Well, here we are back again in the cold winter months, and some random thoughts regarding economical winter motoring will not go amiss. Those readers who live in difficult weather regions may even be considering the fitting of winter tyres and, whilst fuel economy is an ever-present consideration, safety and the choice of the most appropriate tyres is the priority. It’s worth noting then that many of the latest winter tyres from the major brands have a pretty good “C” rating for fuel economy, which is as good as many summer tyres, and they’re also now generally commendably quiet on the road.
But our main objective should be to keep our cars protected and as warm as possible when they are parked up, which means using a garage if you have one, rather than just dumping the car lazily on the driveway. If you don’t have any shelter for your car, then one of those car top covers that keeps the weather off all the windows is an inexpensive and effective alternative. You’ll get a far quicker warm-up after a cold night and you’re not stuck with the problem of clearing snow and ice off the windows, whilst wasting fuel with the cold engine ticking over, waiting for some warm air to start doing the job of defrosting. This really is one of the most wasteful exercises for fuel economy and it does your engine no good at all. You need to get motoring as soon as you can on such mornings and, with good visibility (maybe using a de-icing spray) and the engine working reasonably hard, you’ll get it up to working temperature more quickly. Don’t forget to put a good shot of winter washer additive in your screen-wash bottle, too.
Of course getting stuck in a queue behind cars that are struggling for visibility, or coming to a halt behind cars that have got stuck in the snow, are recipes for awful fuel economy and, if you have a regular busy route to work, then alternative and even possibly longer routes are worth researching. You’ll often find better traction on quiet roads and virgin snow than on well-travelled routes, as long as you sensibly avoid exposed roads where drifting snow is likely. In general though, the technique for best fuel economy in difficult road conditions is very much the same as that for best fuel economy: staying in the higher gears when possible, avoiding sudden steering action, and using a gentle foot on the accelerator will save fuel and help avoid wheel-spin, and the danger of skidding.
You’ll also be well-advised to keep a healthy distance from the car in front and use engine braking for gentle speed reduction, rather than the brake pedal. It’s worth us touching on the subject of gear selection in this context. The latest automatic gearboxes now have as many as seven, eight, and even nine gears in their repertoire, and even the best of drivers would struggle to be in the best gear at all times, given that number of choices. But these high-tech transmissions are masterminded by computers linked to the engine ECU which constantly analyses road speed, engine speed, power demand, and even factors like road gradient, and responds instantly to driver input, to determine and instantly select the best gear – all in the cause of safety, performance, optimum engine efficiency and fuel economy. That’s why many of them beat their manual transmission counterparts for fuel economy and, in the winter, you can bet that they will, with traction control and skid correction technology, be safer as well as more economical. In fact, due to the higher number of gears available, the highest ratios are higher than those in manual cars and will offer more economical motorway cruising – a fact that is not reflected in the published “official” EC test figures, which don’t include extended periods at higher speeds. Today’s car technology is, in many areas, proving that machines can often out-perform the driver at the wheel and, in this context, we should no longer think of automatic transmissions as an option for those who cannot be bothered to learn to drive properly!