Which lowers your MPG more: opening your windows, or running your AC?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2008

Dear Tom and Ray:

Recently, I heard that turning off the car's air conditioner and opening the window will increase gas mileage and thus save money. While I'm all for saving money, this idea sounds bogus to me. I say opening the windows would increase the drag, and therefore reduce your gas mileage. Am I right? By the way, I enjoy your radio show, too, even though it made me cut myself shaving one time because I was laughing so hard. Now, I use an electric razor. -- Sam

TOM: Electric razors. I think we just got a new idea for a sponsor!

RAY: You are right, Sam. Using the air conditioner does lower your gas mileage, but not as much as opening the windows does.

TOM: Now, just to be clear, we're talking about driving at moderate to high speeds here. At those speeds, where aerodynamics play a crucial role in your mileage, you're always better off with the windows closed on a modern car.

RAY: When they design cars now, and do wind-tunnel testing or modeling, it's always with the assumption that the windows will be closed, so the sides of the car will be smooth. Otherwise, the airflow around the car is interrupted, and mileage will suffer. That's why they never let you roll down the windows on those 757s.

TOM: Right. That, the frigid temperatures and the lack of oxygen. Anyway, at lower speeds, it's more of a toss-up. Imagine if you're stopped in traffic, or moving at less than 20 miles per hour. Then, aerodynamics is hardly a factor. So, in that case, turning off the AC and opening the windows WOULD save you more fuel.

RAY: Of course, when you're stopped in traffic and open the window, there's no what? Breeze! So it's not always a good option, despite the energy you'd save. Especially if the only breeze you're getting a whiff of is from the diaper truck in front of you.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One