Windows Down or A/C on — Which Is More Fuel-efficient?

By: Christopher Neiger & Talon Homer  | 
2 girls dirivng with car window open
If you're concerned about fuel economy, when does it make sense to use your vehicle's air conditioner? Ground Picture/Shutterstock

During the warmer months, there's nothing like driving with the windows down, hanging your arm out the window and catching the breeze as it pulls your arm up to the sky ... or is there? What about driving with the windows up and enjoying the wonder of engineering that allows a cool air conditioning breeze to keep you chill as the pavement scorches just a few feet underneath you?

With the price of gas going higher, it's not unusual for drivers to be asking, "Which option will save me more money? Window up and the air conditioning on, or windows down and no air conditioner?"


There are two main factors to consider when approaching this question. The first deals with how the air compressor in your car works and how much extra fuel the engine has to use to keep it running. The second is what is known as air resistance or drag. Drag is the resistance that cars, and all moving objects, encounter when moving through the air at any speed. Most modern cars are designed to be relatively aerodynamic, which allows them to pass through the air with minimal resistance.

However, when a vehicle has its windows down, air passes into the car where it was formerly allowed to flow over it, causing resistance that didn't exist when the windows were up. You can think of it a bit like a parachute. When a skydiver opens up the parachute, it cups the air and causes a massive amount of drag, enough to slow the speed of the skydiver and allow him or her to land safely on the ground. Unlike the parachute, you definitely don't want a lot of drag on your car because it makes your engine work harder to get your vehicle up to the same speed.

So, does drag really affect a car's fuel economy more than air conditioning? There are times when using the AC will save you gas.


When Does Using Your Air Conditioner Save Gas?

Back in 2004, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) conducted a study at a General Motors wind tunnel and on a desert track. In the wind tunnel, air was forced over the front of the car and also from an angle on the front of the car to simulate a cross wind. In the desert, temperatures and vehicle speed were factored into the study. Two vehicles were used in the test, one was a full-size SUV with an 8.1-liter V-8 engine and the other was a full-size sedan equipped with a 4.6-liter V-8 engine. Overall, both studies showed that driving with the windows down has a significant negative effect on the fuel efficiency — more than using the vehicle's air conditioner [source: Hill].

For the sedan, when the windows were down, the efficiency was reduced by 20 percent, while the SUV fuel efficiency was reduced just 8 percent [source: Hill]. These differences are an important factor in determining just how much the windows down option will affect the fuel efficiency of your vehicle. The study concluded that the more aerodynamic the vehicle, the more drag open windows will create.


However, with newer, more efficient vehicles the difference is likely to be negligible. More recently, the SAE conducted a 2013 test using a 2009 Toyota Corolla at various speeds. They found that the Corolla had to travel at speeds over 80 miles per hour (129 kilometers per hour) with the windows down before aerodynamic drag made it less efficient than driving with the AC on. The SAE also tested a 2009 Ford Explorer and found that driving with the windows down was more efficient in the Explorer at lower speeds but there wasn't much difference in either method above 60 mph (96 kph) [source: Sanchez].

When Does Rolling the Windows Down Save Gas?

dog driving in car
Fresh air can feel good and be more fuel-efficient too. Ian Wedlock/Getty Images

Since no tests have been conducted on an extensive array of vehicles, here are some general guidelines:

When you're driving around town at relatively low speeds, you'll use less gas by switching the air conditioner off and rolling down the windows [source: Arthur]. It's more efficient to drive with the windows down at slow speeds as opposed to faster speeds because there's less aerodynamic drag when you're driving slower [source: Motavalli].


What's the reason? Well, at low speeds your engine is producing less power, so it would have to work much harder to power accessories like the air compressor (for the air conditioning). When the engine is operating at faster speeds, it's already producing ample power for both the engine and additional equipment [source: Austin].

As your speed increases, however, the amount of drag on the vehicle will also increase. But the drag doesn't increase in a linear fashion, it increases exponentially. For example, when your vehicle is traveling at a speed of 70 mph (113 kph), there's actually four times more force on the vehicle than when you're cruising around at 35 mph (56 kph). So even though the vehicle's speed is doubled, the drag is actually increased by four times.

If you're searching for a good rule-of-thumb number for when it's best to open the windows and switch off the air conditioner, the cut-off should be around 40 mph (64 kph) for larger vehicles [source: Arthur]. With smaller vehicles, like the Corolla, you could use the AC and get up to 70 to 80 mph (assuming that's a speed limit where you are) without using extra gas.

Although we've made the case for both windows down and air conditioning, some argue that the windows down option is still the better bet. Car and Driver did its own study and determined that you should switch off your air conditioner — most of the time [source: Austin].

Driving with the windows up and the AC off might be the most fuel-efficient way of all, but who can do that on a hot day?

Really, the benefit or hindrance posed by driving with windows down will depend on a number of variables, like vehicle shape, engine size, and compressor efficiency. Every vehicle will behave differently, so there aren't many hard rules. No matter which method you use, practices like keeping tires properly inflated, trimming excess cargo weight, and regularly maintaining driveline components will likely see greater benefits to fuel economy.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Arthur, Dani M. "Will rolling down windows save fuel or not?" July 22, 2008. (June 5, 2009)
  • Austin, Michael. "Gas Pains: Mileage Myths and Misconceptions." December 2008. (June 5, 2009)
  • Hill, William, et al. "Effect of Windows Down on Vehicle Fuel Economy as compared to AC load." July 13, 2004. (June 5, 2009)
  • Shean Huff, Brian West, John Thomas. "Effects of Air Conditioner Use on Real-World Fuel Economy" SAE. 04/08/2013. (Sept. 7, 2022)
  • Motavalli, Jim. "The Air Out There: An Endless Windows-vs.-Air-Conditioning Debate." The New York Times. July 30, 2008. (June 5, 2009)
  • NAPA. "DOES A CAR HEATER USE GAS?" (Sept. 12, 2022)
  • National Air and Space Museum. "Pressure Drag" (Sept. 7, 2022)
  • Sanchez, Karla. Myth Buster: Save Fuel With AC On or Windows Down? Motortrend. July 28, 2013 (Sept. 12, 2022)
  • Science Direct. "Drag Coefficient Overview" (Sept. 7, 2022)
  • U.S. Department of Energy. "Saving Money on Gas" (Sept. 7, 2022)