We’ve two days to cross Europe in a Subaru Legacy Boxer Diesel – what better way of seeing how many countries we can tick off using just one tank of fuel. And as cheaply as possible.
Based on the original story that featured in What Diesel magazine.
Words and pictures: Keith Adams
THE new Subaru Boxer Diesel – technical marvel it might be, and we know it’s good, but just how good is it really? It was a question that troubled me before I’d sampled one for myself. I mean, I love flat-four petrols (I have an Alfasud in the garage, a car that makes full use of this underrated engine configuration), and I was curious to see if the layout would work with compression ignition. So, when I found out my drive back from the Geneva Motor Show was to be in a Legacy – well, let’s just say I was rather pleased.
Rather than simply driving this car back and writing some boring road test when I got home, I decided that there needed to be a point to this task. After all, I had money in my pocket and two or three days in which to return it to a compound near Heathrow, so why not make a challenge out of this drive? With a little thought, I soon came up with one – to see how many countries I can get to on one tank of diesel.
Sounds simple now – and, in reality, it was simple. However, I did need to work out where I’d be going, and that involved plumbing my well-thumbed Michelin Road Atlas to work out a start and end point. Being pretty much bang in the heart of western Europe and surrounded by countries, it should be easy to nail a few. Maybe five? Perhaps six? Who knew?
However, sitting in my hotel room looking at the map, it soon became clear that the more I pondered this drive, the more countries I could tick off my list. Now, if only I could negotiate a performance related pay scheme…
Kick off time – and the starting point I settled on was Como in Italy. Perched chaotically in the Southern Alps, this Italian frontier town is bustling with activity at 7.30am. There’s nary an inch of free space to park and take the customary take-off shot, but I’ve managed to double-park beneath a ‘Welcome to Italy’ sign just long enough not to get arrested by the border guards…
Pointing north, it’s time to brim the tank, and see how far we can go – will I give out in Germany, France… or perhaps make it to my intended destination of Luxembourg? There’s a reason for this – Switzerland and Luxembourg are the cheapest places in Europe to buy diesel, making this journey not only interesting, but cost effective too. Crossing into Switzerland leads to less concerns than it used to – they’re now not so hot on checking passports; only that there’s a Vignette (a sticker proving you’ve paid the motorway toll) in the windscreen. How times have changed.
Heading north on the Swiss Autostrada, with the blue sky above, and light traffic around me (obviously the Italians are happy to stay in Italy on this day), I’m feeling happy with my lot. Here I am in some of the world’s prettiest scenery – heading for the mountains, with a full tank of diesel. Being in the Alps always has this effect on me, but doubly so today, as there’s a bit of a reason for being here.
The first thing that strikes me about the Legacy is just how interesting it sounds – there’s that unmistakable flat-four thrum, so familiar to anyone with a penchant for Imprezas, but it’s overlaid by the gentle and reassuring diesel soundtrack. However, it’s never hard-edged, and unless the engine’s under load or idling, you won’t actually hear that signal diesel clatter at all. It takes a while to get used to – and long gearing means that unless you dial some revs in, setting off from rest can sometimes result in an undignified stall. It happened in Como, and now I think I’m getting used to it.
But as the northbound Swiss Autostrada gets hillier and more interesting, it suddenly strikes me that this sweet engine doesn’t drive like a diesel at all. For one, the turbo comes in so softly and with such progression that you’ll swear blind on many occasions that it’s a normally aspirated petrol unit. Old hands might miss that sledgehammer push in the back you get in the mid-range with a heavily tuned VAG or BMW 2-litre, but the Subaru trades punches with them… it’s just that you just need to rev it harder to plumb the power.
Leaving the motorway behind for a quick play, I aim for the snow-capped Alpine mountain tops surrounding the St Gottard Pass, and see if the 4WD chassis is still as impressive now it’s powered by diesel. As the roads get increasingly slippery, and the bends tighter, it’s soon clear there’s nothing to worry about – the steering is sharp and accurate, the handling balance is neutral-to-understeer, and the throttle response is beautiful. All that’s missing is a six-speed close ratio ‘box to truly exploit this revvy little engine.
But as enjoyable as playing in the snow is, it’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of this economy challenge – and before I burn too much valuable fuel, I go all sensible again, head back to the motorway, and towards the Austrian border to the North.
As day turns to dusk, it’s time to hit Liechtenstein – and I know that really I’m cheating just a little bit, as this is really a Principality, and not a country. But does that matter? It’s a small and congested little place, nestled in the valley between Austria and Switzerland, but that does mean that three countries are ticked off the list. Sadly, it’s rush hour in the Principality, and what should have been a quick drop-in-and-out became a 90-minute odyssey into the study of stationary traffic, and although the Subaru’s bahving itself, I find myself getting increasingly wound-up. Still, once Vaduz is cleared, it’s a mere formality-queue across another relaxed border crossing – and we’re into Austria. That makes four countries.
With the fuel gauge still reading three-quarters, and the computer giving a reasonably optimistic outlook, considering the fun had before, I’m feeling more relaxed than I should be given the traffic carnage I’ve just battled through. Time for a quick turn-round back to Switzerland and another 75mph(-ish) motorway slog to where Germany and France converge with Switzerland further to the north at Basel.
When we first set eyes on Germany after an mid-evening drive through Basel’s city centre (inexplicably, the Sat/nav felt the need to show me the sites of this Swiss industrial powerhouse), there’s little romance. The border opens out onto what’s little more than a lay-by-cum-truck stop. Ah, but who cares – the land of the derestricted Autobahn opens out ahead of me, and I can enjoy a lengthy session of rapid transit. I have to say, the relief is palpable – I’ve covered five countries but there’s less than half a tank left, and I feel I’ve broken the back of this one.
To make things better, France is a mere 300m bridge-crossing away. And that makes six countries ticked off. Sadly, the Sat/nav decides to keep me on the French side of the Rhine, and that means a closely observed 81mph(-ish) cruise, as opposed to the 120mph I was hoping to do in Germany. Given that I’m supposed to be saving fuel wherever I can, perhaps this is no bad thing.
It’s been a long day, but aside from the annoyingly useless Sat/Nav, there’s little to criticise the Legacy for. It’s incredibly quiet at European cruising speeds, the seats offer all day comfort and support, and the control layout is logical to the point of simplicity (perhaps that’s down to the basic age of the interior). However, there’s the small matter of making it to Luxembourg in the morning, and there’s still a long way to go…
Somehow, and I’m not quite sure how, I’ve actually managed to make it as far as Strasbourg in the long run through the wild east of France the previous evening. The Sat/Nav wasn’t brilliant at locating a hotel in the middle of nowhere, but somehow and with a bit of luck, I found a bed in one of the most charming homespun Alsatian hotels possible.
With 400 miles completed, there’s still the small matter of getting to Luxembourg on what’s left in the tank – and with the computer predicting a range of 200 miles, for a 160 mile trip, things are beginning to look a little tight. Still, the end is in sight, and the traffic along the wind-turbine infested French side of the Rhine Valley is light indeed – allowing 80mph to be dialled in on the cruise control and a very relaxes attitude to be adopted behind the wheel. Not exciting perhaps, but satisfying nevertheless. The computer estimates that fuel consumption for the trip so far is 43mpg, but this figure is rising as each featureless motorway kilometre passes – our goal is looking very achievable indeed.
We see a little of Germany, as the Sat/nav does it’s best as-the-crow-flies on the route, and head through Saarlois. The contrast from the previous few French miles is huge – it’s busy, congested, and everywhere you look, there are factories billowing out smoke through towering chimney stacks. For some reason, everything looks a little more grey, too.
BONG! As the signs for Luxembourg approach, and I hit a seventh country, the low fuel warning chime kicks in. Oh well, the Subaru engineer had told me a couple of nights previously that it should leave me with about 50-60-miles of careful travelling before the coughing fits signal more severe fuel starvation – not something I wanted to test for myself. At this point, the trip computer insists that there’s about 70 miles left, and that is good news to me – I’m on target. So, relying on the accuracy of the computer, I take another executive decision – let’s try and make Belgium. After all, Luxembourg’s pretty small – and that border can’t be that far away.
Actually, rather than plough on along the motorway in Luxembourg, I head for the back roads – and the capital itself. This decision’s made for no other reason than I’m now feeling rather cocky about my chances of completing the task, and that Luxembourg and me haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye in the past. Why? Well, I’ve always experienced the place through its motorway service stations – and as an obvious tax-break kind of place, these places have been built with function, rather than form in mind. Seeing the place away from the three-lane blacktop, and it’s clear that there are some pretty – and clean – villages to enjoy. My previous impressions of Luxembourg have been eradicated – now all I can say about the place is that it’s nice, inoffensive and lacks soul…
After 30 miles of playing in Luxembourg, it’s time to press on – and another innocuous crossing sees us enter Belgium, and the end of this challenge. That’s no less than eight countries on one tank. This time, I decide it’s time to fill-up and turn back to Luxembourg to enjoy the benefits of cheap diesel – 85p/litre is not to be sneezed at.
In the end, I managed to bag eight countries in 18-hours of driving, and enjoyed the experience for under £50. There’s no doubting that flying takes the strain out of travelling, but the Legacy has shown as that you can see Europe’s multi-faceted topography unfold before you from the ground level – and enjoy the experience in the process.
As much as the trip was all about ekeing out the fuel and seeing an ever-changing Europe from behind a windscreen, it’s also difficult not to be impressed by just how great an effort Subaru has made with its first diesel engine. Flat-four seems to suit diesel far more readily than I would ever have expected – and although the technical seminars at Geneva had told me to expect this, it’s not until I climb behind the wheel and sample the delights for myself, that I truly appreciate what the company has achieved.
How we did eight countries on one tank
The countries: Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium
Fuel: 58.17 litres
*fuel in Luxembourg @85.2p/litre
Average fuel consumption: 45.9mpg