21/04/2010 13:25

Driven: the car that teaches you to drive greener

Christopher Hubbard's biography

Did you know that many new Fiats can teach you to drive more economically?

The system is called eco:Drive, and it boldly claims to save you money, fuel and reduce CO2. MSN Cars puts it to the test.

Gallery: Fiat eco:Drive

Fiat Bravo (© Image © Fiat)

Click images to enlarge

Eco:Drive is free-to-download computer software, available via the Fiat website. It works on both Macs and PCs, impresses with its neat graphics, user friendly design and its clear and simple explanations. It requires a USB memory stick and, most importantly, only works on Fiats fitted with Blue&Me.

Specifically the Fiat 500, the Grande Punto and the Bravo - though other Blue&Me equipped Fiats will be added soon. Blue&Me is a combined voice control, Bluetooth and MP3 player interface. Developed in conjunction with Microsoft, it adds buttons to the steering wheel and - crucially - a USB socket to the dashboard.

Eco:Drive installation

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

So assuming you have a compatible computer, a spare USB memory stick (which can also be used to store music to playback through the Fiat's stereo via Blue&Me) and an applicable Fiat, you simply go to www.fiat.co.uk, navigate to the eco:Drive area and start the download.

This may require installing Adobe Air, but it otherwise proceeds in the same manner as any other software installation. However, it is worth noting eco:Drive is still in "beta" at the moment. This means it is not yet finalised, so may suffer from occasional glitches. We'll come back to this.

Our eco:Drive ride is turbocharged

Fiat Bravo (© Image © Fiat)

Once the software is installed, it takes a few moments to set up and initialise the memory stick. Then you need to follow the instructions to do the same with the car, which brings me to the Fiat Bravo Sport I'm using to test the system. It's not exactly an obvious eco-choice.

The 1.4 TJet 150 is precisely what it sounds like: a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol that produces an impressive 150hp - not to mention 169lb ft of torque and does so in a manner that's best described as 'eager'. Wheelspin is a mere throttle stamp away. It's got plenty of poke.

Fiat Bravo (© Image © Fiat)

More to the point, if eco:Drive can help me drive this Fiat more efficiently, it can certainly do wonders for the less encourageable members of the range. The TJet's CO2 emissions are rated at 165g/km with official combined fuel consumption of 40.4mpg. If I get anywhere near this it will be an achievement.

The thing to remember about all official fuel economy figures is that they are created on a rolling road in laboratory conditions, not in the real world, making it difficult to replicate them in everyday driving. Using eco:Drive helps you analyse your real-world performance in order to find real-world results.

Taking the test

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

In order to help you, eco:Drive has to study you. So for the first five days of the test, all I do is plug the memory stick into the car and drive around normally. Which is to say I immediately switch on the Sport button and flatten the accelerator at every possible opportunity.

I'm a motoring journalist; what did you expect? The Sport button improves the steering by reducing the electrical assistance, heightens throttle response and "overboosts" the engine - meaning 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds instead of 8.5. Driven this way, the Bravo feels properly quick if not ideal for saving the planet...

Five days later...

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

When my first five days are up, I plug the USB stick into the computer, fire up the software and download my data. I get an average eco:Index rating of 57 - which is actually rather better than I had expected. The eco:Index is the overall indicator for your driving performance.

However, each individual journey can be studied in detail, with marks out of five for Acceleration, Deceleration, Gear changes and Speed. I'm returning two-and-a-half to three stars for each, right across the board. Time for a few lessons, and this is where eco:Drive really comes into its own.

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

Built into the software are a series of easy-to-follow tutorials. You simply select the item you want to work on, say, Acceleration, and click the button marked "Take the Lesson". Cute animated graphics and concise, understandable explanations then run you through your own individual journey data.

This shows you exactly where you're going wrong and crucially what you can do to put it right. There are general tips, such as keeping the windows closed - improving aerodynamics and reducing fuel consumption - plus specific advice. To reduce your accelerator aggression, for example, imagine there's an egg under the pedal.

Back on the road

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

Tutorials watched and lessons hopefully learned, it's time to set an eco:Challenge. Here you select a target eco:Index rating and a number of days to reach it. It's best to be realistic, so I settle on a ten-point upgrade to an eco:Index of 67 (higher is better) - in seven days.

Memory stick disengaged from the computer and plugged back into the Bravo, it's a very different driving experience from now on. But because eco:Drive provides no prompts, when you're on the move it's very much down to you to make the changes. It becomes a question of discipline, patience - and memory.

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

Light on the throttle - remember the egg - optimum gearshifts and using engine braking instead of the middle pedal as much as possible are the key. Judicious application of the cruise control also helps. As my girlfriend put it, driving like a grandad. But follow eco:Drive's advice and you will see a return.

At the end of the week all my patience has paid off. I've thrashed my target to achieve an overall eco:Index of 79 - well above the community average, and raising my individual journey scores to between three-and-a-half and four stars. But it's the other info eco:Drive provides that fascinates.

Saving CO2 - and money

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

Based on that initial five days, eco:Drive can calculate not only your projected CO2 savings now that you're driving more economically, but also how much money you will save. I was in line for savings of 667g/km CO2 and £290.63 over the next 12 months. None too shabby.

The more you use it, the more accurate these projections become. Eco:Drive also keeps track of your number of journeys, total distance travelled, fuel used, fuel costs, CO2 emitted and average fuel consumption - meaning you can measure your motoring expenses in addition to how much you are damaging the environment.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

My total average fuel consumption adds up to 38.6mpg. Considering this includes the initial five-day period when I was driving like a leaden-footed hoon, this is remarkably close to the Bravo's official 40.4mpg combined. So the software and its advice clearly works. It will save you money.

Whether I could drive like that all of the time is an entirely different matter. But at least with its simple explanations and goal-setting progress record, eco:Drive does its very best to encourage you. It left me highly impressed; everything from its interface to its explanations is top class.

Fiat eco:Drive (© Image © Fiat)

Our time with the program wasn't entirely issue free. At one point the main eco:Drive server - all eco:Drive users are linked together to create one giant eco:Ville community; 19,141 people in all so far - was down for an update. Frustratingly there was no explanation. A warning would have been nice.

One final thought. Eco:Drive is a data logging system - at the moment a highly useful one. But how long before it's linked into satellite navigation, knows the speed limit, can compare that to the speed you're actually going and will inform the police if there's a discrepancy? Far fetched? Perhaps...

But as it stands, eco:Drive is an excellent addition to the Fiat ownership experience - and a genuinely compelling reason to add a Fiat to your shopping list.

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