/ Travel & Leisure

Fuel costs are same as in ’80s – shouldn’t we be happy?

Black and white picture of the last Ford Cortina

The price of petrol might be escalating, but are we really paying more for fuel than ever before? Our research found fuel costs are almost on par with 30 years ago, so should we be complaining?

The Which? Car team investigated the cost of fuel and found that the annual cost for the average motorist has risen only by just over £100 since 1980.

That’s because the vehicles we drive today are more efficient than ever before, meaning the amount of fuel we pump into our cars on the forecourt goes a lot further than it did 30 years ago. So are we really justified in being outraged by the recent peak in petrol prices?

How we compared and contrasted

You’ll probably be asking how we conducted our research, so here’s the lowdown:

  • We compared the 1980 Ford Cortina 2.0-litre petrol with a 2011 Ford Mondeo 2.0-litre petrol – two family car favourites separated by three decades.
  • The Cortina, averaging 27 mile per gallon (mpg), with petrol costs at 28p a litre in 1980, would cost a motorist £1,889 a year to fuel, when adjusted for inflation and based on the UK average of 12,000 miles a year.
  • The modern-day Mondeo 2.0-litre averaged 34.9mpg in the Which? Car test, resulting in an annual fuel spend of £1,915. That’s based on petrol costing £1.29 a litre, as it did when we crunched the numbers in mid-February – but even at today’s average of £1.33, the annual spend is £2,081.

So ultimately, the difference in yearly fuel bills is somewhere between £100 and £200.

Shop around to save

Coincidentally, we also found that you can save more than £200 a year if you choose to fill up at the cheapest locations.

‘Shopping around’ is a term widely used when it comes to money saving, but our investigation found that it really does make a big difference to your annual fuel bills. We found that supermarket brands are generally cheapest, especially Asda, while, on average, BP was the most expensive place to fill up. That certainly tallies with my experiences – how about you?

Should we accept rising fuel prices?

Bearing all of this in mind, will the results of our research ease motorists’ frustrations at high fuel costs? Of course not – if anything, we know it will stick in the craw of hard-pressed drivers.

So what do we want to happen as a result?

Which? is backing the AA’s call for the government to publish a price tracker comparing wholesale and pump prices. Offering transparency on retailers’ pump pricing should promote more local competition, and help drivers to shop around for the best deals. It’ll help all of us know when forecourt prices aren’t responding to drops in wholesale oil prices.

It could be easy to look at the results of our investigation and think the recent spike in fuel prices may not be as bad as we first presumed – but it is.

The only saving grace is the improved fuel economy of today’s cars, which is helping to offset rising oil prices. The question is, how long have we got before the rising oil price really outstrips the pace of technological advances?


Sorry – the vast vast vast majority ever compare any price with what it was 30 years ago – they only compare what it was a week or a year ago. (I did a simple study comparing 1970s prices to 1930s and found many prices had not risen that much different from inflation – though the perception of consumers was the opposite) – The reason for the study was because of a heated discussion with my fifth form students.

Before Suez petrol was around 1/11d a gallon (under 10p) – after Suez it effectively doubled to around 20p or 4.5 p a litre – to me it was a ripoff – because my income didn’t increase to compensate.instantly.

As far as I’m concerned – it could be good only because battery driven cars should be cheaper to produce due to economies of scale. At the moment the only reason I won’t buy an electric car is the expense at three times the cost of an ICE car

Jonny says:
1 April 2011

Yes – stop moaning, drivers!

Those of us who are trying to do our bit for the environment by using public transport are paying about 1/3 more!

Fat Sam, Glos says:
4 April 2011

Yes, good old public transport, eh?

For me that would mean 3 buses, 2 changes, a 2 hour trip including waiting times, including a stop with no shelter, often only to sit on a dirty, sweaty seat often next to an equally dirty smelly passenger and running my hectic work and private life according to a timetable not often adhered to and on top of that paying for the privilege.

Er, no thanks (but well done to all those that brave it and soldier on with public transport, I salute you, as I drive past in air-conditioned comfort in my 4×4)

(waits for all the thumbs-downs)

(before anyone asks, I get 42mpg out of mine – I’d like to know how that compares to a bus/train with how many passengers on average (including those almost empty)?)

Fat Sam, Glos says:
4 April 2011

Though I would like to add if people disagree with my comment I’d like to know what they are they disagreeing with?! The number of buses and changes and my mpg claim? How would they know what this is to disagree?!

Very amusing.

Thank you to those who passed the Muppet Test.


‘Trying to do our bit for the environment by using public transport’

It might interest you to know then that Buses pollute more than Cars. Buses put out nox gases such as particulates which are very dangerous and the average Bus puts out over 60 times more of it per mile than a small modern petrol car. Some of the high speed trains use more fuel for a 100 mile trip than some flights which go alot further. Public Transport is NOT environmentally efficient.

I dont mind people putting well informed views across but the idea of ‘im using a bus to save the environment’ is quite simply laughable. Especially as only 20% of the UK’s emissions is from road transport in total. And the UK only causes 2% of global man made emissions, so to focus on cars (less polluting than your bus) and attack car drivers on that basis is pretty laughable and stupid. The small petrol car is the cleanest form of travel with an engine.

I take it you will now stop using the bus for environmental reasons and buy a car instead.

Hari says:
1 April 2011

Our Guardian cartoon today is about your really eye-opening research! Thanks.


The official fuel economy figures of modern cars do not reflect reality. e.g. The tests do not include hills, which are quite common in my experience.

Fat Sam, Glos says:
4 April 2011

The tests are meant to be under ‘lab conditions’ which provide an equal test bed for all vehicles. The actual figure will be affected by many factors – but what the tests allow us to do is make relative comparisons between vehicles.

Diddydo says:
24 April 2013

The fuel economy tests are a joke!!!

The figures are unattainable and as for being able to use the figures to make a relative comparison with other vehicles – this is also nonsense!!!

For example, my last car had a official combined figure of 45mpg, yet I only averaged 32mpg, 29% less than expected. My new car has a official combined figure of 31mpg, yet it averages 28mpg on the same commute into London, that’s only 10% down on the official figures.

We need these tests to be looked at again, because at the moment they are of no use to anyone.


David, the fuel spend figures are based on Which? fuel economy test results, not official (manufacturer) figures.

The point you raise is a good one though – official figures are often difficult to achieve, and the EU test does not include a motorway element.


Over the past 15 or so years my fuel cost per mile remained pretty consistent at about 9-10p per mile until the latest price increases, thanks to two upgrades to more efficient (although not necessarily more comfortable ! ) cars. That is a real world comparison, hills and weather conditions included. On a longer time-scale, I remember paying £1 for 4 gallons when I was earning £8 a week, so in relation to my current pension, fuel is more affordable now. However I did have a bit of career progression in between !
What I do find disturbing is that most of today’s really efficient cars have such poor 0-62 acceleration that I would be wary of driving one down a slip onto a busy main road. Only the relatively expensive hybrids (or the LEAF?) aren’t such a compromise.

John Evans says:
1 April 2011

Sorry to carp but isn’t it a bit of a contradiction to compare with inflation adjusted prices? After all fuel is part of the shopping basket whose cost has increased over the decades! Surely a more relevant comparison would be with the average earnings index. Given that until recently average earnings have normally outstripped RPI I guess this would bear out your results even more strongly – but at least it would be on a more valid basis.