The Volvo Challenge: Or How We Attempted to Drive 850 Miles On One Tank Of Petrol


So this is where we ended up last week, dancing like crazy in our ski boots, on a blazingly sunny mountain top in the Tirolean mountains – Mark Ronson DJing in consummate style at Volvo’s Ice Camp, igloo and all. But how did we get here? Slowly is the answer. Thanks to the Volvo Snowbombing Challenge we were set the task of driving from the UK to Austria on one, yes just one, tank of petrol. We really didn’t know if we could do it. Here’s what happened on our hypermiling adventure…

At the Starting Flag

We set off bright and early last Monday from the Volvo HQ in Marlow, UK, having done our hypermiling research, thanks to some great posts here on TreeHugger, tips from you guys, and some pointers from Volvo. How hard could this be, right? Just gotta drive slowly and smoothly at a constant speed across Europe until we get to our destination in Austria. Sounded simple. Except as I drove out of the Volvo HQ car park and onto the motorway I quickly realised this wasn’t so much a technical challenge, as a psychological one.

The Technical Challenge
Happily, the clever people at Volvo had done the tough technical stuff for us with their new DRIVe series. We were driving an estate V50, which is designed to consume less petrol, with 74.3 mpg, and produce less CO2, with 99g/km. The car also boasted a diesel particulate filter and the start/stop technology, which turns off the engine when idling, reducing fuel consumption by 5%. With the V50’s 1.6 litre diesel engine it was calculated that we could complete the 850 mile trip to Mayrhofen in Austria on just one tank of petrol.


Volvo DRIVe V50 – image courtesy of Volvo

The Psychological Challenge
So we knew the car had the capacity, with a lot of clever fuel-efficient technology to help us and added extras like a built in GPS screen and a fuel consumption calculator. But a vehicle can’t drive itself, well not yet anyway, so there’s the human element to add in. As someone who loves speed on the open road the first challenge I found was the odd sensation of sitting in the slow lane.

We were told the optimum fuel-efficient speed to drive at is 60 mph. Since we were mostly travelling on motorways this seemed, in comparison with other cars on the road, to be very slow. That’s 10 mph slower that the 70 mph speed limit on UK motorways and, as we were to find out, an awful lot slower than the no speed limit of the German autobahn. My constant urge to accelerate into the fast lane had to be curbed. But as we settled into the rhythm of slow travel, we adjusted quite happily to this new pace.

Leonora hypermiling the Volvo V50 photo

Leonora hypermiling in the Volvo V50

Hypermiling is relaxing
We discovered there is something rather Zen about driving constantly at 60 mph. You aren’t constantly accelerating, changing lanes, weaving in and out of traffic. I would hesitate to say that you can take your mind off the road, but there was certainly a sense of being able to look around more at the countryside that we were driving through and take in the scenery.

This slower pace was essentially relaxing. I would even argue that it’s more of a break for your brain than getting the train, as you can’t work on your computer, or read a book. All you have to do is focus on driving the car from A to B in a stately fashion. For someone like me who is non-stop all day every day I found this simple single task rather liberating.

Balance is everything
In our new detached state of mind balance was everything. We tried very hard to keep the speed at 60mph with the rev counter no higher than 2000. This was an educational exercise in driving for me, as someone who had never found cause to check the rev counter before. I suddenly became much more aware of the road’s topography and the necessity to change gears as we went up and down hill.

But, even with all this care, we were constantly aware of the V50’s fuel consumption calculator ticking slowly downwards as we ate up the miles. At our half way point, an overnight stay in the French city of Metz, we had used just over half a tank of petrol.

Volvo Challenge Metz France photo

Half way – our over night stop in Metz, France

Driving in the Red Zone
On day two we set off in an upbeat mood and headed towards Germany, hoping that just under half tank of petrol would take us 400 miles to our Austrian destination. With the car’s mpg capacity of 74.3 we thought we were doing pretty well on our average of 67.5 mpg. But half way through the day we became hyper aware of the fuel consumption calculator as the needle went into the red zone. Ambitiously, we continued. We had been told by the guys at Volvo that we should stop the car if the fuel calculator goes to 3 dashes, i.e. zero miles left – your tank is empty.

With the Tirolean mountains coming into view and 81 miles to go those dreaded dashes appeared on the screen and we wondered nervously how long it would be before the car conked out altogether. Luckily we made it to the next service station. With 77 miles to go we had to admit defeat. Amazingly we had been driving for 160 miles with the fuel needle on red.

Volvo Tirolean Mountains photos

Running out of gas with the Tirol Mountains in sight

Running out of gas
Counting ourselves lucky that we weren’t stuck on the side of the Austrian motorway we quickly refilled the engine with our jerry can of diesel from the boot of the car. Slightly disappointed though we were, there was a sense of excitement that we might make it on one tank of petrol and a small 5 litre jerry can. It still felt like a great achievement as we drove off from the service station.

But as we manoeuvered the V50 back into the slow lane, the 3 dashes were still on the screen. The fuel calculator wasn’t registering the diesel we’d just put in and suddenly there was a sort of hiccuping from the car which could only mean we had run her dry. Oh dear. Now we were worried. Cough, cough, splutter, splutter… and then no acceleration. Yikes – the engine had cut out! We glided the Volvo gracefully to the hard shoulder and thought about our options.

Filling up Volvo V50 with jerry can photo

Filling up the V50 with a 5 litre jerry can of diesel

The really embarrassing bit
Wanting to avoid the embarrassing conclusion of having to be collected from the side of the road by a Volvo rescue team, we pulled out the car manual to see what to do. Suddenly our simple task of driving from A to B was becoming more eventful than expected. A tense few minutes followed as, according to the manual, we waited before restarting the engine. The fuel from the jerry can just needed to find it’s way to the dry engine, apparently. After 4 attempts at restarting the car, it roared into life and we breathed a sigh of relief. We were going to make it on our own after all.

Well, we thought we were going to make it, but in my excitement of seeing 124 miles fuel capacity now on the calculator, and with only 77 miles to go, I abandoned my zen hypermiling style and put my foot down. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the 3 dashes reappeared on the screen far too soon. I felt like this was some kind of life lesson the car was trying to impart. Basically, take it easy girl. Suffice to say, with just 24 miles to go, at the base of the Tirolean mountains we had to stop at a garage and actually use a petrol pump. It wasn’t a proud moment, but better that than having to hitch a lift up the mountain pass, we reckoned.

Our stunningly beautiful final destination – Mayrhofen, Austria

Volvo Tirol Mayrhofen photo

Success and failure in the Volvo Challenge

So yes, in fact, we did make it from the UK to Austria on one tank of petrol. And in that sense we absolutely succeeded. Did we make it from Marlow, UK to Mayrhofen, Austria on one tank? Well, no we didn’t. I do wonder what more we could have done to make it the full 850 miles? Maybe no stereo on in the car? But still we think 753 miles on one tank of petrol is pretty amazing really, and frankly driving for two days without any music would have been torture!

Controlling fuel costs ourselves
At £80 for one tank of petrol hypermiling is certainly a budget way to travel, especially for two or more people, compared to flying or taking the train. There has been talk of late in the UK about lowering the motorway speed limit to 60 mph, which would seem an eminently sensible way of reducing fuel consumption, saving people significant amounts of money and making driving a more relaxing experience for everyone. It certainly beats George Osborne’s paltry offering of a 1p cut in fuel duty in the recent UK government budget.

Our Volvo challenge experience just goes to show that with smart fuel-efficient engines and the use of hypermiling skills while driving, we can all actually reduce fuel costs ourselves.

From our friends at TreeHugger, the leading online destination for the news and ideas that are driving sustainability mainstream.

[All images by Leonora Oppenheim – Mark Ronson DJing at Volvo Ice Camp]