Your lyin' heart... (or gas gauge)

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My car is a liar. A big, fat, mean liar.

Well, sort of. A very important component of it lies, or at the very least, is extremely paranoid, overly conservative, and misleading. What part? Well, as the title suggests, it's the gas gauge.


One of my primary motivators for the Prius purchase was the mileage benefit. I liked the idea of getting 40+ mpg while utilizing, capturing and regenerating electricity during in-town and shorter-jaunt trips.

Like any good OCD person would, I made sure to study-up on the "hard facts" about the Prius, and I discovered that it featured an 11.9-gallon fuel tank. Rounding down to 11-gallons and multiplying by a conservative 40.0 mpg (I'm getting over 47 most times), I determined that I should be able to easily travel 440 miles before filling-up.

Imagine my dismay when with just over 320-ish miles on my first tank of fuel, the fuel gauge showed "empty" and the display began to blink and chime at me. What?! So, I raced to the nearest gas station and promptly "filled" the tank with exactly 6.5 gallons of gas... A total cost of $15.

Now hold on - this thing has an 11.9-gallon tank, so why was it screaming like Chicken Little with just about 1/2 a tank of fuel left?! I continued this "I need gas now!" game for months - getting to the 350-ish mile mark and having the gauge guilt and fear me into filling it with no more than 7 or 8 gallons of fuel each time.

So while planning my trip to Arkanas, I vowed to go at least 440 miles on a tank of fuel come hell or high water. There was no way I was going to stop every 300 miles to put in 6 gallons of gas, especially when I had a 1500-mile roundtrip journey to contend with. My plan included filling the tank as full as I could get it immediately before leaving Madison, resetting my trip meter, confirming my fuel mileage logs, and heading out onto the interstate. I'd waste no extra mileage along the way.

I left the gas station at the beginning of my trip (around 2:00am in Madison), and sure enough, just outside of St. Louis the fuel gauge started to flash and chime, claiming that the car was nearly out of fuel. I looked at the mileage - 343 miles covered. I looked at the fuel economy computer - averaging 47.9 mpg. Both of which were consistent with past experience and info. I chuckled out loud as I shook my head and said, "Not this time my friend - we're going to hit at least 400 miles before we even think about fuel."

I motored my way through St. Louis.

Once through St. Louis, with 385 miles showing on the trip meter, the fuel gauge was flashing constantly. I ran the numbers again - we were "good" to keep going. There was no way I had less than a gallon of fuel remaining.

I proceeded south on I-44, passing exit after exit. Pacifc, MO? Gone. St. Clair, MO? Adios. At Sullivan, MO, I started to get nervous. I was second guessing my math, falling influence to the car and it's incessant nagging about needing fuel. I wondered about the traffic in St. Louis. I worried about the headwinds... But I confirmed the numbers - I was just approaching 425 miles on the tank. "Maybe 10 gallons burned, worst case," I reassured myself.

Cuba, MO was just ahead - maybe a few miles down the road. St. James, MO just a few more down the road. I'd stop at Cuba. No - it would be St. James. Yep, St. James would be where I stop. I checked my speed (73 mph - the speed limit in MO is 70), relaxed my grip on the steering wheel and smiled.

The smile instantly turned to a gasp when the car promptly shut off and an ominous, bright yellow warning triangle appeared with the message "no fuel." WHAT?!!!

I hit the "Start" button again - nothing. I shifted into neutral, my speed falling rapidly. I could see the off-ramp for Cuba just ahead. My eyes raced to the trip meter - 441 miles. "WHAT?! How in the heck is this possible??" I said out loud. I pulled to the shoulder, riding on the rumble strips, with my emergency flashers on, hoping that the Prius would be aerodynamic enough to coast to the gas station at the top of the exit ramp in Cuba.

And it did. I literally rolled-in to the gas station at 10 mph, hazards flashing, heart racing, blood pressure boiling. I stormed out of the car and jammed the fuel nozzle into the car, as if to "stab" it. "I hate this car!" I said to myself, "and it had better take 11.91 gallons of fuel!!!"

After 3-4 minutes the gas pump clunked to a stop and I checked the display. 10.647 gallons. You had to be kidding me. I tried to force an additional gallon into the car, but no such luck. It took exactly 10.688 gallons. I had gone 442.3 miles on 10.688 gallons of fuel - 41.38 mpg average, and not quite what I had experienced in the past. It also conflicted with what the computer showed for economy, but I chalked it up to the extremely hilly terrain and the headwind that I was battling through most of southern Illinois.

But why wouldn't it take 11 gallons of fuel? I checked the owners manual again - there it was, in black and white - 11.9 gallons capacity. I went online via my phone and was shocked to learn that the Prius doesn't usually "hold" a full fill of fuel because it doesn't have a traditional "formed" gas tank. It has a fuel bladder, which is sort of like a hot water bottle... and when cold, it won't hold a full 11.9 gallons because it can't fully expand to accept the full fill. The cold causes the bladder to shrink and become stiff.

When I had filled-up in Madison earlier that night, the temperature was around 25F. And in Cuba, the temperature was struggling to hit 30F (it was only about 7:45am). Curse you, stupid Prius! Curse you!

The good news is that I know the Prius is good for a solid 400-miles per tank, and will require 9-ish gallons at that time. No slouch by any means. But that stupid gas gauge continues to mock me... I have a sneaking suspicion that I won't be keeping this soul-less, paranoid, lying vehicle too long. :-)

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steve published on December 5, 2010 9:44 AM.

A much needed "vacation" was the previous entry in this blog.

And so begins the drudgery. is the next entry in this blog.

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