By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Saving gas is really about saving money — so it’s not necessarily a smart move to sell whatever you’re driving now (even if it’s a big SUV) in order to buy a more “efficient” car.
You could lose a pile of money on your old vehicle — especially if it’s still pretty new and so still in the steepest part of its depreciation curve, which lasts from the day you drive it home from the dealer until it’s about five years old.
And if you’re spending thousands — maybe tens of thousands — on a new car, it doesn’t necessarily matter how good it is on gas. Money spent is money spent — on $4 per gallon fuel or a $25,000 “economical” car.
So, what can you do to ease the pinch a little? You might be surprised. And the good news is it probably won’t cost you anything — yet could save you a bunch.
1) Smooth And Steady Driving
What burns the most gas is getting your vehicle moving, not keeping it moving. So the longer you can maintain forward momentum without coming to a complete stop, the less fuel you will consume.
For example, try to anticipate red-green traffic lights cycles — and keep your vehicle moving just fast enough that you get to the next red just as it’s about to go green. Let it coast gradually, using its own momentum; then pick up speed again as traffic ahead begins to move forward. Try to accelerate — and decelerate — gradually and smoothly.
The main thing is to try to avoid having to come to a complete stop whenever it’s possible to do so while still maintaining decent speed and not being obnoxious to other drivers. In city-suburban traffic, this is very doable. It’s also kind of relaxing, actually. And not only will you save a surprising amount of gas, you’ll notice your brakes and tires last longer, too.
2) Taking Advantage Of The “Sweet Spot”
Your car’s sweet spot — the speed at which it is most fuel-efficient — is approximately 45-60 mph. This just happens to coincide with the speed limit on many secondary roads. By choosing a more roundabout route, you can enjoy the scenery as well as up your MPG. Traffic congestion has also reduced the average rush hour speeds on highways in and around major population hubs — making it feasible to drive more slowly than the fastest-moving traffic without being a pain in the neck to your fellow motorists. Just be sure to keep right — and yield to faster moving traffic.
3) Making Yourself Slippery
Not in the political sense; the aerodynamic one. The less your vehicle has to fight its way through a wall of air, the lower its fuel consumption will be. If you drive a pick-up truck, for example, you can swap out the tailgate for a mesh net that holds cargo just as effectively — but allows the air that would otherwise be pushing against the raised tailgate to slip right on by.
If you have a car, keep the windows rolled up — and use your air conditioner. It is more energy efficient than keeping the windows open at highway speeds — which creates drag, which forces your engine to burn more fuel than it otherwise would need to. Even with the AC on. And if you have a vehicle with roof racks that can be easily removed, consider removing them — especially if you rarely use them anyhow. The less clutter on your car’s exterior, the more efficient its shape will be – and the less fuel it will consume.
4) Getting Into Overdrive
Perhaps the single best improvement, efficiency-wise, of the past 25 years is the overdrive transmission. Simply put, in top gear, an overdrive transmission reduces the engine speed (RPMs) that would otherwise be necessary to maintain that speed. A modern car with an overdrive transmission can truck along at 65 mph with its engine barely turning over a fast idle (under 2,000 RPMs) while an otherwise similar car from the 1970s without an overdrive would have its engine spinning 800-1,000 RPMs faster at the same road speed — and burning up a lot more gas.
You can make the most of overdrive by using it as much as possible — without lugging the engine, of course. Most modern cars can be shifted into OD at around 40 mph on a level road — and have enough available power to maintain that speed without having to downshift. With a manual-equipped car you can do this for yourself, of course. But it’s also possible to encourage an automatic to shift up into OD at around 40-45 mph by simply easing back on the gas — at which point the transmission should slide into overdrive. (You can tell this has happened by watching your tachometer and noting the RPM drop.)
If you have an automatic-equipped car with a “sport” setting, only use it when you want to have fun. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting gas as the “sport” setting typically causes the transmission to hold gears longer before upshifting and may even lock out overdrive completely.
5) Add Some Air
By now you have probably heard about the importance of not driving on under-inflated tires. Fuel economy can drop by as much as 5-10 percent if you do. Well, another way to save even more gas is to inflate your tires to the maximum recommended pressure listed on the sidewall — which may be a couple of PSI higher than the “normal” pressure listed in your owner’s manual. This will decrease rolling resistance — so your car will get going (and stay going) more easily and with less fuel consumption. The same trick is used by some hybrid vehicles and other ultra-efficiency cars to wring out the best-possible mileage.
The downside is you’ll notice the ride quality may suffer — and your tires might not last as long as they used to. But if you can eke an extra couple of MPGs out of your car, the savings could make the trade-off worth it.