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Nifty tips for thrifty drivers

How can you cut your driving costs without having to trade in your existing set of wheels for a more fuel-efficient vehicle... or the bus? By Colin Hurlock.
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Summer’s here and you’re all set for that all-American pastime — the driving vacation. You’ve piled your bags in the trunk, the map’s on the dashboard, and you’ve donned your favorite Bermuda shorts ready for the great road trip. But wait ... at over $2 per gallon, isn’t a driving vacation going to cost you a small fortune? Well, it may if you’re driving one of those gas-guzzling SUVs, but here’s some simple tips on how to minimize your pain at the pump.

Buses and trains are great, but let’s face it, a driving vacation is one of those all-American pastimes that’s here to stay — no matter how high the price of gas goes. And by following a few tips, your drive may not turn out quite as costly as you feared.

Take it easy
As you head down the highway, keep in mind that you can cut your fuel consumption by avoiding “jackrabbit” starts and driving smoothly. How many times have you sat at a light and the second it turns green, bolted for the open road? Invigorating? Yes. But also a sure way to burn up gas faster than you need to (or can afford to) since hard acceleration causes your engine to kick into a less efficient “fuel enrichment mode.” So avoid extreme acceleration, except in emergency situations.

Furthermore, after putting the pedal to the metal, chances are you’ll soon be standing on the brakes for the next red light, and that again is inefficient.

In average city driving, almost half the energy needed to power your car goes to acceleration. So roaring away on a green light to then hit the brakes only wastes away the valuable juice.

Aside from restraining the urge to “floor it,” anticipating traffic conditions and not tailgating are the best ways to avoid unnecessary braking and acceleration, and according to the Department of Energy, this can improve your fuel economy by 5-to-10 percent.

Slow down to cruising speed
It seems contradictory, but to improve your car’s fuel efficiency you need to drive faster … but slower.

Traffic flow, safety and observing the speed limits should always determine your speed. But by regulating your speed you can get more miles for each dollar you spend on gas.

With gentle acceleration, you should aim to get your car up into its highest gear, or overdrive, assuming traffic and road conditions permit. Overdrive gears (on 5-speed manual transmissions and 4-speed automatic transmissions) considerably improve the fuel economy of your car during highway driving since when you use the top or overdrive gear your car’s engine speed decreases.

In short, “cruising” in a low gear burns gas, so pick it up — but not too much.

Going too fast also burns up gas. In highway driving, over 50 percent of the energy required to move your car goes to overcoming aerodynamic drag. So, as you drive faster, drag and rolling resistance increase, and in turn, your miles-per-gallon goes down.

For the average car, you can improve your gas mileage by about 15 percent by driving at 55 miles per hour rather than 65 mph, according to the Department of Energy.

And if you’re on the highway and you have cruise control, use it. Cruise control helps you maintain a constant speed and, for most cars, will cut fuel consumption. But please don’t sit in the passing lane with the cruise control set at 55 mph and pay no attention to others on the road.

Cut the drag
As noted above, overcoming aerodynamic drag is a key way to improve fuel consumption — but there’s more to it than just keeping your speed down.

Now, you don’t have to turn your minivan into some aerodynamic projectile that will slice through the air like a hot knife through butter, but you should try to avoid making your vehicle less aerodynamic than it already is. Loading your haul from a trip to the mall onto a roof rack instead of the trunk or backseat adds drag. In fact, according to the Department of Energy, a loaded roof rack can decrease your fuel economy by as much as 5 percent. (And no, putting the luggage on the back seat and the kids on the roof rack is not an option.)

As much as you may like to think your vehicle is “all-purpose,” loading it up as if it were some 18-wheeler isn’t smart either. Sometimes, transporting heavy items in your car is unavoidable, but be aware that on average an extra 100 pounds in the trunk will cut your car’s fuel economy by 1-2 percent.

Don't push it, check it
Let’s face it, you haven’t checked things like your car’s tire pressure in ages have you? And when was the last time you had the oil changed? And the air filter? Where is that thing anyway? Well, if you want to get more miles per gallon, it’s time to start checking some basics.

One of the simplest things you can do to improve the fuel efficiency of your car is be sure the tires are properly inflated. And just looking at them and saying, “well, they look fine,” isn’t the answer since radial tires can be underinflated and still look normal.

Tires lose about 1 pound of pressure per-square-inch per month and 1 psi for every 10-degree drop in temperature, so you need to check your tire pressure regularly — and that’s all four of them. Just one tire underinflated by 2 psi will result in a 1 percent increase in fuel consumption, and a whole set of underinflated tires can increase fuel consumption by 6 percent.

Unsure what the tire pressure should be? Car manufacturers place labels on the edge of the door or in the glove box or sometimes on the inside of the gas cap stating the correct tire pressure. This label may list a psi range — you should use the higher number in order to maximize your fuel efficiency.

Checking your tire pressure is easy and, hey, air is free — usually. As for some other necessary maintenance, a few dollars spent can save you several at the pump over the long term.

On average, you should change the oil in your car every 3,000 miles or about 6 months, though you should check with your vehicle manufacturer. Regularly changing the oil will not only improve the life of your car’s engine, it will also reduce fuel consumption. Indeed, some oils contain additives that reduce friction and may increase a car’s fuel economy by 3 percent or more. And don’t forget to have the oil filter changed also.

Talking of filters, check your car’s air filter — clogged air filters can cause up to a 10 percent increase in fuel consumption, according to the Department of Energy. That said, on average an air filter should last you about 30,000 miles.

Having your car tuned is more of an expense, but worthwhile. According to the Department of Energy, studies have shown that a poorly tuned engine can increase fuel consumption by as much as 10-20 percent.

The wonders of one trip

By now you’ve got your vehicle primed and ready to roll. But before you head out, here’s one last tip to cut your fuel consumption — well, two really.

First, instead of running in and out to various places, plan your trip so that you combine a number of errands into just one jaunt in your car. Several short trips taken from a cold start can use twice as much gasoline as a longer, multipurpose trip covering the same distance when the engine is warm. This means that with some prior planning you can easily improve your fuel efficiency, and save time.

And the best tip of all? Ask a neighbor or friend to drive you — this will significantly cut your gasoline expenditures.