Home » How Low Do You Let Your Gas Gauge Needle Go? Autopian Asks

How Low Do You Let Your Gas Gauge Needle Go? Autopian Asks

Aa Outta Gas Ts

The late Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” While that may be an exaggeration, it brings up an interesting question — how low will you let your fuel needle swing before filling up?


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This edition of Autopian Asks was inspired by David Tracy’s recent tempting of fate, eventually filling the 20-gallon tank of a 2005 Toyota Sienna with 19.5 gallons of gas. Given the all-wheel-drive Sienna’s EPA combined fuel economy figure of 18 mpg, the fuel in the bottom of the tank may have given him a range of nine miles. That’s not much of a margin.

My general rule is to never let the fuel needle swing below a quarter tank, primarily because fuel pump replacement sucks and so long as you keep the pump cooled by fuel, the lifespan of the part should theoretically be prolonged. Given how reliable most modern low-pressure fuel pumps are, keeping a quarter-tank on hand feels a bit superstitious, but I’ve yet to experience any adverse effects of having plenty of fuel remaining.

However, I do have two notable exceptions. If I need to do any work that requires fuel tank removal, I’m running that thing pretty much dry. Draining fuel sucks, and the less to drain, the better. In addition, if I’ve been storing a car with a full tank of stabilized fuel, I let that first tank of the season run down to about an eighth of a tank before filling with fresh stuff, just to get the old but hopefully still good stuff out of the system.


So, how low do you let your gas gauge needle go? Are you one of those people who argues with the range remaining readout once it hits zero, do you take a perhaps overly cautious approach, or are you somewhere in between? Whatever the case, I’d love to know.

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27 days ago

Back in the late 60’s, and in the middle of the night, I arrived on fumes at a gas station in upstate NY. Filling my ’63 bug up it took a little over 12 gallons. I told the attendant that the tank was supposed to hold 10.6 gallons, so I would pay for that, but if they insisted on the full ticket I’d be calling weights and measures in the morning.

They accepted the price of 10.6 gallons.

Another time, I was having my gas tank dropped, so I was trying to arrive at my mechanic with as little gas as possible. I almost made it. The car gasped to a full stop about a mile from its goal.

Simon Staveley
Simon Staveley
28 days ago

It really does depend on the car and what journey I’m doing.

My old Focus I would run about 40 miles past the 0 miles left range. Others vary wildly (up to 5 litres) each time they switch the fuel light on. I generally won’t refill before the light is on unless I know I have a very long journey the next day.

My best is getting 52.93l in to what was meant to be a 52l tank on my diesel Peugeot.

OldGuy inan Avalon
OldGuy inan Avalon
29 days ago

The answer is; it depends.

During the spring/summer/fall months I drive about 45 miles each way to work (or my boat). My V6 4WD Tacoma with a 21.5 gallon tank gets about 20 MPG (if I behave). Round trip, therefore, uses a little less than ¼ tank. I will let the tank get below ½, but above ¼ (usually about 4 round trips) before I stop to get fuel.

In the spring and fall I either drive from Fort Myers, Florida, to Boston, Massachusetts, or visa-versa. The drive is 1600+ miles, depending on which route I take (I will NEVER drive across the GW Bridge). During this trip I am looking to make the most miles in the shortest time, so I stretch the distance between fill-ups. I will therefore wait until I am at ¼ tank or less before I start to look for fuel.

On my most recent trip south, I filled up in South Carolina, and drove the 385 miles to Fort Myers when the low fuel warning light came on. The fuel gauge in the truck was past E. I stopped and added 17.779 gallons of gas (21.65MPG 🙂 ), and then continued to my destination.

30 days ago

I am horrible about this but have had a few incredible breaks:

  • Ran out of gas on the way to a friend’s house for lunch with entire family in the van. Took about 40 min for AAA to bring gas and we continued on our way.
  • Ran out of gas at an Orchid Greenhouse with my mom and phoned a friend who brought me 5 gallons in his very nice new Audi Q7
  • Ran out of gas ON the Bay Bridge (San Francisco) and happened to be on the downslope. Slid slowly in neutral all the way to the bridge maintenance & administration parking lot where the bridge crew brought me 3 gallons for free!
  • Ran out of gas on the way home from a friends – with the whole family in the van. This was in modern times so I called them an UBER while I waited the hour for AAA
  • Ran out of gas with one wheel IN the gas station driveway. Was able to get one more start to get up to the pumps.
  • Ran out of gas AT the pumps but about 4 feet too far to get gas. Pushed it in.
  • Ran out of gas crossing the country with my wife in 1996 in her brand new Honda Civic. Was in the middle of Wyoming pre-cell era and managed to put car in neutral, do a three point turn from facing up the hill to facing down the hill without the engine turned on, then quickly turned around and get to the top of the hill before drifting six miles down the hill with no power into a town where the gas station (closed) just happed to be at the bottom of the hill. Had to find “Bill” at the local bar (after asking around) to open the gas station and sell me some gas.
  • This one time at Burning Man (Band Camp?) my 4-poster-bed art car with room to sleep 10 ran out of battery electrons and I got a jump start from a man driving a gas powered Sears plaid couch.

Thanks to my behavior I know the PRECISE number of gallons each of my 4 old cars can accept. My wife fills up around 1/4 to 1/2 tank and does not appreciate my, um, adventurousness.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
30 days ago

I’ll never forget running out of fuel in Illinois in my old Saturn many years ago. It had a wonky fuel gauge that I put too much faith in and it died about a mile from a filling station. Not having any roadside assistance at the time like I do now for all my cars, I walked the mile to the station. They unfortunately did not have any gas cans I could use or buy, so I bought some windshield wiper fluid, dumped it out and filled it with gas – not the smartest move I know. I walked back and then realized the bottle didn’t work because it was too stubby to pour directly into the tank. I walked around on the side of I-55 until I found an old Pepsi bottle which I fashioned into a funnel and got her filled up enough to get to a station. What a preventable idiotic situation! At least I could salvage some pride with the clever fuel funnel improvisation, but still.

Who is the Leader
Who is the Leader
30 days ago

Four factors:
I get low tank anxiety at like 1/4 tank
I drive a diesel and don’t like bleeding fuel systems
My fuel gauge begins to fluctuate wildly when it gets down to ‘R,’ which means it’s close to empty. But how empty?
I live in the city so I prefer to buy from the big suburban stations for cost and fuel quality concerns

So I drive it down to the bit where the gauge goes mad more often than I’d like before filling it up to ‘1/1.’ But I don’t know exactly how empty it actually is there.

Rock Burner
Rock Burner
30 days ago

In the car – once it hits reserve then I’m looking for the next station.

On my bike (BMW 1150), I know for a fact that I have 40-45 miles once the reserver light comes on, and so I can make a decision on “fuel at next station” or “I’ll make it that station that has better quality fuel”.

If that runs out – I also know for a fact that there’s about a litre and half in the other side of the tank (it’s shaped like saddle) and I can gently let the bike down to the ground and “roll” it so that the fuel in the left side spills to the right side (where the pump is) and then I’ve got a few more miles.

Last edited 30 days ago by Rock Burner
M Wilkins
M Wilkins
30 days ago

My teenage daughters ignore the fuel gauge – as well as the yellow low fuel warning light – and simply watch the “range” number in the LCD readout of our old RAV4 as if it’s gospel.

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