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Are there optimal RPM ranges for different vehicles? I've been told it's better for the engine to drive at slightly higher RPMs (e.g. 2500-3000 for my Tacoma) than low (1000-1500).

I understand a lot depends on the gear sizing and ratios for different trannies. E.g. the ratio between my 1st and 2nd gears is quite large so that, the RPM drop between those two speeds is almost 1000. That means, to avoid lugging when shifted into 2nd, I need to rev 1st up to almost 3000 RPM, which results in a less-than-pleasant engine noise.

Is there an optimal RPM range for all speeds, which improves the engine longevity or is it speed specific? IOW, is it less bad to be lugging in lower speeds than higher?

As a bonus question, can you explain why higher RPMs are better than lower, in terms of engine health, performance and fuel efficiency?

  • When you say lugging, is it actually lugging in the sense of truly chugging? Or are you just thinking it's below the torque peak? – Bob Cross Feb 26 '16 at 23:32
  • Lugging usually means driving below the torque peak, which is what I meant – amphibient Feb 26 '16 at 23:33
  • 2
    That is not what lugging actually means: mechanics.stackexchange.com/a/9388/57 – Bob Cross Feb 26 '16 at 23:38
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It is in fact true that driving at slightly (key word) higher rpms is much better (for both fuel efficiency and engine life. The rpm range for the two can be different).

Part 1. Engine life:

Every engine has a least resonant rpm. This is when your engine vibrates the least (Think of this as the opposite of that point when your entire car begins to shake violently due to excess load). Since the vibration is minimum at this rpm, the wear and tear in the engine is minimized and so is the friction between engine components. This naturally means you have parts that run smoother and longer. This can also increase your fuel efficiency since frictional power loss is minimized.

Part 2.Optimal fuel efficiency:

This rpm range need not be the same as that for optimal engine life. Your fuel efficiency is best when you are not over working the car. This has multiple dimensions to it. Ideally, driving the car at a high gear, just shy of the midway mark on your tachometer is when the fuel efficiency is the maximum (i.e. when you are cruising) but if you demand acceleration you will burn a lot of fuel to get very little. This type of driving is best for the highway. In the city limits, it would be best to raise the engine to the sweet-spot (where the resonance is the least) and then shift to drop the rpm back down, all the while not being aggressive with the pedal.

Low rpms give you better efficiency for two reasons,

  1. Dynamic friction is proportional to speed. (Higher the speed, greater the friction). This applies everywhere, from the crank shaft to the piston-cylinder to the gearbox. A car can rev only so much because after a certain point, the power generated is less than that needed to overcome the frictional force.

Bottom line: Lower the speed, better the efficiency.

  1. Volumetric efficiency. (Higher the speed, lower the volumetric efficiency) At low engine speeds, as the engine goes through the exhaust stroke and the suction stroke, air can easily exit and fill the engine cylinder. As the engine rpm increase it becomes harder and harder for the burnt air fuel mixture to exit the cylinder (in the exhaust stroke) and for the fresh air to enter the cylinder (in the suction stroke). This translates to wastage of power because the engine has to use some of the power generated to push the air out faster and faster. On the suction stroke, the air does not travel fast enough to fill the cylinder in the short duration that the intake valve is open. (To make matters worse, the ECU measures the pressure at the inlet and expects a certain amount of air to enter the engine and adjusts the fuel injected accordingly, but when the expected amount of air does not enter the engine, the fuel that would otherwise have been burnt gets wasted.)

Bottom Line: Lower the speed, better the efficiency.

Now, remember the least resonance rpm? Remember how coming closer and closer to that rpm, reduces frictional loses? This is around half way through your rev range. Hence you will get the best fuel efficiency when you are in the proximity of least resonance but low enough to take advantage of points 1 and 2. For easier understanding, look at this graph: This curve denotes the fuel consumption at different engine speeds

The above graph is for an engine on a test bed. For an engine on a car, the lowest point is a little to the left at around 2500 rpm (just like you stated).

Screw the explanation, give me the answer:

For best fuel efficiency:

When driving on the highway, drive just shy of the midway mark. In the city, rev all the way up to the sweet-spot and then shift up to comeback to just shy of the mid way mark.

For best engine life:

Do what you must to stay at the sweet spot.

How to find the sweet spot:

1.Park the car (handbrake is engaged)

2.Start the engine, put it in second or third gear.

3.While keeping the clutch depressed, raise the engine in steps of about 250rpm (Smaller steps if you are really particular).

4.At a very exact rpm, the car will feel like it is running smoother than usual.

5.Congratulations. You have found the "sweet-spot".

(PS. This is harder than it sounds, but I encourage you to do it!)

(Disclaimer: Sweet-spot is not a universally understood term, 
when searching online or talking to your car buddies, use the term 
"Point of least resonance".)
  • 1
    Nice answer, but: What exactly do you mean by fuel efficiency? It usually means how much mechanical work you get out of a certain amount of fuel. It is about at the RPM of max torque. But it is not equal to best milage, which usually means low RPM. Efficiency is not so good there, but the low RPM means low fuel consumption. Another point: I guess an ECU knows that there's less air than expected in the cylinder. It also knows if the ratio is correct from the lambda sensor. So, no unburned, wasted fuel. – sweber Feb 27 '16 at 14:38
  • By fuel efficiency, I mean the amount of mechanical work that can be done by the engine from the fuel consumed. I am isolating the system to the engine because outside of this, too many factors come in to play. You are right, about the lambda sensor, in fact, ECUs can even attempt to compensate for the change in RPM but the system is not perfect because multiple other factor come into play again, like air temperature, altitude etc. I confined the answer to these conditions since they were sufficient to answer the question. – krthkskmr Feb 28 '16 at 1:18
  • I thought an engine runs most efficiently at the peak of it's torque? – I have no idea what I'm doing Mar 1 '16 at 10:46
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It depends what you're trying to optimize. If you're looking for optimal acceleration, more RPMs are better. Most engines today produce peak power at redline.

As for optimal efficiency, there's two parts to that as well: Turning fuel into mechanical energy as efficiently as possible, and using the least amount of fuel to cover a distance. The engine produces the most mechanical energy per unit of fuel at moderate RPM and moderately high load. At extremely low RPM efficiency falls off due to heat loss to the cylinder and pressure loss to blowby.

But if you're looking for the best miles per gallon and engine life, lower RPM will win every time (assuming the engine isn't lugging, which you'll know because it will sound like a jackhammer). The engine may not be at its peak efficiency, but you won't be wasting gas making power you don't need. At a steady speed, a higher gear produces a lower RPM, and spinning the engine slower takes less fuel than spinning the engine faster, simple as that.

As for lugging, that's really hard to do with a well designed and computer controlled engine. In a modern car, the computer controls the throttle opening, fuel injection, and spark timing, and so even if you floor the accelerator at 1000 RPM, the computer will make sure the engine isn't over stressed.

I used to know a guy who had an 80s Honda, and he'd be in 5th gear at about 30 mph with the engine shaking away. He got 50+ mpg and his car had 250k miles when he gave it to his daughter. It was uncomfortable as heck but apparently it didn't have any ill effects on the car.

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If you're worrying about engine wear, the issue isn't how high you're revving it. the issue is how fast did you get to that rpm? Fast acceleration is much more damaging than high rpms.

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how about going from 2nd to third when you need to get mor accellaration and let it go to 4k rpm. isnt htat better than changing up to 3rd at 2500. im sure changing at 4k is just avove the sweet spot but when racing dont you have to get to optimal torrque speed first to get the most coverage in linear distance

  • I do 2nd-->3rd when I get up to 3K RPM in the 2nd. Upon completing the switch, once I am in 3rd, it gets down to 2K – amphibient Sep 25 '18 at 19:28

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