Battle High Gas Prices: Tips to Boost Your Fuel Economy

How to save on gas without getting rid of your car.Thanks to the recent spike in fuel prices, high-mileage vehicles are among the most researched of all new-car purchases. A few weeks ago, we ran our ”Fuel-Gouging Survival Guide,” featuring guidelines to help consumers find the most fuel-efficient vehicle to can match their financial and personal needs.

But when it comes down to it, the most economical vehicle choice for your family is quite possibly the one that’s already sitting in your driveway. Unless you’re leasing a car that is due to be returned in the next couple of months, you may save just as much or more money by simply keeping the car you own and driving it more economically.

But how, exactly? We’re not going to recommend any “hypermiling” nonsense, but we do know a few tricks—some you also might know, and others you may not. All, however, enable you to boost your personal fuel economy, squeezing more miles per gallon from whatever you drive, be it a Focus or a Phantom. While gains from some of the tips below may seem minute, successfully enact all of them and you’ll be nickel-and-diming Exxon for hundreds of bucks a year.

Tune Up Your Car

Okay, cars don’t really need “tune-ups” in the traditional mechanical sense any more. But if your “check engine” light is on, it could indicate a serious problem—say, a faulty oxygen sensor or worn spark plugs and wires—that, when fixed, could garner fuel-economy gains upwards of 30 percent, according to the EPA and Department of Energy’s shared Web site: www.fueleconomy.gov. Be sure to follow your recommended service schedule to keep your car running optimally.

Also, if you’re the change-your-own-oil type, the EPA says to be sure you use the right stuff. For example, using 10W-30 motor oil in an engine designed to use 5W-30 can lower your gas mileage by one to two percent.

Keep Your Tires Properly Inflated

The Department of Energy estimates that 5 to 15 percent of light-duty fuel consumption is spent overcoming rolling resistance, i.e., the friction between the road and a car’s tires. Lowering your vehicle’s rolling resistance starts with simply ensuring that your tires have enough air pressure. Underinflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.4 percent for every 1-psi drop in pressure of all four tires.

A typical tire loses 1 psi per month and another with every 10-degree drop in temperature, so if you haven’t checked your tires in a few months, it’s time. Of course, pumping a few extra pounds of air pressure into the tires is one of the oldest fuel-economy tricks around, but going overboard will cost you some ride comfort and lateral grip, and—if taken to the extreme—could result in highly dangerous blowouts.

Replace Your Tires with Low-Rolling-Resistance Rubber

When replacing your tires, ensure your new ones utilize low-rolling-resistance compounds. Most modern family cars and SUVs are thus equipped from the factory, but many consumers are tempted to replace their tires with the cheapest ones that fit, not the original-equipment tire. Rule of thumb: Replace your tires with the same ones that came with the car or with one of the many new low-rolling-resistance aftermarket tires. They can be a touch pricier than their standard-compound counterparts, but they can represent a gain of 1 to 2 mpg.

Slow Down

Slowing to 60 mph in places where you’re used to driving 80 sounds about as enticing as volunteering for an IRS audit. We’re not advocating a return to the federally imposed 55-mph speed limit, but the truth is that fuel economy drops dramatically at higher speeds due to aerodynamic drag. According to the EPA, for every 5 mph you drive over 60, the resultant hit to your fuel economy is the equivalent of spending an additional 30 cents per gallon.

Chill Out

Sudden bursts of acceleration (a.k.a. “displays of speed,” according to most law-enforcement entities) do about as much for your fuel economy as they do for your driving record. Sure, the occasional stoplight drag race can be fun, and yes, it’s sometimes easier to power through yellow lights than to screech to a halt. But if such aggressive driving is your MO, you can cut your appetite for fuel by a whopping 33 percent on the highway and 5 percent around town if you can learn to slow down and relax.

Avoid Start-and-Stop Driving

Among the most taxing duties on a car’s engine is getting the car moving from a dead stop. Once a vehicle is in motion, its energy demands drop substantially. Thus, the less stop-and-go driving you do, the farther you can go on a gallon of gas. See if your place of employment would be willing to let you start your day an hour earlier or later to allow you to avoid rush-hour stop-and-go traffic.

Use the Highway Whenever Possible

If you can’t beat traffic, at least take a route that allows you to drive smoothly. Contributing to a traffic jam and crawling along at a consistent 20 mph is better for fuel consumption than taking that surface street with 10 lights and 20 stop signs, where you’ll constantly be accelerating and braking. By some estimates, the increase in fuel economy can be as much as 15 percent.

Pay Attention to the Timing of Stoplights
Time your arrival at an intersection with the green light. If it’s clear that you won’t make it, back off and coast in. There’s no point in charging up to a red light, even though many of us do just that. Slowing down increases the chance that the light will turn green before you come to a complete stop, meaning you have less accelerating to do.

Use Higher Gears

Shifting into higher gears quickly—even skipping gears—instead of holding lower ones can add miles to your gallon. Especially if you have a car with a torquey motor and a manual transmission, like a Chevrolet Corvette, which forces the driver to skip from first to fourth gear under low-load driving, skipping gears will keep engine speed—and fuel consumption—low during acceleration.

Use Cruise Control

Letting the car do your steady-speed driving helps more than you’d think. Even if you can maintain a constant speed with your right foot, you can’t make the microscopic adjustments that your car’s computer can, which allow it to continuously fine-tune fuel dosage for maximum efficiency.

Idle in Neutral

Idling accounts for up to 17 percent of fuel consumption, according to the EPA. While you are waiting at a red light, shift into neutral to disconnect the engine from the torque converter, which reduces the load on the engine.

Don’t Idle

All drivers should consider turning the engine off during prolonged stays in one place such as ferry or railroad crossings or while waiting in the driveway of your golf buddy’s place for him to load up his clubs.

Reduce the Load on Your Car

All that crap in your trunk is pinching your gas mileage to the tune of one to two percent for every 100 pounds of excess weight. Out with the pet carriers, dumbbells, bowling balls, and garden tools, in with the jumper cables, emergency kit, and helium balloons.

Reduce Your Aerodynamic Load

Remove the crossbars of the roof rack on your SUV or wagon when not in use. All they’re doing is creating more aerodynamic drag. Ditto other extraneous exterior add-ons such as cargo carriers, extension mirrors for trucks, and three-tier spoilers.

Reduce the Load on Your Engine

Using the vent instead of the air conditioner when possible can provide an increase in fuel economy upwards of five percent.

Learn to Drive a Stick

Suppose you’re buying a new car. The dealership has two identical cars, exactly what you wanted, but one of them gets an extra 2 mpg. On top of that, it costs almost $1000 less than the other. Why would you not buy it?

Cars with manual transmissions reliably best identical automatic-equipped cars by at least a couple mpg. You can learn to drive a stick. It’s not as hard as you might think it is. Go to an empty mall parking lot, and spend a few hours one night. Drive a stick daily for a couple weeks, and you’ll have it down. You won’t have to monkey around with any of these tricks, and you’ll see a more significant increase in your fuel economy.

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