Hypermilers Push the Limits of Fuel Efficiency

Even with gas at four bucks a gallon, Yahya Fahimuddin enjoys filling his car. It’s a contest, a chance to see how many miles he can squeeze from every tank. He’s getting about 45 mpg these days and says you can, too.

He’s a hypermiler, one of a growing number of people going to often extreme lengths to get 40, 50, even 60 mpg or more. “It’s like a videogame,” he says. “Can I beat my new high score?”

It’s a game that some say started during the gas-rationing days of World War II and came back during the oil embargo of the 1970s. It’s catching on again as fuel prices spiral out of sight, and skilled players say small changes in driving style – eliminating hard acceleration, turning off the engine at stop lights, coasting to a stop – can bring big improvements in fuel economy no matter what you drive.

“If you combine a handful of simple hypermiling techniques, you can easily see increases of 20 percent,” said Tim Fulton, a 25-year-old designer from West Bend, Wisconsin. “Use a few more techniques and 30 percent is yours.”

Fulton routinely gets 55 mpg from his 1997 Toyota Paseo, a car the EPA rates at 29 mpg. He started hypermiling about 18 months ago when he landed a new job 37 miles from home and got tired of burning so much gas. He mastered “pulse and glide” – turning off the engine and coasting while driving. “This technique alone dramatically increased my mileage from 38 mpg to 47 mpg on my first tank,” he says. “I was blown away.”

Pulse and glide is controversial – and in some states, illegal – because the engine drives the power steering and brakes. Shut it off, critics warn, and you can’t steer or stop effectively. Hypermilers say the risks are overstated. Still, there are easier – and, arguably, safer – things you can do to boost fuel economy. The first suggestion?

“Try the speed limit,” says Rick Harrell, a moderator at the website and its list of more than 100 ways to improve fuel economy. “It’s a crazy idea, but it works.”

The U.S. Department of Energy says gas mileage plummets above 60 mph. Every 5 mph above that speed is akin to paying another 20 cents a gallon for gas. For that reason, hypermilers scrupulously obey the speed limit. They also use the accelerator and brake as little as possible, preferring instead to coast. The truly hardcore coast to a stop, avoid using brakes around corners and draft behind trucks or other large vehicles.

Following the speed limit was quite a change for Harrell, who favored high-performance cars before getting the hypermiling bug three years ago. “I knew I needed to slow down for both environmental purposes and not to scare the living daylights out of my passengers,” he says.

These days he’s driving a 1998 Acura Integra and getting as much as 40 mpg in a car the EPA rates at 24. His quest for better fuel efficiency started with the car, which got a tune-up and an engine-block heater for more efficient starts. He inflated the tires to the maximum listed on the sidewall to reduce rolling resistance. And he installed a fuel-consumption gauge that provides real-time data about how much gas he’s burning. He and other hypermilers highly recommend them.

“The instant feedback was great,” Harrell says. “Simple things like slowing down on the highway, timing traffic lights (to maintain) momentum and coasting with the engine off started to push that fuel-efficiency number higher and higher.”

Hypermilers call the gadgets “game gauges” because they’re always trying to see how high they can go. The best of them get absurd figures. Wayne Gerdes, founder of and the king of hypermilers, recently drove a Honda Civic hybrid 800 miles from Chicago to New York on a single tank of gas. That works out to 65 mpg.

That’s low for Darin Cosgrove of Brockville, Ontario. The co-founder of averages 69 mpg in his 1998 Geo Metro, a car that got 40 mpg off the showroom floor. He’s gotten as many as 133 mpg on a long trip by going slowly and using pulse and glide. He’s also modified his car to make it more aerodynamic and tinkered with the drivetrain to improve efficiency.

Fahimuddin hopes to achieve those kind of numbers with his 2000 Honda Insight. It was a heap when he bought it and he’s overhauled just about everything, but the clutch is shot so he’s only getting 45 mpg or so. He’ll replace it eventually, and add a belly pan to improve aerodynamics under the car. He figures that and a few tweaks to his driving style will get him to 60 mpg.

“I’d like to hit 70 mpg. Seventy would be pretty sick,” he says. “It’s doable.”

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