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Fuel feud

Eco-Run tests fuel-saving technology, driving skills

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The Mazda6 is a great example of what is possible with current internal combustion techology.

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The Mazda6 is a great example of what is possible with current internal combustion techology.

I'm writing this from a rest area past Kingston, Ontario, on the way from Montreal to Toronto.

I pulled over because the road was a sea of brake lights just ahead -- gridlock at a badly managed construction zone. Better to have a bite and relax than to sit in the car and fume.

Earlier that afternoon, we had completed the Automobile Association of Canada Eco-Run, a fascinating event that will be the subject of a few upcoming columns. We used a total of 22 vehicles, with a huge variety of shapes, sizes and power plants. The only unifying factor was that each model had some design features aimed at maximizing fuel efficiency, whether that be diesel, gasoline or electric.

On this trip, I drove the Mazda6 SKYACTIV, Prius V, Chevrolet Volt, Mercedes 250 GLK, Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Porsche Cayenne Diesel, Kia Rio and Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid.

There was no point comparing the vehicles directly. Instead, one of our partners, FleetCarma, outfitted each car and truck with a data recording system. A series of calculations then gave a more-or-less equal chance for each vehicle and driver to score well.

The purpose of the Eco-Run was to highlight the latest in technology and, perhaps more importantly, to show how driving skill can have a huge effect on fuel consumption. My outfit, Sidorov Advanced Driver Training, has a specific eco-driving course, and we generally see an initial improvement of about 20 per cent in fuel consumption with our trainees.

How well that better fuel economy is sustained is a matter of individual and corporate responsibility. Savings in fuel generally also mean a reduction in vehicle wear and tear. The beauty of it is you don't have to drive slower, unless you're out there on the fringe as far as speed is concerned. You simply have to drive better.

I'm quite a thrifty driver, which can be attributed to a lot of feast-or-famine times early in my racing career. It's also a track advantage. Even now, I generally get a lap or two more out of a tank during endurance races than my teammates, while maintaining a competitive pace. For racing drivers, developing fuel-saving skills is a good career move.

The Mazda6, which is what I'm driving on this rainy day, is a great example of what is possible with current internal combustion technology. It is decently quick, quite sporting and attractive as well. The Mazda looks athletic in the manner of certain Jaguar sedans, and has a snarky edge all its own.

The interior is well-trimmed, with clear controls and instruments. It has a nice steering wheel with natural 9-and 3-grip, firm and supportive seats and good visibility. The engine is responsive and has a bit of a snarl at higher rpm.

Earlier in the day, the wipers proved their worth, the high setting was easily able to cope with a southern Ontario deluge. Not all cars, new or otherwise, manage as well. It also has amber rear turn signals, a common-sense feature even though many new cars come with red rear turn signals.

But none of this would count for much if the Mazda didn't drive well. Stability in the rain and wind was excellent. The gearbox, in manual mode, won points because it would hold the gear I selected right up to redline -- some upshift regardless of what cog the driver has chosen.

Negatives were minor. Modern gearboxes work so hard at efficiency that there are occasional lurches and miscues. Gone are the silky-smooth days of Granddad's Turbo-hydramatic. Those old automatics had tons of slippage because fuel economy and air quality simply weren't as big a concern back then.

The Mazda6's steering was very good, but this is one area where the European carmakers still have an edge. They seem to be able to find the right blend of feel and feedback for a sports sedan. The Mazda is just lacking a bit of that feel on-centre. It's better than most of its competitors but, as my physics prof used to remind me, there's room for improvement.

Here's the part that ties it all together. Running with traffic on the freeway, I've been averaging 6.3 litres per 100 km. Okay, this is flat country -- the toughest hill on this road wouldn't challenge an exhausted bicyclist. But it's impressive nonetheless.

Just to clarify the point, traffic on this road hustles along at a decent pace. More restrained driving would have achieved even better results. However, at some point you run the risk of an agonizing death from boredom, while being a dangerous moving chicane for other motorists.

I've been using eco-driving tactics and a disciplined right foot, not cruise control. What a refreshing concept. In this era of rules, electronic driver's aids, and Big Brother's watchful eye, skill still counts for something.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2013 F8

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