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Back on the Coast

Back on the Coast

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fuel Economy Part Four: Vehicle Choice

The most decisive part you have in determining your fuel economy, is the actual vehicle you drive. The vehicle defines what range of MPG you will get. An forum poster recently said he didn't save any money living the 'mobile' lifestyle; no wonder, he drove a palatial RV (poor fuel economy) and he stayed at RV parks (nightly fee). With today's rising fuel costs, this choice is extremely important to your pocket book.

You'll have to research which choice will get you the MPG you want. is an excellent place to start; there are lots of EPA ratings for different vehicles (basic vans and trucks). Talk to lots of people, investigate informative forums and and web sites. I drive a Ford, so I check out for mechanical advice and general information. There are similar forums for Chevy, Dodge, etc.

The basic vehicle choices are:

1/ Minivan - Obviously, the minivan will get you the best mileage. My two favourite choices are the Chevy Astro and the Ford Aerostar. Although no longer built, they are commonplace, cheaper to buy and roomy inside. They also get decent gas mileage. Some 'Vandwellers' forum posters have been getting 25 -26 MPG (highway) with their Astro's and I've been getting 23-24 MPG (highway) with my Aerostar.

2/ Full-size Van - With your basic Ford Econoline or Chevy van, you'll get 13-14 MPG around town and 17-18MPG on the highway. You get better MPG with a small block V6 or V8 engine choice. Some forum posters like an older Dodge van with a 318 cu. in. V8; they claim getting 21MPG on the highway. Another forum poster gets the same with a older Ford van with a in-line six cylinder 300 cu. in. engine. Research before you buy, so you can get what you need.

3/ Camper or Conversion Van - These fully modified vehicles on full size van chassis are much more heavier than a regular, lightly kitted-out full size van. With more weight comes less gas MPG. These vehicles usually get around 10 MPG in the city and 15 MPG on the highway. If you drive a lot, you'll be paying out more money for your gas bill.

4/ RV or Motor home - Huge vehicle, huge gas bill. When you get only 7-8 MPG in the city and maybe 10 MPG on the highway, you'll be paying out lots of money at the pump. You pay for gas if you want the palatial palace on wheels.

There seems to be some relief at the pumps, if you choose a vehicle that uses alternative fuels. I'm not going to go into detail, just make some basic comments.

A/ Diesel and Bio-diesel - There is lots of talk about using diesel-powered vehicles these days. If you are buying a new technology vehicle, they will get great gas mileage, fine. But, older diesel vans don't seem to get really great gas mileage; not when you factor in the higher price tag, higher operational costs, higher fuel costs, higher cost to rebuild the engine if necessary. For a lot of situations, I don't really see the savings. If you are going to go this way, crunch the numbers first to see if it works for you.

A lot of people are talking about bio-diesel. You can make your own and save a lot of money. Well in my area, I know 3 people that used to do just that. Not any more! The commercial recyclers now scoop up all the restaurant sources of cooking oil, and sell it as commercial bio-diesel or bio-fuel for home heating. My friends can't get the used cooking oil for making bio-diesel anymore. It's only a matter of time, that this will probably be commonplace in most jurisdictions. Besides, it would be a fair bit of work to process bio-diesel yourself.

B/ Propane - In my jurisdiction, propane is still a reasonable alternative. It's available everywhere, and is relatively still priced cheaply, when compared to gasoline. But, your vehicle has to fitted out to work with propane and conversion will cost a hefty bill (4 thousand dollars or so). It would be great to find a vehicle which was factory equipped for dual fuel (gas and propane) and then purchase it for a reasonable price. In my area, running propane saves you 30% per mile driven. But, depending on taxes levied or fuel pricing, this advantage could be wiped out overnight or not even available in your area (no savings in Quebec, for example). Too bad, it's a cleaner automotive fuel choice.

A 'Vandwellers' forum member mentioned he has sold his van and now drives a fuel efficient station wagon with a small trailer (when necessary). He does this because his conversion van used a lot of fuel. I curious to see how he does. Obviously, when he just drives the wagon, he'll save gas. But, I doubt he'll save any gas when driving the full rig; towing anything uses lots of gas. There would be operational difficulties as well, like parking for example. I like just using a van only, as everything is in the van and easier to deal with.

Just to portray how different MPG ratings can affect your budget, I'm going to use a comparison. Last year, I went on a 11,300 mile cross country van trip in Canada. With my Aerostar, my fuel bill was approx. $2400 for the trip. If I had driven a lightly kitted Ford Econoline, I figure it would have been around $3100. Not bad, when you consider the extra space. With the average camper or conversion van, it would have been $3900 (oh, oh!). With a full RV, it would have been in the range of $5800!!!; over twice my cost. So you can see, which vehicle you get in the first place, will decide how much fuel you pay for.

ed.note. - The MPG ratings used are in US gallons; multiply by 1.2 for CAN gallons.


Anonymous said...

A few notes about fuel economy: Astro vans alsmost always get less mpg than an aerostar. They have larger, more powerful 4.3 liter engines and are about 500lbs heavier than the aerostar. This equates to less gas mileage, which you can see on the federal site for gas mileage you reference. The only exception would be the older astros from the 80's that had the 4cylinder engines. But these were only the "stubby" astros and they were very underpowered. Plus they also made a 4 cylinder aerostar around the same time that got better gas mileage anyway. So the aerostar is the star for gas mileage when comparing these two rides.

There are also other ways of saving gas - like installing an electric cooling fan (instead of the motor driven clutch fan). Using synthetic oils in the motor and differential, buying a manual gearshift model (or converting an automatic to gear shift) and installing taller gears in the differential. For instance changing from 3.73 to 3.23 etc would give a bigger overdrive (but at the expense of acceleration and hauling capacity). mrvan

urban vandweller said...

Interesting points about varying gas mileage, between Astros and Aerostars. Some Vandwellers, who own Astros report getting 26 mpg (US), with their 4.3 engines, others report getting 21 mpg (US). With my Aerostar('89 extended, 3.0 engine), I get around 23-24 mpg (US) on the highway, which seem in tune with other forum reports. I regularily beat EPA ratings; driving styles, climate and region effect mileage greatly, even with the exact same vehicle. I wouldn't go for the super overdrive gearing; the engine works hard enough as is with this setup, when driving up and around mountains in Coastal BC, Canada, where I live. I'd love to have the standard trany, but the conversion process could prove to be not cost effective. My present auto trany is working perfectly, and should last a long time. For any conversion idea, you gotta' crunch the numbers to see if there are any overall savings. I already use synthetic lubes, and I maintain my vehicles pretty good. Thanks for the reply.

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