Driving on empty: How far your car can go with the gas light on

Aki Sugawara
Motoramic
25 January 2013

Whether slogging through commuter traffic or cruising on a picturesque highway, nobody enjoys stopping for gas. Hence it's easy to play a Kramer-quality game of chicken with the gas gauge — and seeing how deep you can get the needle into the E before the car sputters out. Automakers discourage that procrastination with a low-fuel light, which warns you when there's a few gallons left to spare; but those couple dozen extra miles aren't lost on motorists who want to hold off for a few precious freeway exits.

What's left people guessing, however, is exactly how far you can go when the gas light comes on, and since there's no established standard for reserve fuel capacity, it varies with each automaker and model. But thanks to the website Tank on Empty, which has a searchable, user-submitted database, you can have a better idea of your on-empty range.

According to the site, there are some surprising low-fuel winners: the mammoth Ford Excursion may guzzle gas like a cargo ship, but it also boasts one of the longest ranges, averaging 85.12 miles. That beats the eco-conscious Prius, which can run for 55.12 miles, or a Porsche 911 Carrera, which could quickly leave you stranded on the shoulder with its average of 23.82 miles.

But don't get emboldened by the data to run your car on fumes, because continuously doing so can wear out the fuel pump. Most modern vehicles use an electric fuel pump, which is inside the fuel tank and relies on the gasoline to keep it cool; hence you'll want to keep the tank at least a quarter full to prevent premature wear.

Plus, there are some imitations to the tool. The data doesn’t distinguish between different model years, so an aging Toyota Corolla with a bad oxygen sensor could skew the results against a new one that just rolled off the dealership. And since the data points don’t reflect how much further the cars could’ve gone, they’re more an insight into driver refueling habits than a reflection of a car’s on-empty range.

Such crowdsourced data may become obsolete as manufacturers use trip computers that indicate the miles left — it’s already not only in luxury BMWs and Audis, but also in entry-level compacts like the Subaru Impreza. Whether there’s still some padding in the trip computer’s range or not, that only means drivers can push cars further into empty.

Photo: Sean MacEntee / Flickr

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