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Instant guilt: ‘Eco’ indicators as cure for lead-foots

Now that more cars show fuel economy in real time, I'm becoming less aggressive at stoplights.

By Douglas Newcomb Nov 20, 2012 9:44AM

2013 Subaru Outback Eco indicatorI admit that by nature I'm an aggressive driver. While I’m not the idiot weaving in and out of lanes on a crowded freeway just to get half a car length ahead, I'm the guy who will gun it to the next light in order to switch to a lane with fewer cars so that I can get several car lengths ahead.

But lately I’ve been thinking more about fuel economy instead of leading the pack. I’d like to say this has to do with higher gas prices. But it probably has more to do with the proliferation of “Eco” indicators.

When there’s real-time evidence showing how the pressure of your right foot is affecting the burning hole in your pocket, this feature can cause anyone to ease off the gas pedal.

I’ll also admit that I’ve never been one to pay close attention to fuel prices or even which station offers the best deal, although for other purchases, I’ll sometimes agonize over pennies. Maybe it’s from learning to drive at a time before gas hit $1 a gallon, but my mindset has always been just to stop at the nearest gas station when I’m running low and fill the tank. End of story. No calculating mpg or miles per tankful for me.

But in the 2013 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited that I’m testing, it’s hard to ignore how my driving is affecting fuel economy because the information is right in my face. The Outback’s Eco gauge is a horizontal LED bar graph. (Some Outback models use a needle-type gauge instead.) Drive aggressively and you can see your fuel economy become “poorer” as the lights peg to the minus side; drive conservatively and you get “better” mpg as the lights move to the plus side.

It’s not just vehicles like the Outback that have these guilt-inducing displays. They’re also showing up on luxury SUVs such as the latest Mercedes-Benz GLK, where it could be argued they’re needed even more. The GLK’s Eco display further breaks fuel-efficiency into three categories: Acceleration, Constant and Coasting. As the names of the categories imply, a separate display for each lets you know more specifically whether you’re being lead-footed, keeping a steady speed or stabbing the brakes too often.

Many of today's vehicles also have Eco driving modes that dull throttle and transmission response -- even going so far to reduce the chill of the air conditioner. When it's hot and you want to move quickly, it may not be the best option, but it could save a couple more drops of gas.

A fuel-efficiency poster child such as the Toyota Prius has even more elaborate fuel-efficiency displays to allow hyper-milers to keep closer tabs on their gas consumption. Several automakers, including Ford and Nissan, cleverly show drivers how fuel-efficient their driving is by “growing leaves" on a dashboard display as mpg increases -- and graphically "killing" the leaves as the car guzzles more gas.

With an Eco display showing me whether I’m being fuel foolish or frugal, I now pay much closer attention to how I’m driving. So in that respect, the displays are doing their job. Save for oil companies, everyone is probably better off because of it.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Nov 28, 2012 6:26PM

This is old news for drivers of high end cars such as my 1995 Jaguar XJ6, 2002 Volvo V70XC.  These ars both have computers that read out Instant and average mpg.  My Mercury Mariner Hybrid has an excellent computer system that gives this information as well.  I hope to see this feature in more cars and as a heads-up display that will keep the driver more intuned to his driving skills, or lack of. 


In my Mercury Mariner Hybrid, slow acceleration to 40 miles per hour and then backing off the gas when the battery is exhausted and the ICE starts up, brings me mid 30's to low 40's around town.    Keep to 65 mph on the highways and the care will still deliver low to mid 30's.


Every dime I save driving to and from work allows me to enjoy a roadtrip in my classic 1985 Porsche 944.  Which by-the-way, was equiped with a simple fuel MPG meter mounted above the tach.  It's crude, but it works.  Cleaver Germans.




Nov 21, 2012 8:30AM
"instant" mpg numbers mean nothing.  When you take off from a stop, they all show a very bad mpg number, yet after you reach a steady speed the numbers go up.  So after you add together ALL these you get the tankfull mpg which is a much better, "average" mpg and means way more than you where just getting 10mpg as you pulled away from that stop light!
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