The recent run-up in fuel prices is straining budgets and making some drivers wonder why they bought gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups. Choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle for your next purchase is an effective safeguard against future gas-price spikes, but whether your current car is a hatchback or a Hummer, there are ways to get more miles per gallon…
- Slow down. The most fuel-efficient speed varies by vehicle, but it’s typically between 30 miles per hour (mph) and 50 mph on secondary roads. But you don’t have to drive painfully slowly to improve your fuel economy—simply driving the speed limit, rather than five or 10 miles over it, will deliver noticeable fuel savings. When you must accelerate, do so gently—slow acceleration is more fuel-efficient than rapid acceleration.
- Strive for consistent pressure on the accelerator…not consistent speed. On hilly roads, turn off the cruise control and try to apply the same foot pressure on the accelerator during the uphill and downhill sections as you do to maintain speed on flat ground. Your car will slow slightly on the climbs and speed up slightly on the descents, but it’s worth it—pushing your engine to maintain speed on inclines is extremely inefficient. On steep highway climbs, there’s often a special slow-traffic lane on the far right for trucks—use it with your hazards on.
- Monitor traffic far in front to reduce the need for braking. Most drivers focus almost exclusively on the vehicle immediately ahead of them, matching that vehicle’s speed and braking only when that car brakes. Instead, monitor traffic out to perhaps a half-mile in front of you for brake lights and other signs that indicate cars are slowing or stopping. When you see this, immediately reduce the pressure on the accelerator—or stop accelerating entirely and coast—even if the car directly ahead of you hasn’t slowed. Maintaining your speed until you reach the back of a pack of slowed or stopped vehicles and then braking hard wastes fuel and doesn’t get you to your destination any faster.
- Try not to come to a complete stop at a red light ahead. Instead, time your approach so that the light is green by the time you reach it. When you see a red or yellow light less than one-quarter mile ahead, take your foot off the accelerator and check to see if vehicles on the crossing road are stopping—that suggests your light might turn green momentarily. If the crossing vehicles aren’t stopping, continue to slow as much as necessary to avoid coming to a complete stop at the light. With practice you can accomplish this most of the time, and it will save you fuel—starting from a stop consumes more fuel than gently accelerating from a slow speed. Related: Drivers often ask if it is worth shutting off your engine when you do have to stop. Not necessarily—idling burns fuel, but restarting an engine does, too. Details vary by vehicle, but in general, it’s probably worth turning off your engine if it looks like you will have to wait a half-minute or more but not with shorter stops.
- Don’t draft. Race car drivers save fuel by getting extremely close to the car ahead, a strategy called “drafting”—but the added danger of doing that outweighs the potential savings.
- Choose routes with fewer hills and left turns. If there’s more than one way to get to your destination and the distances are similar, use the roads that have fewer or less steep climbs. Hilly drives burn more fuel than flat-road driving even if you don’t push your car hard up the inclines. Routes with fewer left turns are preferrable, too—lefts often require additional stops, starts and idling as you wait to cross in front of oncoming traffic.
- Bundle your trips. Combine multiple errands and outings into a single trip rather than repeatedly driving back and forth to your home. When possible, drive to the farthest stop you have to make first, then work your way back. Reason: Your engine is most fuel-efficient once it reaches its optimal operating temperature—that’s the point at which the engine temperature gauge levels off after you’ve been driving a while. If you start with a relatively long drive, your car should reach that temperature quickly and stay near it for the duration of the multistop outing. If you start with several short trips, the car might not reach the optimal temperature until you’re almost back home.
- Get rid of your roof-top carrier or roof rack. These create lots of wind resistance, reducing fuel efficiency—even when the roof rack is empty. Helpful: The best way to transport bikes is inside a vehicle—fold the rear seats down if necessary. If that’s not possible, a rack that positions bikes behind the vehicle is more fuel-efficient than one that places them on top.
- Shed unnecessary weight. Every extra pound in your vehicle reduces fuel economy. Unload cargo as soon as possible rather than drive it around.
- Air out your car before turning on its air conditioning. The air inside a car parked in the sun on a hot day can reach a temperature of 116°F. It’s a waste of fuel to force the air conditioner to cool air that hot. Instead, open the windows all the way when you begin your drive to create a breeze that blows out the oppressively hot air. On a warm but not hot day, try driving with the windows cracked or slightly open before resorting to A/C—unlike many older vehicles, most modern cars are quite aerodynamic with their windows cracked or slightly open, even at highway speeds. If you’re still hot and must resort to using A/C, set it to a comfortable level—don’t crank it way up. Exception: The air-conditioning systems in hybrids and electric vehicles are more efficient than those of gas-powered cars—in these vehicles, turning on the A/C can be more fuel-efficient than driving with the windows open.
- On cold days, wait to use the cabin heat. It’s tempting to crank up the heat as soon as you get into your car on cold days. But doing that diverts heat that could have warmed engine components and oil, increasing the time it takes the vehicle to reach its ideal operating temperature and peak fuel efficiency. Instead, turn on cabin heat only after the engine temperature gauge reaches the level where it tends to remain—at that point, the engine is producing more heat than it needs so heating the cabin doesn’t reduce efficiency at all.
- Avoid “performance” tires. These provide tremendous traction, but that extra grip significantly reduces fuel economy. Instead, choose “low-rolling resistance” tires, which minimize wasted energy. Helpful: Inflate your tires to at least the pressure recommended on the plaque inside your driver’s-side door or in your car’s manual, if not slightly higher. Adding pressure is especially important when carrying lots of passengers or heavy cargo. Underinflated tires decrease fuel efficiency and, despite the common misconception, underinflated tires—not overinflated tires—are a safety risk. Overinflating isn’t dangerous unless you dramatically exceed the maximum pressure indicated on the tire’s sidewall, which itself is higher than the figure recommended in the car’s door and manual.
- Use the oil recommended in your vehicle’s manual. Any other oil might reduce your fuel economy and damage your engine.
- Get an alignment. A front-end alignment typically costs around $100. Your fuel economy and tire life both will suffer if your car is out of alignment. Three signs that your car may need an alignment: Its steering pulls to the left or right…the steering wheel is not straight when you are traveling straight…and front-tire wear across the tread is uneven.
- Have that plastic trim piece under the front bumper replaced or repaired if it’s damaged. This plastic piece often gets cracked on curbs when parking. It isn’t just ornamental—the “air dam” plays an important role in your car’s aerodynamics, and your fuel economy could suffer if it’s damaged. Have a replacement installed or, at least, fix any damage with duct tape.