Don’t be fooled by the cars’ slow pace – the competitive effort in the annual MPG Marathon is cranked up at ten-tenths for all of its two days and 320 or so miles. Feather-footed Tim Dickson gives it a go
2 November 2014

We’re somewhere on the A343 in Hampshire. The road snakes quite steeply downhill and we’re building speed rapidly – 45mph, 50, 55, then 60mph.

Up ahead are BTCC aces Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden, driving a Honda Civic Tourer liveried up just like their race cars, and we’re slowly gaining on them. In neutral.

There’s a Volkswagen Passat between us and them and, for a moment, I consider overtaking it to conserve our precious momentum. Suddenly, the racers have to brake almost to a standstill for a van in front that has slowed to turn right. It’s infuriating.

We’re only a few hundred metres from our next destination and we could have got there without touching the accelerator pedal had no one got in the way. 

This, if the pictures above haven’t already given it away, is the MPG Marathon. It isn’t a race – far from it – but the competition is white hot.

Despite this, my co-driver Kevin Booker and I reckon that we could be in with a chance of doing pretty well, given the outstanding real-world economy of the 1.6 i-DTEC Civic hatch we’re driving and what turns out to be a shared long-term preoccupation with particularly parsimonious driving. 

The annual MPG Marathon has been running since 2000, when Ross Durkin of the CO2-savvy Fleet World magazine decided to resurrect the Mobil Economy Run, a fuel economy driving challenge held a few decades ago. 

It was contested by eco-driving pioneer, one-time economy world record holder and former Autocar deputy editor Stuart Bladon, who, incidentally, is still at it, driving a Peugeot 308 in this year’s event with brother Hugh as co-driver.

Durkin’s timing for the inaugural MPG Marathon was fortuitously impeccable, coinciding as it did with the UK’s near-crippling fuel price protests, which made almost everyone in the country acutely aware of just how much fuel their car was using.

Since then, because of environmental concerns/wars in the Gulf/punitive road and company car tax rules/spiralling fuel duty (delete as appropriate), fuel economy has gained an ever-increasing importance.

These days, the MPG Marathon, which takes place on public roads, takes the form of a ‘navigational scatter’ event. In other words, competitors are given a list of destinations to which they can get by any route they so choose.

A few years ago the routes from point to point were fixed, but this caused all sorts of logistical and administrative headaches with the organisers because it meant that the event was classified as actual motorsport.

The ‘scatter’ approach is much simpler, plus it allows drivers to get creative with their navigation. To prevent cars becoming too much of a low-speed rolling road block along the way, there’s a maximum time allowed to get to each of the day’s checkpoints, with half a mile per gallon docked from your overall recorded economy figure for each minute you’re late.

Competitors cover around 320 miles over the two days of the event, depending on their choice of route.

All you have to do to win is record a mile per gallon figure higher than anyone else’s, but there are also awards given for best improvement on the manufacturer’s claimed combined economy figure, and a prize for the most economical van.

Cars (and vans) have to be standard, and are rigorously scrutineered by the AA, with the fuel tanks brimmed and sealed before setting off. Point-to-point mileages are noted along the way.

This year’s MPG Marathon has attracted a decent mix of competitors. There are fleet managers, police drivers and representatives of various public sector bodies, plus a smattering of interest from the manufacturers, including Seat and Peugeot.

Kevin and I are part of Honda UK’s multi-pronged effort, which includes us in the Civic hatch, racers Neal and Shedden in a Civic Tourer, the BBC’s Paul Clifton and traffic cop Shaun Cronin also sharing a Tourer and four guys from Honda’s R&D department – Fergal McGrath, James Warren, Tony Shiggins and Julian Warren – in, you guessed it, another Civic Tourer, which they all had a hand in developing.

Elsewhere, there are defending MPG Marathon champs Nick Chapman and Rosemary Horner in a Ford Fiesta 1.6 Econetic and up and coming Formula Ford racers Harrison Scott and Louise Richardson in a Fiesta ST-3. There’s also a Subaru BRZ. And an Alfa Romeo 4C.

Day one begins with a run from our base, south of Cirencester, to a hotel just off the A40 near Abergavenny, and we opt for an easy jaunt along the M4 into Wales. We’re fighting a headwind and battling for inside lane space with lorries, but the steady pace has our trip meter claiming 89.4mpg at the end of it. Not bad going – if accurate – but we’ll need to do better if we’re to be in with a chance of winning.

The next leg takes us north-east to Worcester. It’s a pleasant drive and we barely feel like we’re holding anyone up, but torrential rain and deep standing water in Great Malvern causes extra drag for the final few miles. The trip reckons on 86.7mpg at the end of it.

Our final run of the day takes us back to Cirencester, but there’s a monster traffic jam to carefully navigate our way out of on the Worcester ring road and monsoon conditions on the M5, so the trip computer reckons on 82mpg for that leg.

The next day is more of the same. Driving really, really slowly is, as it turns out, quite relaxing. It focuses your mind if you’re at the wheel and forces you to plan ahead in a way that many drivers would do well to try for themselves, but the total absence of pressure to make progress at all costs takes quite a weight off your shoulders.

As a passenger, you can relax knowing that you’re not going to be scared witless by any daft overtaking or heavy-footed ‘look at me’ stupidity. It’s also considerably cheaper than driving really, really quickly, and will even save you a fair few quid compared with driving really, really normally.

We record a trip-computed 91mpg and 88.5mpg respectively for the first two runs of day two, and then hit fuel-saving gold on the final leg, back on the M4 from Bath to Cirencester. A tailwind and some sneaky slipstreaming has the Civic’s claimed economy edging up and up. And up. At one point, it’s nearly into three figures, but by the time we’re back at base, it has settled on 98.1mpg. Not bad going, but enough to win?

All the cars are carefully refilled and brimmed by the AA. That takes a while, so the official results aren’t announced for a few days but, even so, it’s clear that Team Honda’s Civics have excelled. At the final count, the R&D Civic Tourer is declared the winner, with an incredible 97.92mpg, just beating the defending champions’ Fiesta by 0.84mpg.

The 95mpg Citroën C4 Cactus of John Kendall and Paul Nieuwenhius is third. Winners of the prize for biggest improvement over the manufacturer’s claimed combined economy figure goes to the Scott/Richardson Formula Ford racer pair in the Fiesta ST-3, with a remarkable 75.77mpg at the final count (Ford claims 47.9mpg combined for the ST-3).

Kevin and I finish fourth overall with 88.6mpg – impressive enough on its own, and it means that the on-board trip computer is incredibly accurate, but disappointing given the margin to the winners. 

Still, it’s a surprisingly fun event, albeit one with a serious and ever more relevant message: we could all use a lot less fuel if we wanted to. You just have to put your mind to it.

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Our Verdict

Honda Civic

The Honda Civic is an impressive achievement and a worthy rival to the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus, but it isn't quite up to class-leading standards

2 November 2014
There's much debate in various forums and advertising campaigns that Shell is better that Tesco fuel or Premium more economical than ordinary etc. Would have been interesting to take a fleet of Civics brimmed with various flavours of fuel over those few days and put the debate to rest once and for all. Unless someone can prove otherwise, my car's at it's most economical when it's filled with the cheapest fuel I can find.

3 November 2014
scotty5 wrote:

There's much debate in various forums and advertising campaigns that Shell is better that Tesco fuel or Premium more economical than ordinary etc. Would have been interesting to take a fleet of Civics brimmed with various flavours of fuel over those few days and put the debate to rest once and for all. Unless someone can prove otherwise, my car's at it's most economical when it's filled with the cheapest fuel I can find.

The fuels debate is an interesting one - more so in my opinion than the original premise of this "rally" as I feel it has a lot more impact in the real world. Especially if you consider the style of driving that is required to get these inflated, albeit impressive, MPGs.

I have recorded my average MPG, as well as fuel type used, over the past 67,000 miles I have driven in my own vehicles, with both petrol and diesel cars. There is a big MPG improvement using high-octane petrol compared to normal petrol but I have not seen the same with the "Ultimate" diesel. I have also found that both Shell & BP have been the best fuels for MPG, although Jet has given good results but Murco/Total not so much. The supermarket fuels, with the exception of ASDA, are generally pretty good as well to be honest - not a huge difference to the big names. The only one that is absolutely appalling is ASDA - there is a reason it is very cheap!! I would never put that stuff in my car again in a million years.

Even if you look at pence/mile the premium petrol works out as a good buy. That is where some supermarkets come out on top - especially if they have money off promotions. ASDA still comes out with appalling numbers even if you look at pence/mile!!

I have not done any real performance or driveability testing with the premium vs normal fuels but certainly the petrol cars seem to pull more strongly with the higher octane fuel. I have not really noticed any huge differences with the diesels but they do seem a little bit quieter.

2 November 2014
Unless this car has some features I am not aware of ...rolling in neutral is not the most economical thing to do (or safest). I presume the engine was left running and was therefor idling or should I say using fuel. You say it was a steep hill so being in gear would have probably caused minimal if any reduction in speed and would have had the engine on the over run and used absolutely no fuel whatsoever.

@scotty5...re fuel types do not disagree, but with the V power etc type fuels my engine does idle quieter and pull more cleanly from lower revs. Most impressive though, although not part of my natural driving style if I do have to overtake I am happy to use the full range of the engines capabilities (if you can use such a term for a 1.6tdi). With normal fuel the legs start to fade at 3750 and by 4500 the redline of 5000 seems way off. With the good stuff however it bangs straight out to the red line without hesitation and probably the reason I avoid buying it. I do get increased fuel economy with the better fuel but not enough to warrant the additional cost.

2 November 2014
@Audiolab - I gave V-power a 3 month trial (approx 3000 miles) back around 2009 when Shell were promoting the fuel at (or at least very close to) std fuel prices. 2.0tdi Golf, not one iota of difference IMO. But the only real way to tell would as I say above, run the same cars together over the same terrain, same weather and see. Perhaps one day some magazine will do it although I suspect the oil companies would do their best to discourage such a test.

2 November 2014
a bit suspicious of the Honda’s R&D department win, fuel tank may have been sealed but did you verify their ECU software? I am sure they could have knocked up a special program with all kind of tricks like cylinder shutdown to win... not that engineers would ever cheat! ~whistles looking skyward ~

2 November 2014
...is anything to go by then you could choose much worse than this diesel Civic. While 80mpg shouldn't be far off for a Civic when driven with fuel-saving in mind, a petrol car returning 60mpg plus won't surprise me in the least. Ford Fiesta ST returning 75mpg proves my point.

2 November 2014
This is great fun. This sort of content would be brilliant for Autocar's YouTube channel. Any thoughts, AC?


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