? That’s a tough sell. Given the overall size of the vehicle, it still feels like an older person’s large barge. Toyota will struggle to get younger buyers into actually trying the car to find out just how nice it is. This is a shame because it truly is a really nice car.
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What a night! In a very special live, almost two hours long What Drives Us episode, Danny Cooper, Russell Frost, Tony Schaefer, Evan Fusco, Mark Coughlan and Chelsea Sexton witness and explain the Tesla Model 3 debut as it unfolded on 3/31/16.
Tony Schaefer talks to Chelsea from Chrysler about the Pacifca Plug-In Hybrid Minivan.