Fuel Economy in the Real World


I drive a Class C motor home and know all about sticker shock at the gas pump. The old girl averages around eight miles per gallon.

I had a conversation with a guy today about the fuel economy on his shiny new pick-up truck. The main beef was how much it dropped when towing his thirty foot travel trailer. After that, he started in on how the manufacturer deceived him by putting exaggerated numbers on the window sticker. He took it back to the dealer who told him the vehicle was operating within the manufacturer’s specifications. Still not satisfied, next he called the company who told him that they would support the diagnosis of their dealer that the truck was not acting up. The end result was one very disgruntled customer venting over a beer. My buddy knows that I used to work for the company that made his truck so he wanted to pick my brains in case he missed something.

I sipped my beer, sat the bottle back down on the table and told him a few home truths. First thing to get out of the way was the simple fact that you don't buy a big engine truck for the fuel economy! It's pretty basic but that's the truth and deep down we all know it. The sticker numbers can be seductive but common sense and some basic research tells us that they're not real. Those numbers don't come from the automakers; they come from the EPA who forces the companies to test using a common standard.

It's commonly called "Apples to Apples testing" and they explain it on the EPA website. They use strictly non-ethanol gas and test these vehicles under laboratory conditions. Ethanol alone accounts for ten percent of your fuel economy and here's a little fun fact for you: read that sticker on the gas pump very closely and look at just how vague it is about Ethanol content. The dirty little secret of the business is that there is no gauge for Ethanol, no way to measure exactly how much is in there; it might be five percent, it might just as easily be fifteen and that is why they only ever talk of "EPA Estimates."

The other factor at play is consumer demand for trucks with the fuel economy of a car. In the perfect world of the EPA test machine it might be possible but in the real world it almost never is. To try and achieve something resembling the numbers on the sticker, the computer has to be in complete control but they are programmed for city driving because realistically, that's where the majority of customers are and it has to be a one-size-fits-all approach. When you load them up, they struggle with heavy trailer towing and will rarely live up to their expectations for fuel economy or performance no matter what the sticker says.

There are third-party tools available that give you a far more accurate picture than the car computer. I use something called the ScanGauge that I found on Amazon. It's an easy install and can monitor fuel consumption, cost-per-mile, coolant temperature, engine speed, horsepower, and much more in real time. It also reads and clears OBDII trouble codes so if you ever have any mechanical problems that you need to diagnose, it will save you having to buy a separate scan tool.

My buddy has since spent some time on the forums and realizing that he is not alone, has accepted his lot. His 2011 pick up is still his pride and joy for around town but for weekends with his trailer, sitting on the side of his house is a 1993 truck that gets slightly better gas mileage when towing and pays the extra dividend of having more torque for when it's needed.

The bottom line is that as I said earlier, we don't purchase these trucks for fuel economy so by all means, enjoy the gadgets and technology but don't place unrealistic expectations on them and you'll be much happier with your purchase.