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Volkswagen diesels. (Lorraine Sommerfeld for The Globe and Mail)
Volkswagen diesels. (Lorraine Sommerfeld for The Globe and Mail)

DRIVE, SHE SAID

Driving with diesel: it's the best of both worlds Add to ...

I’m driving a 2014 Ford Fiesta at the moment. What I like best about it is that the needle on the gas gauge never seems to move. That goes for most subcompact cars, vehicles such as the Nissan Versa, Mazda3, Hyundai Accent and Fiat 500 – nimble thimbles, as I am wont to call them. The newly released Mitsubishi Mirage is aiming for top contender in the gas miser stakes, and many subcompacts are actually sporting back seats for full-sized people. They’re thimbles from the outside only, maybe.

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Consumers say they are driven by fuel efficiency, but once in the showroom frequently bump up a category – or two, says George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association. As buyers have more choices to make in their hunt for economy, manufacturers are bringing more players to the park.

“They get into the showroom thinking they want the best posted numbers, but they end up being drawn to a larger car. We see it all the time,” says Iny. “Prices are competitive, and it’s hard not to see more car for only a little more money.”

Fuel efficiency is driven by two major components: what you drive and how you drive. With electrics making inroads at a subtler pace than anticipated, buyers are predictably sticking to what they know.

Many drivers are interested in ways to maximize fuel economy, but all the suggestions in the world pale in comparison with letting the engineers find a way to make the compromises.

I participated in a cross-Canada drive last year with Shell to prove a point about the “how you drive” part of the equation. Told not to call it a hypermiling experiment, it was a hypermiling experiment. You’re probably familiar with the concept, and no doubt some of the more infamous trademarks of it, like drafting behind rigs and crawling along at dangerously low speeds. While we didn’t do any drafting, we did have drivers who kept to what I believe were dangerous speeds.

We drove a Volkswagen Passat, gasoline, and automatic. We went from Halifax to Vancouver – averaging 5.6 litres/100 km – on 4-1/2 tanks of gas. It was an extreme experiment, and I wouldn’t repeat parts of it. The best takeaways were the easily employable driver tips: smooth use of brake and throttle, ditching extra weight, reducing drag from things like roof racks, and monitoring tire pressure. Paying attention to only the fuel number – that 5.6 – was exhausting. Driving shouldn’t be draining, and while I’m all for driving efficiently, I’m also for it being an enjoyable experience.

What’s the best compromise? I discovered that a few weeks ago. A similar jaunt was undertaken by Volkswagen, and teams of writers crossed the route in the maker’s diesel lineup: the Touareg SUV, Beetle, Golf Wagon, Passat and Jetta. My two-day leg was through the mountains into Vancouver, a challenging place to wrestle with fuel economy. Even so, consumption rates for the vehicles were nearly all within the 5-6 litres/100 km range, except the SUV, which rang in at 8.9.

The best part? Outside of the best tips mentioned above, which I do anyway, no special or extreme driving techniques were employed. Speeds met conditions and traffic flow, passing happened when passing was required, and drive days required eight hours, not an exhausting 12. While not every drive needs it, power is needed for highway driving and hauling up long grades; diesels have the torque, often outperforming gasoline engines with a burst of power when you most want it.

Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have long been invested in the diesel business in Canada, and consumers are finding more options in all segments, from the Mazda6 to the Chevrolet Cruz. Stripping down the numbers and factoring in a premium for a diesel engine (though the new Mercedes GLK is selling both options for the same price on one model), the question usually comes down to estimated repair costs and fuel. In Canada, diesel prices are still about the same as gas prices, with a little variance in some regions. In the United States, where diesel engines don’t enjoy the same increasing popularity, diesel prices are higher than gas, making it less attractive.

While I love this Fiesta for scooting around town, I doubt I’d want to cross the country with it or take it on extended hauls. I could reach up to the comfort levels offered by larger cars and accept the compromise of fuel efficiency for size, or employ some of the driving tips that made me nutty last year.

Or, I could go diesel, and have the best of both worlds.

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