Do MPG marathons go too far?

1 August 2013

Car followed by queue of trucks

This October will see the 13th running of the MPG Marathon – an annual battle of driver and vehicle against the laws of physics, chemistry and realism.

Billed as an event to prove that cars really can achieve their official fuel economy figures, professional drivers and celebrities will set off on a carefully chosen route with the aim of using as little fuel as possible, relative to the numbers achieved in official combined-cycle testing.

All noble and educational, I think you’ll agree – the MPG Marathon promotes greener driving, vehicle maintenance, patience and anticipation. All qualities that genuinely can help you save a little fuel and may even make your daily commute a less stressful experience.

Except it all falls down on the realism aspect. Despite the central message – “If they can do it, so can you” – the one thing the MPG Marathon lacks is the “real world” aspect it sets out to cultivate.

Disruptive driving is a major concern. It used to be a problem in the now-defunct Brighton-to-London eco-rally, with competitors driving at speeds more akin to the smoky and steamy veteran vehicles on their own London-to-Brighton run. Holding up traffic is one thing, but driving unexpectedly slowly on fast roads can easily edge towards dangerous.

While the organisers of October’s event have sensibly put penalties in place to ensure nobody travels at a snail’s pace, there’s a limit to how strict you can be with these limits. Set them too tight, and competitors held up in traffic may be tempted to break the law to arrive on schedule. Nobody wants that, so targets are set low, and the shrewd MPG-chasing driver will use this leeway as a chance to drive unrealistically slowly – crawling away from lights and going five to ten under every speed limit.

Never mind that popular eco-driving technique of drafting trucks – HGVs make such a big hole in the air they can virtually suck you along if you drive close enough behind them. That unwise tactic invites a pebble bombardment at the very least, and worse-case scenarios could be far more serious than picking up a damaged windscreen or stone-chipped bonnet.

Fiesta Econetic at the MPG Marathon start line

Last year’s champion, a Ford Fiesta ECOnetic, returned 108mpg on the MPG Marathon. This year’s press release proudly displays a Vauxhall Vivaro van that managed 65mpg.

If the MPG Marathon could prove that those figures were done on a crowded school run with kids in the back, or taking a half-tonne load from one side of a city to another in rush hour, then maybe they’d have a point. Maybe they’d be justified in continuing their smug assertions that official figures are eminently achievable or that a “misguided lobby of car enthusiasts” shouldn’t be pushing for more realistic official testing.

For me, the notion that an ordinary driver on their average day-to-day trip can achieve 108mpg in a Ford Fiesta feels about as realistic as me nipping out and matching a car’s claimed Nürburgring lap time. Sure, with knowledge and practice I’ll improve and even reap the benefits, but I’ll never quite match Walter Röhrl.

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