What Does Range Mean In A Car?

What exactly does range mean in a gasoline car, electric car, or hybrid car? What affects driving range? Here's the ultimate guide.

What does range mean in a car? You’ve come to the right place. This page will explain what the term “range” means and why it’s essential to monitor it as you drive.

Although electric cars and gasoline-powered vehicles differ hugely in how they produce power, the principle of range is the same in both. Range is strongly related to fuel economy/battery efficiency.

Keeping an eye on your range is crucial so you don’t run out of gas or charge – which is always an awkward breakdown call to have to make.

Read on to learn what fuel range is and how you can improve it.

Let’s start with the basics!

Table of ContentsShow

What Does Mile Range Mean On A Car?

close up of man driving car with gps navigator map

In simple terms, range is how far the car can travel before running out of fuel or charge (depending on the powertrain). It’s an approximation based on how much is left in the tank and/or batteries.

For example, if your gasoline vehicle says it has a range of 300 miles remaining, you should expect to be able to travel about that distance before running out of fuel. Of course, you’ll need to refill before then. The same principle is true for electric cars, although it uses battery charge rather than fuel quantity.

“Range” is also used to mean the maximum distance an electric car (or EV – electric vehicle) can travel on a full charge.

Use the range displayed on the dashboard to plan when you next need to fill up or recharge but don’t forget to keep your eye on the fuel gauge too. That’s the real kicker.

What Is Range In A Gasoline (Or Diesel) Car?

Crop man refueling car on filling station

The remaining range is calculated using reasonably simple mathematics.

Fuel gauges have been a basic necessity in cars for decades. They’re relatively simple devices, usually wired to a float in the tank itself. The float drops with the gas or diesel level, increasing the electrical circuit’s resistance, slowly moving the needle in the dashboard gauge towards “Empty”.

Of course, the car also knows how large its fuel tank is. As a result, it can estimate – reasonably accurately – how much gasoline or diesel is left.

The ECU can determine your fuel economy by comparing this information with the odometer (tracking how many miles your car has driven). This is usually measured in miles per gallon (mpg). In many modern vehicles, this is displayed on your dashboard too. Canadian or European cars may use liters per 100 kilometers (l/100km) instead.

Fuel Economy Formula

A slightly modified version of this formula can be used to work out how much “distance” is remaining in the tank:

Range Remaining Formula Gasoline Car

What Is Range In An Electric Car?

Tesla Supercharger stations allow Tesla cars to be fast charged

An electric car calculates range using essentially the same principles. The ECU knows precisely how much charge is in the batteries in the same way your phone registers your remaining battery percentage. This reading is displayed on the dashboard for the driver to watch.

An electric car also calculates its own “fuel” economy. In EVs, this is measured as either MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) or miles per kWh. It’s exactly the same concept as “miles per gallon” – just the electrical version.

Car Efficiency Formula

In the same way, the same formula as the previous section can be used to calculate the remaining range.

Range Remaining Formula

When buying a new EV, the “range” is often quoted. This is technically the “maximum range” – the maximum distance you can reasonably expect to travel on one full charge.

Until recently, electric car manufacturers have been accused of grossly inflating this value, making an unrealistic estimate. Now, though, these numbers are more generally accepted as accurate in the real world.

What Is Range In A Hybrid Car?

Electric Car in Charging Station.

When it comes to hybrids, it’s a little more complicated. There are now two factors to consider – the two different energy sources. In most hybrid cars, these are gasoline and battery-supplied electricity.

Each hybrid is built differently. For example, most use an internal combustion engine (ICE) is standard, backed up by an electrical supply. However, some send the power to the wheels from the battery (primarily), using a gasoline engine to recharge it as you’re driving.

With so many different designs, it’s difficult to accurately narrow down the exact formulas hybrid ECUs use.

It’ll be some combination of the formulas explored in the previous two sections, following the same principles. The car will work out how much fuel and charge are being used so far, on average, and use this value to calculate the approximate remaining range.

What Affects Range In A Car?

Car Range

Of course, the remaining fuel range is affected by your car’s average fuel efficiency. The worse the fuel efficiency, the more gasoline or diesel you’re using to cover the same distance. Thus, the car’s range decreases.

The following factors will negatively affect your fuel economy, whether you’re driving a gasoline, diesel, electric, or hybrid car.

Harsh Driving

Pushing accelerator pedal in car

Behind the wheel, you should be driving smoothly. Be gentle with the throttle and brake pedals, and don’t throw the steering wheel around like a salad spinner.

Help yourself travel more smoothly by squeezing the pedals rather than stamping them. In this mindset, you’ll drive far less harshly.

In the same way, concentrate on moving the steering wheel as little as possible (where applicable). This forces you to consciously think about the car’s angle rather than just throwing it around.

Driving Fast

Driving fast

Everyone knows it, but not many people accept it. The faster you drive (beyond a certain point), the less economical it is, and the more the range will drop off. Your fuel efficiency is higher because the faster you go, the greater the air resistance is. Therefore, the car needs to use more energy to maintain its speed.

There’s a sweet spot somewhere between 50 and 60 mph in most cars. It’s not always safe to drive quite that slowly, so read the road and travel as slowly as is reasonably possible.

Of course, you’ll also need to be in the highest available gear, so the engine’s doing minimal work.

Under Inflated Tires

Symptoms Of Unbalanced Tires On Your Car

If your tires aren’t inflated fully, they’ll create drag by “sticking” to the road. They also require more turning force (torque), so the engine must do more work. This reduces your fuel or battery efficiency.

Tires are often overlooked. People get in their cars every day and drive off without a second thought. Yet they’re the legs of your vehicle, your only point of contact between it and the road. They need to be looked after.

Check tire pressures regularly before you drive – even if it’s just a visual inspection. You’ll probably notice if there are any signs that one of your tires is leaking air.

Appliances (Especially Older ICE Cars And EVs)

how does car air conditioning work

Using appliances such as air conditioning, heated seats, radio, sat-nav, or headlights can impact performance and reduce fuel economy.

Modern air conditioning systems are frighteningly efficient and put very little drag on the camshaft. However, in electric cars, they use a lot of power.

There are always more and more electrical appliances in our cars. Internal combustion engines depend on an electrical supply from the alternator and battery to create the spark, igniting the fuel. If many other appliances draw this electrical charge away, the spark could fail, reducing engine power and fuel efficiency.

In electric vehicles, the fewer electrical appliances you use, the better.

Improve your fuel efficiency (slightly) by turning off everything you can.

Coolant Problems

coolant warning light in car dashboard

Your engine needs to perform as efficiently as it possibly can. To do so, it needs to remain at its established operating temperature. If it gets overheated, you’ll notice a reduction in fuel economy and range.

Fuel efficiency reduces with engine heat because it leads to expanding metal parts, knock, and pre-ignition. These things mean the engine has to do much more work to accomplish the same thing.

It’s also true in battery-powered cars. The batteries need coolant to stop them from overheating, inhibiting functionality. Think of your phone on a hot day and how unhappy it gets. It’s the same thing in an electric car, just on a bigger scale.

Keep an eye on your dashboard temperature gauge and watch for any alerts. If the coolant levels are normal, there could be a thermostat problem.

Low Engine Oil

car engine oil fill port open

If your engine oil is low, there will be more frictional resistance within the motor itself, leading to worse fuel economy. Oil also plays a secondary role in heat transfer and keeping your engine clean, both of which also impact efficiency.

Use the dipstick to check the oil level on flat ground. If it’s below the minimum, you should top it up. Also, how much time has passed since your last oil and filter change? If more than a year or 10,000 miles, get it done.

Avoiding Certain Routes

Open road. Down a bendy, curvy road. Empty road with no traffic

When you plan your route, you’ll increase your range by driving along topographically flat ground with minimal slowing down and speeding up.

The best-case scenario would be a flat road across the plains without an intersection or stop sign for miles and miles. In contrast, the worst would be driving uphill through a city and stopping at every red light.

Acceleration and deceleration have the most significant impacts on fuel economy. A car uses much more gas/battery charge to change its speed compared to simply maintaining it.

You can improve your range by planning your way carefully, even if the route is technically a longer distance.

Popular Myths

Facts and Myths

The internet is full of nonsense regarding improving range, so let’s address a few of them here.

  • Don’t overly inflate tires – this might improve your fuel economy, but you’ll destroy the rubber tread. New tires or, in a worst-case situation, a crash, are much more expensive than a slight range increase.
  • Air conditioning or open windows? – many articles recommend opening your windows instead of using your air conditioning. Unless you’re driving an old car, this is actually more likely to decrease your fuel economy. Modern A/C systems are very efficient, whereas opening your windows can increase wind resistance more than you think, so don’t be afraid to press that button.
  • Do use overdrive – the modern concept of overdrive (or O/D) is basically just the highest gear. Keeping the overdrive ON means you use much less fuel when traveling on freeways and highways. There is typically no reason to turn it off unless you’re towing something or driving up and down hills.

Car Driving Range Conclusion

Fuel gauge

So, what does range mean?

A car’s range is an estimate of the maximum distance you can travel before you run out of fuel or charge.

Range anxiety has been widespread among electric car owners, who often have to carefully plan a trip based on where the available charging stations are. With time, this should decrease as more and more pop up across the country.

For now, with EVs, there’s no real way past range anxiety. You will just have to plan longer journeys carefully. Eventually, we’ll probably reach the point where charging stations are on every corner – but we aren’t there yet.

You can improve your car’s range by following the tips mentioned above. Most importantly, keep your tires properly inflated (use your owner’s handbook, not the tire) and drive gently. You’re then well on your way to upping your car’s range.

Related Reads

car airbag
How Much Does It Cost To Replace Airbags?
Benjamin Kitchen

Ben is an automotive author from England. With experience in a fast-fit garage, he's an IMI-qualified light vehicle technician. He aims to help drivers worldwide with common automotive problems. You’ll often find him working with his 1.2 Vauxhall Corsa – it may have a tiny engine, but in eight years it's never once let him down!