After evaluating what was out there in the late 1990’s, (gas and diesels as hybrids and electrics were not even a choice) what I ended up doing was to buy a brand new Volkswagen New Beetle TDI (diesel) in February of 1999. The car was EPA rated 43/49 MPG and at the time diesel cost less than gas. It was the best choice at the time because it beat anything out there. Since I live in the upper Midwest, I had to read up about “gelling” fuel in winter because the temperature had dropped to below -25 degrees F and that is WITHOUT the “wind-chill” factored in. But this problem seemed to be conquered by the winter fuel additives.
The bug has plenty of power, hauls four passengers comfortably and it was the cheapest car that I could find to operate. There was a cost “penalty” for buying the diesel version car and at the time was about $650 over the equivalent model powered by gas. I don’t know what the cost difference is today but they are cleaner (they even pass the extremely strict California standards), faster and there is a $1300 tax credit available if you buy one today.
As for my own personal experience in my stock New Beetle (no modifications), on the hottest day in summer going 85 MPH down the highway with the air on full the worst I ever got was 43MPG (EPA nailed it for once and then some). On the other end, once I began to stick to the posted speed limits (this is a really hard one for me) started to anticipate and slow down for stoplights, coast down hills in neutral shut, park in parking spots that I can drive straight out of (backing up is a waste of fuel) and turn off the engine at long stoplights railroad crossings, etc. (don’t even think about going through the drive through anywhere), I have consistently gotten over 55 MPG. My best tanks are usually around the 57-62MPG range. Keep a vigilant eye on your tire pressure as well.
After joining the local TDI club (yes there are most certainly local TDI clubs in your area) in Madison, Wisconsin, I learned the many tips out there like the overflow tank tip. There is also a tremendous website called Fred’s TDI Page and the TDI Club.
Here is one of the tips that I learned almost immediately: I you own a classic car or remember the old cars, on a hot day the gas would expand and they would frequently start leaking gas out on the cap. The auto makers came up with an elegant solution; they installed an overflow tank. In my car it is 2.2 gallons. There is a little button is depressed when you put the gas cap on. Diesel doesn’t expand as much as gas so if you hold the little button down with the fuel nozzle, you can get an extra 2.2 gallon in your tank (you fool it into thinking the gas overflowed into it. Using this practice I’ve been able to get around 800 miles to a tank. Think about it, you even save fuel because you don’t go to the gas station as often. I would go two to three times more often with the Subaru that the bug replaced.
I had planned to experiment with alternative fuels but could not do anything until the generous 10 year/ 100,000 mile warranty ran out. I hit the 100K mark in August, 2005 so the warranty was up. After this, I started to use biodiesel and biodiesel blends with no problems whatsoever. And by the way, this car will also burn straight vegetable oil (or SVO). Yes it’s true and any oil will do; you can use straight corn oil, soybean oil or get some right from the fryers of your local fast food giants (McDonalds, Burger King, etc.). I like the concept but I’d have to buy a heater tank kit (Google it on the internet) that would take up most of my baggage compartment but you need it to make sure the oil is liquid before it reaches the fuel filter. These tank conversion kits are readily available and expensive but I think they would pay for themselves fairly fast if the fuel prices stay up there. In any case (or at least in my case), these kits are better suited to a larger vehicle like a diesel truck or SUV because I just can’t sacrifice the space in my Beetle. You just can’t put it in when you want to and take it out when you need the space. I think that a clever engineer could make tons of money creating an easily removable tank unit (I’ll have to start working on it).
Another alternative is to cook your own biodiesel (kind of like your own meth lab) there are plenty of websites out there that will step you through the process or sell you a do it yourself kit. Just Google biodiesel or shoot me an email (or comment).