Archive for November, 2010

A week in Spain

I have decided that I would like to move to Spain for six months or so to learn Spanish (and to avoid the Belgian winter). As I am planning to move back to Australia in mid-2011 I am running out of time for more European experiences. Therefore, the plan is to move to Spain in January 2011, but I was unsure exactly where to go.

As you will see from previous posts I have been to Barcelona a couple of times and I really do love it. It is a great combination of old medieval centre and modern city. It’s not too big and not too small. It’s also by the beach and has great weather. But the fly in the ointment is that they speak Catalan rather than Spanish. Of course everyone can speak spanish as well but it’s not what you hear on the street and I think that will be detrimental to the immersion learning experience. So I ruled out Barcelona which basically left Seville and Madrid. And here I am on holiday for a week to check them both out.

I’ve already had a couple of days in Seville and I can report that it is a very pretty city with an unusual mixture of Islamic and Catholic architecture, often bizarrely intertwined. The main cathedral has a Moslem minaret from the time of the Moors but it is now a catholic cathedral and the minaret has a new bell tower on top. If only religions themselves could coexist so harmoniously.

Seville is supposedly the warmest place in Europe and it didn’t disappoint. I was out in a tee shirt with just a light jacket and it was sunny and warm. The city is completely flat so the best way to see it all is by using the city bicycle scheme which I did. Once you have joined you can take a bicycle from any of the hundreds of depots and then return it to another one. If you take the bicycle for less than half an hour it doesn’t even cost anything. I used this extensively and it saved my poor feet.

After a day and a half I think I had seen most of what there was to see. It isn’t a large city after all. So I bid adieu and boarded an AVE train to Madrid, 550kms to the northeast, in the centre of Spain. These trains are wonderful, smooth highspeed trains complete with movies like an airplane and the trip took only 2 hours and 30 minutes. I was also impressed that it departed and arrived on time to the second. Not consistent with my mental image of Spain at all! Japan yes, Germany maybe, but not Spain. I stand corrected.

The central plateau of Spain is very arid and there is almost no vegetation or features. It is, as scenery goes, quite boring. Luckily i had the movie and my iPad to entertain myself.

Madrid pops out of the desert quite suddenly. Unlike most cities, particularly in the US and Australia, there are no sprawling suburbs of McMansions. Instead it is featureless desert and then, right on the outskirts, high-rise apartments. I’m told that Madrid has virtually no detached housing. As a result the city is quite compact and it took only a few minutes to travel from the edge to the centre.

Immediately I could tell that this was a much bigger city than Seville. It has large boulevards and a lot of traffic all going very fast. It also surprised me with the size and grandeur of the buildings. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Spain did have an empire after all but I had always thought of it as a poor cousin to France and Germany. Not so. The buildings along Gran Via would rival and in some cases surpass what Paris or Berlin can offer. I will post photos in a future blog when I am back at my PC #iPadlimitation.

I’ve spent a few days in Madrid now and I have walked miles. It doesn’t seem to have a bike scheme and it is quite hilly anyway. There is an excellent metro but i haven’t used it much because you can’t see anything down there. I’m staying very centrally in the bohemian Chueca area which is convenient, and delicious, lots of little restaurants.

I think it is safe to say that Madrid has won. There is a lot more to see and do here compared to Seville and it also seems to be a little easier for the non-Spanish speaker to get by. I even have the potential to pick up some work here.

So there’s the verdict. Madrid in January. I hope it doesn’t snow…

Fuel Economy Run

Today I had to drive from my home in Antwerp, Belgium up to Bennekom in the Netherlands to visit my Citroën which is being repaired there. This is a round trip of 315kms and I thought, just for fun, that I might try an economy run to see what figures I could achieve in the BMW 123d. Those of you that know me or have read my previous posts about driving round the Nürburgring and on German autobahns might think it strange that I would want to drive slowly and economically. But I like a challenge and I’m also a little bit cheap so saving some fuel money is never a bad thing.

My goal was to beat the manufacturer’s claim of 5.2litres/100km (54MPG Imperial/45MPG US). This is a combined cycle claim so beating it on a trip consisting of 95% motorway should be easy but these claims are generally wildly optimistic and recorded under optimal conditions in a lab and therefore I wasn’t sure it would be possible. My average combined fuel consumption before I set off was 7.9litres/100km, a far cry from 5.2litres, and an indication that I had my work cut out for me. However it is worth noting that I drive everywhere at warp 5 with little or no regard for fuel consumption and, as this blog post will show, the most important factor in fuel economy is driving style.

I initially planned to brim my fuel tank with diesel so I could do a more accurate calculation but the service station near my house had a queue and I don’t queue. So instead I just zeroed the trip computer and headed off with less than half a tank of diesel and the trip computer showing a remaining range of just 220kms, a figure based on recent driving history. It looked like I would need to fill up enroute pending a miracle. As it was after 10am traffic on the Antwerp Ring was light and I eased out into the middle lane trying to resist the urge to mash the accelerator into the floor. Initially things weren’t looking good with a figure of around 5.5l/100km showing on the display. However, once I settled down to a comfortable 110kph that figure started to drop slowly but surely until it dropped under 5.0l/100km. Maybe it was going to be possible after all.

The thing about driving super-economically is that it requires a lot of concentration. The thing you absolutely want to avoid is braking as this just wastes your kinetic energy away in the form of heat (in most cars anyway) and this means that you need to plan far ahead, watching for trucks that might pull into your path, watching for slowing traffic up ahead, and trying to avoid having to stop quickly for a red light. It is much better to take your foot off the accelerator and coast in gear if you notice slowing traffic up ahead than it is to brake at the last second. Modern petrol and diesel engines use precisely zero fuel when they are in overrun i.e. when you are coasting in gear and using the engine resistance to decelerate. It is much better to let the engine slow you down than to put your foot on the clutch and use the brakes.

The other enemy of the economical driver is the hill. Fuel consumption when climbing a hill is understandably much higher than driving on the flat. Happily for me, I was driving in the Netherlands which is completely and utterly flat. So flat that the altimeter in my car showed 0 metres above sea level for almost the entire trip. The highest we got was 10 metres above sea level and that was while crossing a huge bridge over a canal. Methinks that real estate purchases in the Netherlands won’t be such a great investment in the event of sea level rises. Although there were no hills on my journey, there were a lot of bridges so I would gradually build up some extra speed before the bridge then allow the speed to decrease slightly as I went up the incline. Trying to maintain a constant speed up an incline will double your fuel consumption. And any speed that you have lost on the way up can be regained on the way down without penalty.

After an hour or so I had worked out that around 110kph was the sweet spot for economy. I could maintain that speed with an instantaneous fuel consumption figure of 3.5l/100km. Going even 10kph faster would push that figure above 4.5l/100km and going slower would start to hold up traffic and that is not practical. My combined figure after an hour was 4.6l/100km and I really wasn’t doing anything special other than driving with a very sensitive foot on the accelerator. I experimented with using the cruise control but found I could get the figures lower myself. Cruise control can’t anticipate traffic conditions or changes in elevation and is a bit of a blunt instrument. I should note that I did make one concession to fuel economy. As it was not a particularly hot day I turned off the A/C and just left the vents open to fresh air. This can make a big difference.

When it comes to economy, the BMW has a few tricks up its sleeve. It has a gear change indicator which shows the optimal point to change up and down and tells you which gear you should be in. It also has an alternator which disconnects from the engine except when you are decelerating so that it never uses fuel to charge the battery. It uses regenerative braking as well to capture some of that kinetic energy which would normally be lost as heat when braking. When you are driving in town it also automatically stops and starts the engine at traffic lights. The standard tyres are low rolling resistance tyres which also aids in fuel economy but I actually replaced mine with regular performance tyres as I didn’t like them so I might have reduced my fuel economy chances there slightly. And instead of using hydraulic power steering which uses a pump running off the engine it has electric power steering which is powered by the battery. All these things, plus the fact that it is an incredibly efficient diesel, add up to a noticeable improvement in fuel economy. Bravo.

I arrived at my destination with the display showing 4.5l/100km and feeling relaxed on account of the fact that I had been taking it easy just cruising along and I didn’t need to be constantly on the lookout for speed cameras. Maybe I don’t always need to drive like my hair’s on fire…


My trip home was similarly uneventful although traffic was a little heavier resulting in a few annoying stops and the resulting increase in consumption as I accelerate again. However, by the time I arrived back in Antwerp, the trip computer was proudly displaying a combined figure of 4.4litres/100km (64MPG Imperial/53MPG US). This is not bad for a car that has 204 horsepower and 400Nm of torque, can accelerate to 100kph in 7 seconds and will hit 250kph on the nearest available autobahn. In my opinion it could be a lot better too were it not for the fact that it is a relatively heavy car for its size. My biggest hope for the next generation 1 series is that BMW will invest in weight-saving.

I achieved these figures simply by driving conservatively and turning off the A/C. I imagine it would be possible to drastically slash the consumption even more if one employed hardcore hypermiling techniques like slipstreaming trucks but I’m more interested in the practical everyday possibilities.