How far can you drive when your car’s on empty?

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With so many retirees stretching their income to the limit, it might be nice to know that you can still get around and not be stranded when your car’s fuel gauge reads empty.

I don’t know about you, but I always fret a little when I’m out and about driving my car and that fuel light comes on accompanied by the gentle yet slightly mocking sound of my empty fuel tank warning alarm.

It’s happened to me so often and, touch wood, I haven’t run out of fuel – yet – but consequently, I’ve now got a pretty good idea of how much farther I can go before my car is dead in the water … I mean ‘road’. Still doesn’t stop me from fretting, though.

Most mechanics will tell you that you should never let your fuel tank go below one-quarter full but tell that to the many retirees who run out of money before their Age Pension payment comes in. For them, a quarter of a tank is all they may have to get around each fortnight.

Now, I should point out that driving with your fuel light illuminated is not ideal. In fact, it can lead to dangerous situations, such as breaking down in a strange suburb with little or no help around, or on a freeway or toll road tunnel, where there are no stopping lanes.

You can also do damage to parts of your car if it runs out of fuel, such as fuel pumps and catalytic convertors, which could turn into costly repair jobs.

So, this should not be taken as a green light to do so. It’s merely pointing out that, when absolutely necessary, you may squeeze out a few extra kilometres from your car to do those essential tasks, or for road trippers to at least make it to the next fuel station.

Most modern cars will have what is called a ‘distance to empty’ reading on their instrument cluster or dashboard. This gives you a very rough estimate of how much further you can go without actually running out of fuel completely.

This distance is calculated on the average distance your car has travelled during normal driving conditions. So, if you are stuck in traffic when you usually drive on freeways, it won’t be so accurate, and you may run out of fuel faster. Same goes for other driving conditions, such as driving in the wet compared to dry, carrying more weight than usual, or even driving in hilly areas.

Cars without the ‘distance to empty’ gauge will still have a low fuel warning light (and sometimes a sound, too).

According to, depending on your make of car, you can drive an extra 48km to 183km after the warning light comes on.

The Nissan Altima has the best mileage after the warning light, travelling up to 183km, while Australia’s most popular car, the Toyota Camry, goes an additional 104km to 146km.

In fact, many of Australia’s most popular cars, such as Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla, Subaru Outback, Mazda 3, Volkswagen Jetta and Ford Escape will drive an extra 90km to 144km after the low-warning light is activated.

While it’s not exactly recommended, knowing that you can still get to the doctor’s or still pick up some shopping, even though your fuel gauge reads empty, may just come in handy one day.

Do you ever need to drive your car on empty? Or is fuel a high priority purchase for you each fortnight? If so, do you miss out on any other necessities to ensure your fuel tank is filled?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?



Total Comments: 10
  1. 0

    My DoD (dear old dad) always used to say, “It costs no more to keep the top half of the tank full than it does the bottom half.
    So, if this,
    “but tell that to the many retirees who run out of money before their Age Pension payment comes in. For them, a quarter of a tank is all they may have to get around each fortnight”
    is really an issue, it needn’t be. Still put a quarter of a tank in each fortnight – just NOT the bottom quarter.

    • 0

      I agree Rod63, I was told the same thing when I bought my first car. Fill it up when you buy it and fill it back up each payday. That way there’s no problem or worries about day to day travel. Holidays are budgeted for as regards fuel.

  2. 0

    A simple check.
    When the fuel light comes on fill up immediately , then check the cars fuel tank capacity then subtract how many litres you filled up with and presto that’s how many litres you have in reserve . Multiply that by your fuel usage and you have your range.

  3. 0

    Only a fool would drive around on a fuel tank approaching empty.

    I always foll my cars at half a tank, & have never gone below quarter. Do so & you get too much sediment from the bottom of the tank, swirling around as the little fuel sloshes around. This is costly in filter replacement, & fuel system wear.

    If you can’t afford the fuel, don’t go.

    • 0

      So what is the use of the bottom half of the tank- to collect sediment and crap. Old cars never had fuel filters as such ,they had a fuel bowl which was regularly drained. Today If you change the fuel filter regularly you will not have an issue with dirty fuel if you use the whole fuel tank as sediment and other crap will not get a chance to stay in the tank. Only a fool would buy a car with say a 50 litre tank and only use half its capacity . VCBB I also have put 113 litres in my 112 litre fuel tank , there is a bit of room for expansion in every tank and cold weather plays a role to.

    • 0

      After 3 million kms driving and usually using most of the fuel in the tank I have NEVER had problems with sediment blocking filters. They get replaced as per the service schedule and should be fine.

  4. 0

    The more fuel in the tank, the heavier the car therefore more fuel is needed to transport that fuel around, so it is more expensive. It’s a dilemma.

  5. 0

    I try not to go below a quarter of a tank and when I do go to a service station always fill to the brim. This way I can usually avoid times of high prices and last until the next low price cycle. The price cycle is such a pain, when I retired I went to live in UK for a couple of years and there was no price cycle and very little difference in prices between major cities and small villages at the pump. Their fuel is more expensive than here but you didn’t have to try chasing the best price every time you filled up..

  6. 0

    Depends on how Faraway The Nearest Fuel Station Is.
    Half a tank might be needed, as is the case of living in some Areas.
    Flashing Light would be a concern when Heading Home.
    City and Larger regional areas now have 24 hr service, in the past 8 am to 6 pm Mon/Fri and 8 am to 12 noon Sat no Sunday.More Planing Needed. Then came a Roster System.
    Much easier now then in the past but Remote Areas a Concern Still.



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