Clarkson on: fuel light bingo
I guess we all hate filling up with petrol. Yes, the sheer cost is bad enough, but much, much worse is the notion that you’re standing there, in the freezing cold, catching cancer and watching your life ebb away in a digital blur.
This is why I’m so partial to playing fuel light bingo. The needle is already in the red zone as you pass a sign on the motorway saying ‘Services 1m’. But you don’t stop. You go to the next one, and when you get there, you go past that one too.
Besides, there’s always the hope, the slimmest chance that somehow, the car will run on fresh air until you get home. And then next morning your wife will fill it up.
Much to Mrs C’s annoyance, I play fuel-light bingo all the time and I’m very good at it, but this month, even I thought I’d overdone it. The yellow warning light had leapt into action as I passed Nottingham on the M1. And I had no intention of stopping until I got to London – which was 130 miles away. 130 miles of unpredictable traffic on reserve. Not possible, surely?
This, in fact, was a test of the Audi A8 diesel which will be shown on the first episode of the new series. We all marvelled at the sheer performance of its four-litre twin turbo V8; I mean, 0 to 60mph in 6.6 seconds – that’s good for any big car. But for a big diesel car, it’s truly astonishing. Surely, though, all those force-fed cubic inches will erase the point of having a diesel in the first place – fuel consumption, and therefore the distance you can go between visits to the pumps.
There was only one way to find out. And so, early one Tuesday morning back in the depths of winter, I rocked up at the Tower filling station on the Hendon Way in north London, a mile or so from the bottom of the M1. There, I brimmed the tank with 19.7 gallons and set off on what became the most extraordinary journey I’ve ever done in Britain.
I planned to drive to Edinburgh and back again without filling up. Which is 800 miles and that meant doing 40.4mpg. To begin with, things looked bleak. I’d driven pretty carefully out of London and once on the M1, had settled to a nice 60mph cruise. But even so, the Audi’s onboard computer said that in the first 10 miles I’d only managed 35mpg.
At Milton Keynes, it had only risen to 37 and I really felt there was no point going on. I mean, television viewers are used to Changing Rooms and Ground Force where, in the nick of time, Titchmarsh and Smillie always just get the water feature working before Maureen gets back from the shops. I wasn’t even going to get close.
Still, I eased it down to 55mph, and turned off the climate control, which seemed to increase the average. And by the time I turned off on the M18 – about 16 days after I’d left London – I was on target. By the time I was at Newcastle, I’d done 42mpg – five more than Audi said was possible. Things were looking great.
“An engine test had turned into a test of driving ability. If people concentrated as hard as me, no-one would crash”
But then, disaster. In Northumberland, the A1 turned to a farm track, there were more roundabouts than sheep and my average, as I endlessly slowed down and sped up again, was plummeting. Nevertheless, as I arrived in Edinburgh at dusk, the fuel gauge told a happy story. It was slap bang on the half mark.
The only thing that worried me was that I’d used half a tank plus whatever was in the pipe. I wouldn’t have that luxury on the way home. On the way back the following morning, the traffic was a nightmare and the single-lane road down to Newcastle meant I arrived in Geordieland with just a quarter of a tank left. Newcastle to London on a quarter of a tank; the computer said I was going to miss by a whopping 80 miles.
What started out as a test of an engine had, at this stage, turned into a test of my driving ability. Despite the cold, I still hadn’t turned on the heater and I’d even shut down the radio and the satnav. Everything that used power was a no-no.
On the hills, I was easing off a tad, and then accelerating when gravity was on my side. But never harshly. Never, not once, did I let the revs creep above 1,200rpm. I’m telling you: if people concentrated as hard as I was concentrating that day, no-one would ever crash. Be assured, driving slowly is much, much harder than driving fast.
You have to read the road, not only spotting inclines, but also trying to anticipate who was going to do what next. Braking would mean washing off preciously earned mph so I could never touch the left pedal. But I admit, I was ready to throw in the towel when that fuel warning light came on at Nottingham. It all just seemed to be so hopeless.
I kept trying and was amazed when I was still going at Milton Keynes. It seems I’ve been a wimp with this fuel-light bingo in the past. But then the thing I’d dreaded most of all, loomed out of nowhere. A big fat, three-lane lump of stationary metal. Bugger. I cruised to a halt on the inside lane as the range reading on the trip computer dropped from five to zero.
For 15 minutes, I inched forward in that jam waiting for the tell-tale cough. It never came. This was bad news, because past Luton the hard shoulder was coned off. The only thing that could be worse than this was a contraflow.
Then the contraflow started. If I broke down in this at rush hour, on a cold March evening, I’d be lynched. Especially if I told everyone in the queue that I knew it was going to happen.
By this stage, I was properly, properly cold but I couldn’t feel it. I was leaning forward in my seat, begging for just another drop, treating that throttle like it was a Fabergé egg. And then, suddenly, there it was: the end of the M1. Hendon Way and yes, yes, yes, just one set of lights and the garage where I’d started. I made it. With an average speed of 47mph, I’d averaged 40.4mpg. I know this because we plugged the car into an Audi service laptop, which said the tank was bone dry. All that was left was maybe half a litre in the pump.
So there you are. The awesome Audi V8 diesel. Thrilling when driven hard. But nowhere near as thrilling as when you drive it carefully.