Over a third of drivers believe cars run out of fuel 20 miles after the warning light comes on, yet new research says most can do twice the distance.

The comparison website, Compare the Market, who surveyed 1,000 Britons, compared 96 best-selling cars from 29 manufacturers to discover how far drivers could travel once the warning light came on and those that run out fastest—the difference in range is surprising.

Light roulette

Not only did Compare the Market’s study show that most popular models would keep going twice as long as the average driver expected, they found a few vehicles continue to run almost four times as far, such as the Volkswagen Passat—with a reserve range of a little over 75 miles.

Of all the 96 cars tested, the one with the shortest reserve range was the BMW M3, travelling only 32 miles after displaying the warning light.

Best-selling cars with the shortest reserve ranges

  1. BMW M3: 31.99 miles
  2. Kia Picanto: 32.14 miles
  3. Fiat 500: 37.14 miles
  4. Mini Cooper: 37.52 miles
  5. Mitsubishi Shogun: 38.23 miles
  6. Jaguar XK: 38.38 miles
  7. Citroen C1: 38.76 miles
  8. Peugeot 108: 39.14 miles
  9. Nissan Juke: 40.84 miles
  10. Ford Fiesta: 41.07 miles

Best-selling cars with longest reserve ranges

  1. Volkswagen Passat: 75.02 miles
  2. Volvo V40: 70.6 miles
  3. Ford Mondeo: 70.02 miles
  4. BMW 5 Series: 68.33 miles
  5. Toyota Prius: 66.62 miles
  6. Mercedes E-Class: 64.02 miles
  7. Audi Q5: 63.82 miles
  8. Range Rover Sport: 63.35 miles
  9. Mazda 6: 62.97 miles
  10. Audi A6: 62.06 miles

Your car’s warning light will illuminate when there’s around less than 10% of fuel left in the tank. Yet, according to research done in 2015 by the insurer, Liverpool Victoria (LV), the reason for over 800,000 drivers breaking down each year is because of empty fuel tanks caused by ignoring the fuel light. Two-thirds of the drivers running out of fuel were under 35.

LV’s study also found that two-thirds of drivers surveyed never fill their tank to the top. A little under a third put in just £5 worth of fuel to keep them going and high petrol and diesel prices may well be the reason. Over 50% of LV’s respondents confessed to having passed a filling-station despite running on empty—holding out for the possibility of a cheaper place to buy fuel.

Empty threat

Although you may be one of those motorists driving with your car’s fuel warning light lit up, most mechanics recommend you stop to get £10 worth of fuel. This prevents the risk of spending, say, hundreds—or more—on repairs from potential damage caused by running out of fuel.

You can cause problems for your vehicle if you drive with very low fuel reserves. The fuel pump of an empty tank can suck in tiny particles from the bottom of the tank. This can clog the pump, the fuel filter, and may get into the engine. In addition, damage can occur to the catalytic converter.

In cars where the fuel pump is in the fuel tank, the fuel works like insulation and lubricant. Constantly running the tank empty can overheat the pump, resulting in premature failure. With certain diesel engines, you can face further complications if you drain your car’s tank dry, requiring manual restarting of the pump.

Each car has a different range and fuel gauges aren’t exact because they’re still measured using a float. This alters its reading depending on whether you’re on an incline, for example.

Newer vehicles that display the miles you can drive on your current tank of fuel are only an estimation. Your tank’s reserve range depends on your car’s performance, how much weight your vehicle is carrying, your driving style and whether you’re sitting in traffic, on the motorway, etc.

Stop at nothing

In 2015, data from the AA showed that 4% of drivers stopped on the hard shoulder because of an empty tank. The Highway Code (Rule 270) states:

‘You MUST NOT stop on the carriageway, hard shoulder, slip road, central reservation or verge except in an emergency, or when told to do so by the police, traffic officers in uniform, an emergency sign or by flashing red light signals. Do not stop on the hard shoulder to either make or receive mobile phone calls.’

So, if you run out of fuel, it’s a legitimate reason to use the hard shoulder.

That said, you can receive a fine and points on your licence for ‘leaving a vehicle in a dangerous position,’ (MS10). The police could also charge you with ‘driving without due care and attention,’ (CD10 and CD30) if you knew or should have known you were low on fuel.

If you break down because of lack of fuel and need to call your breakdown provider, remember; your provider takes any call-outs into account, which can mean higher premiums when it’s renewal time. If you don’t have breakdown cover and need to pay to get your car recovered, you’ll face another hefty bill.

Keep your fuel tank at least a quarter full—half full is ideal. Fill up before long journeys in case of traffic and to avoid paying motorway service station fuel prices. Don’t waste time and fuel searching for a cheaper filling-station—become a PetrolPrices member or download our free app to find the cheapest petrol or diesel wherever you are.

Do you always fill up your tank when the warning light comes on or do you make sure you’ve always got plenty of fuel? How far can your car go after your warning light illuminates? Tell us in the comments.

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