Hybrid winter olympics. Fuel economy edition.

Sections: Fuel Economy

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2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid Photo Shoot 012

(Lyndon Johnson photo)

Yesterday I had a great talk with Craig Van Batenburg of ACDC Hybrid Training  about fuel economy.

I have noticed the fuel economy in my C-Max go from a respectable-to-the-window-sticker 46.6 to 36.8 during the winter months.  I attributed most of it to running the engine for warmth (I leave the HVAC on 72 Auto and let the vehicle do its thing) and the MTBE-like substitute additives they put into the mix during the winter months.  The battery itself wasn’t on my radar.

Craig said, “No, the lithium ions in your car will start to wake up around 42 degrees.  Below that you’ll notice the whole works is sluggish.”  Huh.  I know he is right and onto something.  Then I got the updated results from the testers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory:

How Does Cold Weather Affect Fuel Economy?

Cold weather and winter driving conditions can reduce your fuel economy significantly. Fuel economy tests show that, in short-trip city driving, a conventional gasoline car’s gas mileage is about 12% lower at 20°F than it would be at 77°F. It can drop as much as 22% for very short trips (3 to 4 miles). The effect on hybrid vehicles is worse. Their fuel economy can drop about 31% to 34% under winter conditions. These conclusions are based on an analysis by Oak Ridge National Laboratory comparing EPA Federal Test Procedure (FTP) results for 600 conventional vehicles and 14 hybrids under “normal” temperatures (around 77°F) and cold-weather conditions (20°F)

According to the DOE/EPA website (, cold weather can affect your vehicle in more ways than you might expect:

  • Engine and transmission friction increases in cold temperatures due to cold engine oil and other drive-line fluids.
  • It takes longer for your engine to reach its most fuel-efficient temperature. This affects shorter trips more, since your car spends more of your trip at less-than-optimal temperatures.
  • Heated seats, window defrosters, and heater fans use additional power.
  • Warming up your vehicle before you start your trip lowers your fuel economy—idling gets 0 miles per gallon.
  • Colder air is denser, increasing aerodynamic drag on your vehicle, especially at highway speeds.
  • Tire pressure decreases in colder temperatures, increasing rolling resistance.
  • Winter grades of gasoline can have slightly less energy per gallon than summer blends.
  • Battery performance decreases in cold weather, making it harder for your alternator to keep your battery charged. This also affects the performance of the regenerative braking system on hybrids.

In severe winter weather, your MPG can drop even further.

  • Icy or snow-covered roads decrease your tires’ grip on the road, wasting energy.
  • Safe driving speeds on slick roads can be much lower than normal, further reducing fuel economy, especially at speeds below 30 to 40 mph.
  • Using four-wheel drive uses more fuel.

So, what can you do to improve your fuel economy in cold weather? While you may not be able to completely mitigate cold weather’s effects, you can do some simple things to help your gas mileage:

  • Park your car in a warmer place, such as your garage, to increase the initial temperature of your engine and cabin.

  • Combine trips when possible so that you drive less often with a cold engine.

  • Don’t idle your car to warm it up. Most manufacturers recommend driving off gently after about 30 seconds. The engine will warm up faster being driven.

  • Don’t use seat warmers or defrosters more than necessary.

  • Check your tire pressure regularly.

  • Use the type of oil recommended by your manufacturer for cold weather driving.

  • Remove accessories that increase wind resistance, like roof racks, when not in use.

  • If you drive a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle, preheating the cabin while plugged into the charger can extend your vehicle’s range.

  • If you drive a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle, using the seat warmers instead of the cabin heater can save energy and extend range.

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