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Eco Button: Friend or Foe?

February 17, 2011 by - Automotive Editor

Eco Button

U.S. auto makers have been accused of being slow to respond to consumer demands for more economical vehicles and more choices when it comes to fuel economy, but quietly, slowly, they have been introducing an idea that seems genius: putting mileage control at the drivers fingertips.

The “eco button”, as it is called, has been installed in a variety of vehicle types from compact cars to SUV’s; sports cars to sedans and everything in between.

With one press of a brightly illuminated button on the dashboard the driver can select a driving mode which decreases their power, but increases their fuel economy.

The Chevrolet Equinox has a 4-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission. Press the eco button and the transmission torque converter locks at lower speeds and tells the transmission to shift to a higher gear earlier.

In the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan the eco button smooths the throttle response and orders the upshift sooner to help increase fuel economy.

Two Honda hybrids, the CR-Z and the Insight, both have an eco button to further increase fuel efficiency. Press the eco button and the electric motor assist in both vehicles will prioritize fuel efficiency. If the air conditioner is running it will automatically adjust its drag on the engine. It will also improve acceleration, reduce RPMs and increase mileage.

Sure these eco buttons can slightly increase mileage, but any hyper-mileage driver can achieve similar results by simply driving less aggressively. Manufacturers suggest vehicles with the eco button engaged will improve mileage by a mile or so per gallon. Not much given the decrease in power.
As with anything, your result will vary from what the manufacturer suggests. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency does not test vehicle mileage with the eco button engaged, instead relying on a standard operating mode to determine fuel efficiency.

Another important factor when it comes to the eco button is knowing how many drivers actually use it. Sure, it’s there, but if nobody is using it, it doesn’t do any good at all.

Some drivers see the eco button as a device intended to slow them down and make their daily commute even longer. Not the fuel saver the manufacturers hope it will be.

Only Honda would actually admit what percentage of their drivers engage the eco button, saying that 50 percent of their drivers use the eco button as their primary driving mode.

Some industry watchers theorize the manufacturers have added the eco button just so they can say they have offered their drivers a choice, but are not really interested in actually improving their mileage at all.

One thing is clear: buyers do want some relief when they pull up to the pump. Whether or not they want an eco button to help provide that relief remains to be seen, but obviously the manufacturers think they do.

The eco button will help you go further on your tank of fuel, albeit at a slightly slower speed with slightly less power. Is this the answer you were looking for when it came to fuel economy? If it is, you will likely find the answer in more and more new cars. If it isn’t, you might not have much choice.