I drive a 2011 Volkswagen GTI (when it’s working properly). I bought it right after college when I started working at Volkswagen Group of America at their corporate headquarters right outside of Washington, D.C. While I lived in D.C., I would drive home to the Pittsburgh area a handful of times every year for the normal stuff — holidays, family gatherings, sporting events, etc.
I’d take the same route each time — 495 to 270. 270 to 70. 70 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And every time I got to the Breezewood interchange between Interstate 70 and the PA Turnpike, I would stop for gas.
Except for one time.
And not because I didn’t need it — I definitely did need it. But rather, because I forgot.
By the time I realized what I’d done, I was long through the toll booth and already passing the entrance to the first turnpike service station. At this point, I was fully committed to pushing on, since you can’t exactly turn around on the 6-lane Pennsylvania Turnpike. I looked down and the fuel light was on, the needle just covering the lowest hash mark, and the center display "fuel range" reading 0. I had no idea how far it was to the next rest stop, but it really didn’t matter — I didn’t have much choice but to just go for it.
So, I went into hyper-focus mode and took every conceivable measure I could think of to conserve fuel:
I immediately shut off the HVAC and the radio, and made sure that the sunroof and windows were all rolled tight in order to minimize drag.
I remember seeing on an episode of Mythbusters that 55 miles per hour is the ideal speed for maximizing fuel economy. So I set the cruise control to 55 and got settled in with all the trucks in the right lane.
I tried to keep a reasonable distance, but I did my best to stay tight behind the tractor trailers, knowing that the vacuum created behind their trailers as they cut through the air would result in significantly reduced air resistance directly behind them, thus helping considerably with fuel economy.
I was grasping at straws at this point, but I figured this would ensure that the car stayed in sixth gear, where the revs would sit the lowest. I didn’t want to let the car downshift into fifth, thus increasing the revs and using precious fuel.
Neutral When Possible
I’ve heard the debate around this: Does shifting to neutral when coasting in an automatic car really save fuel? In my mind, I had to believe that it did, since the revs drop below where they sit when coasting in drive. So, whenever possible, I popped the DSG transmission into neutral, and watched that rev needle dip below 1000 rpms, taking care to blip the throttle any time I had to put the transmission back into drive.
The scariest part was when I had to go through a tunnel. By this point, I was 20 minutes into the whole ordeal. One of the most underrated thrills in life is driving through a tunnel with somewhere between more than enough fuel and not enough fuel to make it out the other end. I made it through, and a mile or so later, when I was at the crest of a long hill that I was certain would lead to my demise, I spotted it: The Somerset Service Plaza.
This is probably how Columbus felt when he spotted the new world.
Just as the rest stop came into view, though, things started to go awry. I first noticed the rev needle dip — and then I felt the whole car start to shudder. Terrified of finding out what might happen to the GTI’s complex, expensive dual-clutch transmission if the car stalled out while in gear at 55 miles per hour, I shifted to neutral just before the whole thing shut down.
I somehow managed to navigate the entire rest stop parking lot with no thrust and no power steering, using only the momentum I had left from the highway to coast, unobstructed, all the way to the pump, aligning the nozzle perfectly with my GTI’s fuel door.
I’m not sure Ken Block himself could’ve been more precise.
The picture above is from the moment I made it to the pump. I just looked it up and I covered at least 35 miles with the computer reading 0 miles of range. So there you have it — VW fuel gauges (or at least those used in the 2011 GTI) are relatively idiot proof, to the tune of 35 miles of highway driving. Find a Volkswagen GTI for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.