Glorious autumnal sunshine greeted the fleet of challengers in the 2015 MPG Marathon in the Cotswolds.
As usual, it was an eclectic field, with two-seater Caterhams, sports cars and even a 21 year old Mondeo among the more typical competitors. With manufacturers’ claimed fuel economy a hot topic in the national news the results of the Marathon were even more keenly anticipated than usual – and in perfect weather the skilled drivers didn’t disappoint – proving that with the right technical knowledge of the vehicle and plenty of driving skill some amazing results can be obtained.
The MPG Marathon has very specific guidelines and rules to ensure fair play and results that have relevance in the real world.
The distance covered in the 2015 MPG Marathon, was approximately 370 miles over two days, and competitors had to visit a number of fixed locations in order, within a certain period of time, although the route taken between these points was the choice of individual competitors.
Each competitor’s journey was monitored via a TRACKER satellite tracking unit fitted in every vehicle, and the amount of fuel used was independently measured by the RAC.
The route started and finished each day in at the stately Heythrop Park Hotel near Oxford, and wound its way through the Cotswolds, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire.
The entered cars and vans have to be standard production versions, with no modifications, deletions or additions, while drivers must stick to the Highway Code at all times, and complete the course in a set time – ensuring they can’t crawl along at unrealistic speeds.
At the end of the MPG Marathon, the vehicles’ fuel tanks are brimmed by the RAC, the mileage logged and the MPG of each competitor is calculated.
Driver’s tales: Steve Moody
Citroën C4 Cactus PureTech 110
MPG result: 63.91
Official MPG: 60.10
% improvement: 6.34
Official CO2: 107
With eco‐Jedi John Kendall in a diesel C4 Cactus, and us in a three–cylinder petrol version, I was expecting to be embarrassed, especially on the long drawn‐out hills of the Cotswolds.
It didn’t start well, when the first bar on our digital fuel display went west after 15 miles. At that rate, we would need refueling near the end. There was another difficulty too: the Cactus doesn’t have a rev counter, which is fairly important for eco driving as it allows you to accurately change gear just before the turbo comes on boost. And there’s only five gears in this model too. A long‐legged sixth might have been handy.
Excuses duly rolled out, the Cactus is an excellent car for this sort of caper. It’s not a car that wants to be rushed, with pliable suspension, light steering and big, soft chairs. In fact, it’s a pleasure to be gently tootling about in.
Also, the sat nav is superb. Not having the skills (or forward planning) of some of the hypermilers, I’d chosen to just use the eco mode of the system rather than pore over a map for days beforehand and it plotted us a cunning course.
Often we were behind other competitors when the sat nav diverted us elsewhere, and we found ourselves significantly ahead of them a few miles later.
With its small engine, the C4 doesn’t have an obvious natural cruising speed as diesels running on a wave of torque do, and that probably cost us in the end. But I was actually pretty impressed with our result, because we didn’t hang about, and the light, airy Cactus meant the Marathon wasn’t a trial of endurance as sometimes it can be.
The fuel gauge stayed resolutely still after that first dip, and while our final result might not have been headline‐worthy, it felt a very achievable result in day‐to‐day driving.
Driver’s tales: Mark Nichol
Ford Mondeo 1.8i LX
Official MPG: 37.70
% improvement: 10.54
Official CO2: N/A
My 1994 Ford Mondeo 1.8i LX hatchback – on plastic wheel trims, with a slightly different shade of blue for every interior panel and velour seats soaked with the remnants of 1,000 service station meals – was the best car in this year’s MPG Marathon.
I say best. Technically it was the worst, but on this occasion it really was a case of the taking part that counted. I knew we were never going to win, and with a 41.7mpg average it was a good 18mpg away from even the second‐last placed Caterham.
But mine was the car, as the archetypal fleet vehicles of the era, everyone seemed most interested in: the 2015 Mondeo Hybrid also competing provided a fascinating likefor‐like glimpse at two decades of change.
And how it has. Long story short, the Mondeo Hybrid is about twice as efficient, despite being much heavier, and much more refined, and much better equipped and much bigger.
This is what the MPG Marathon should be about – measuring progress. Fuel might be twice the price it was in 1994 (about 52p per litre then), but few would have predicted an 80mpg petrol‐electric three‐box mainstream family car back then. A flying car, perhaps, but this, no.
And I’m willing to bet that I had more fun than anybody else driving. For a start, having no real‐time mpg information liberated me to improve efficiency simply by driving a bit slower than normal; last year, in a new Audi A3, the constant taunting of the digital mpg readout made it genuinely stressful.
But more than that, it was a reminder that they just don’t make cars like this any more. Obvious, yes, but you forget how much the word ‘sport’ has ruined comfort. The sports suspension, sports seats and massive sporty wheels that most cars are furnished with today are ruinous to ride quality.
Replace ‘sport’ for ‘squidgy’ and you’re back in 1994. Soft seats, small wheels and body roll made this the most comfortable 380‐odd miles I’ve done for a long time.
Driver’s tales: Dan Gilkes
Renault Trafic SL27 dCi 120
MPG result: 57.65
Official MPG: 47.90
% improvement: 20.35
Official CO2: 155
In some ways, tackling the MPG Marathon for the second time in a similar vehicle adds to the pressure, as you know what it should be capable of. Last year we managed a hard‐fought 55.5mpg in the 120hp twin‐turbo Renault Trafic, a 16% improvement on Renault’s claimed combined figure.
Topping that would be no easy task.
Navigator Ray Penford was once again armed with maps and potential route print‐outs, while both built‐in and stickon sat navs completed our rather relaxed preparations. The van had been a long‐termer for another magazine over the previous 12 months, providing us with a well run‐in engine and transmission.
You might think that the Cotswolds are relatively flat, but that’s not so and we were soon in among the hills, our running consumption figure dropping gradually throughout the first day. By the end of day one the trip computer said
It was not to be. If anything day two proved to be even more undulating, while our efforts were not helped by a couple of unexpected route extensions, as we missed the odd turn. Despite willing the Trafic on, by the time we returned to
base the overall figure had dropped depressingly below the 60mpg mark. We handed the keys to the RAC filling team and could only wait rather gloomily for the results.
What a surprise then to find that we were not only the number one van again, but had smashed last year’s combined figure, recording a strong 57.65mpg, a 20.35% improvement over Renault’s figure. Ours wasn’t the longest route either, so we obviously weren’t alone in missing the odd signpost!
The Trafic never missed a beat and provided a comfortable place to spend the two days. So, is 60mpg really a possibility for next year?
Most efficient fleet driver
Retired fleet manager Doug Powell won the new title of ‘most efficient fleet driver’ at this year’s MPG Marathon. Driving a BMW 320d ED Sport Saloon, with co-driver and navigator Richard Holt, Powell clocked up an overall mpg of 72.65 – 10.57% better than the official 65.7mpg combined cycle figure.
Powell and Holt were in one of five BMW 320d EDs taking part in the contest for fleet managers and company car drivers within the main event. In second place was the pairing of Kevin Booker and Les Stiff, who achieved an overall mpg of 72.44mpg. Overall, the drivers of the five BMWs taking part, which achieved an average improvement in fuel consumption of 6.71%.
Powell said: “Eco-driving is all about planning and anticipating ahead, with as light a touch on the throttle as possible. You need to try and keep the car rolling at all times, especially when approaching traffic lights when you need to ease off well in advance, so that ideally you arrive just as the light turns to green. Under the rules which allow you to navigate between two fixed points, Richard and I had worked out our route beforehand to avoid the centre of all towns and any potential traffic jams. Overall, it was a great Marathon with excellent weather and a keenly fought contest,” he said.
Driver’s tales: John Kendall
Citroën C4 Cactus BlueHDi 110
MPG result: 103.28
Official MPG: 83.10
% improvement: 24.87
Official CO: 87
This year our more ‘standard’ Cactus gave us 83.1mpg to improve on and our 24.29% improvement was enough to give us third place in the best outright MPG category.
The routes differ each year and it is up to us to devise the route that we think is best. The weather was near perfect, warm autumn days with virtually no wind, but this was offset by some particularly tough sections over the two days. For tough, read hills and sections which meant we had to pick up speed, the enemy of the hyper‐mile style driving needed to bust 100mpg. The few long downhill stretches that can stretch those miles usually ended in a 30mph sign and braking is the last thing we needed to be doing. Where there’s a downhill section it’s usually followed by a corresponding uphill struggle that takes a bite out of fuel consumption no matter what you do.
In the end we were beaten into third place by a thimble full of fuel by old rivals John Kerswill and Ian McKean driving a Mazda2 1.5 diesel. We actually used less fuel – 17.23 litres to their 17.59 – 0.36 litres less. But the Mazda covered 400.16 miles to our 391.46 giving them 103.42mpg. A difference as close as that could be due to one set of traffic lights…
Choosing the right route…
Essential to efficient driving is choosing a route that allows you to keep moving, avoiding congestion and steep hills. MPG Marathon competitors have to navigate between certain points in a specific time, but they can decide what roads they take to get there. As these traces supplied by TRACKER show, drivers have a number of different strategies.
Winner’s tale: Mick Linford
Peugeot 208 BlueHDi
MPG result: 104.5
Official MPG: 80.70
% improvement: 29.49
Official CO2: 90
After 14 years as motorsport manager for Peugeot, it’s a bit embarrassing to gain a reputation for driving slowly! But the MPG Marathon is still a fiercely fought competition and it’s one that I revel in.
The car drove beautifully and certainly felt like it had more power than the 75bhp quoted, but this wasn’t about power. And although I spend a few days getting used to the characteristics of the engine prior to the event, without the strict event controls, it was difficult to assess exactly what was achievable.
My co‐driver Jemma Champion and I spent the evening before the start studying OS maps to decide upon which route to take. Hills, towns and built up areas were all taken into account before making a decision.
Our first day went well until the last section where the dash fuel computer display suddenly started showing considerably less on the instant reading. This lasted for all of the last section and I was getting ‘stressed’ (polite description, ask Jemma). This turned out to be the DPF regenerating so at the end of day one, I was not optimistic at all.
Day two ran better with instant readings soon back to normal, but the average still not up to the quoted combined figure. I was very concerned to say the least.
Not sure I could have done any better, though other traffic keeping out of our way would have helped!
At final top up, feeling pretty down, we were told 16.76 litres, for the 385.25 miles covered, equalling 104.5mpg. I was ecstatic. Going from a perceived (by me) poor result to an overall win within two minutes made our day. Thank goodness some fuel computers read low rather than optimistic!
It was great to win for Peugeot and a pleasure to drive the car.
Driver’s tales: Richard Aucock
Audi TT Sport TDI Ultra
MPG result: 64.82
Official MPG: 62.8
% improvement: 3.81
Official CO2: 116
Coming so soon after the Volkswagen emissions scandal broke, some of the quips about my car for the Marathon, an Audi TT TDI, were perhaps inevitable. No, we wouldn’t be cheating. Yes, we’d keep all four wheels rolling and the doors closed. No, we won’t be taping up the panel gaps. Groan.
But dieselgate was actually quite a timely scandal, because it had quickly evolved from being about emissions to the official fuel economy test cycles themselves. Namely, how people simply can’t meet them in real‐world driving. Well, this was a real world (ish) test, and we planned to not only meet them, but beat ‘em. Yes, even in a VW Group TDI.
Besides, as cool cars to do a fuel economy challenge in, an Audi TT is pretty high on the list. We wouldn’t even have swapped it for the Caterham; we had nice comfy seats, see. And DAB. And a roof. And, in theory, a super‐grippy chassis and sportily low centre of gravity to make the best of a key factor in driving economically – not losing momentum.
So it proved. Of all the cars there, the TT seemed most adept at batting through corners without troubling the brake lights. You look far ahead anyway when driving economically: we had to look way, way into the distance, to make sure there were no corners and sauntering cars we’d quickly hurtle up to. And they say MPG Marathoning is dull: straight bits apart, this was like a two‐day qualifying lap.
Looking back, maybe we could have driven a bit more slowly in between, but we wanted to keep it as real world as possible. People were asking us, can you actually hit official figures with a VW Group TDI? No point averaging 29.9mph and telling them you can.
We instead averaged a perfectly decent 38mph. And averaged 65mpg, better than the official figure by a jolly fine 3.2%.
Given how we really rather enjoyed it and didn’t feel at all frustrated after two days of MPG maxing, we’ll take that.