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What speed should I drive to get maximum fuel efficiency?

Efficiency of an Engine

In effect the efficiency of the engine is improving. It uses a fixed amount of fuel to power itself and the accessories, and a variable amount of fuel depending on the power required to keep the car going at a given speed. So in terms of fuel used per mile, the faster the car goes, the better use we make of that fixed amount of fuel required.

This trend continues to a point. Eventually, that road load curve catches up with us. Once the speed gets up into the 40 mph range each 1 mph increase in speed represents a significant increase in power required. Eventually, the power required increases more than the efficiency of the engine improves. At this point the mileage starts dropping. Let's plug some speeds into our equation and see how a 1 mph increase from 2 to 3 mph compares with a 1 mph increase from 50 to 51 mph. To make things easy we'll assume a, b and c are all equal to 1.

3 mph
2 mph
Power Increase
51 mph
50 mph
Power Increase

You can see that the increase in power required to go from 50 to 51 mph is much greater than to go from 2 to 3 mph.

So, for most cars, the "sweet spot" on the speedometer is in the range of 40-60 mph. Cars with a higher road load will reach the sweet spot at a lower speed. Some of the main factors that determine the road load of the car are:

  • Coefficient of drag. This is an indicator of how aerodynamic a car is due only to its shape. The most aerodynamic cars today have a drag coefficient that is about half that of some pickups and SUVs.
  • Frontal area. This depends mostly on the size of the car. Big SUVs have more than double the frontal area of some small cars.
  • Weight. This affects the amount of drag the tires put on the car. Big SUVs can weigh two to three times what the smallest cars weigh.

In general, smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic cars will get their best mileage at higher speeds. Bigger, heavier, less aerodynamic vehicles will get their best mileage at lower speeds.

If you drive your car in the "sweet spot" you will get the best possible mileage for that car. If you go faster or slower, the mileage will get worse, but the closer you drive to the sweet spot the better mileage you will get.

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