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Your Car: Twelve Ways to Save Money on Gas

Here are a few simple things you can do to help make your driving as fuel efficient as it can be.


What do drivers of the Porsche 911 Turbo, BMW 540i Sport Wagon, and Audi A6 Avant Quattro have in common? Other than having large disposable incomes, the owners of these vehicles have all ignored a key ingredient in economical driving: Choose the most efficient car that meets your needs. Each of these cars is the least fuel efficient in its class, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Although carmakers have improved their products' gas mileage, in recent years car buyers have been negating the gain by choosing bigger cars and by driving more.

Whether you drive a very green hybrid, like the Honda Insight (rated most efficient overall by the EPA) or the Toyota Prius, or you cruise around in the least efficient car on the EPA list, the 12-cylinder Lamborghini, here's how you can save money, pollute less, and help decrease oil imports:

  • Avoid idling to warm up the engine. Once you've started the car, begin driving. Keep speed reasonably low and avoid rapid acceleration until the engine reaches operating temperature.
  • Maintain a steady speed. This is easiest on the freeway, where you may be able to use cruise control.
  • Keep to the speed limit. Gas mileage decreases rapidly as speed increases. According to the Federal Trade Commission, fuel use at 65 mph is 20 percent greater than at 55 mph, and driving at 75 mph rather than 65 raises use by another 25 percent.
  • Minimize air conditioner use. Try the flow-through ventilation as open windows can also reduce gas mileage.
  • Avoid quick starts.
  • Periodically calculate miles per gallon. Reduced efficiency may not be obvious unless you check your mileage now and again. A decline may tip you off to maintenance problems while they're still relatively cheap to fix.
  • Use the proper grade of gas. Most cars are designed to use regular gasoline; the FTC says that 20 percent of all gas sold in the United States is premium grade but only about 6 percent of the cars require it. Engines designed for regular won't run better on premium, nor will they use less of it to cover a given distance. Check the owner's manual to see what grade of gas is right for your car. Using the right gas won't give you more miles per gallon, but you may save money by using cheaper gas.
  • Use the grade of motor oil recom- mended for your car. The Department of Energy says that switching from the wrong grade to the correct one can improve gas mileage 1 to 2 percent.
  • Follow scheduled maintenance procedures. Although newer cars don't need the classic tune-up, spark plugs and the air filter should be changed on schedule. The FTC notes that a dirty air filter can reduce mileage by up to 10 percent.
  • Inflate tires. Check them monthly using your own high-quality gauge. See your owner's manual for recommended pressure. Underinflated tires not only waste fuel, they tend to run hotter, wear more rapidly, and diminish vehicle handling.
  • Take off snow tires as soon as possible.
  • Lighten the load. The FTC says carrying 100 pounds in the trunk reduces a typical car's fuel efficiency by 1 to 2 percent. But if you do have cargo to haul, use the trunk instead of a roof rack or carrier, as using these can cut mileage by as much as 5 percent.

Take everything out of the trunk, including the spare, tools, and carpet. Remove everything from the passenger compartment, including mats and the contents of the glove box, map pockets, and ashtray. Monomaniacs remove the seats, too, but you can just clean beneath them thoroughly. Vacuum; use that crevice tool to reach nooks and crannies. Probe. Don't forget the glove box, the map pockets, and the spare-tire well.

You'll need to clean a wide variety of interior surfaces, including plastic, metal, cloth, glass, paint—maybe even leather and wood. Fortunately, household spray cleaners (such as Formula 409 or Fantastik) work on most of these. For sticker residue and spots made tacky by long-forgotten mishaps, try rubbing alcohol or Goo Gone. It's always best to try a test-wipe on a relatively inconspicuous spot first (especially with alcohol as it may react with plastic). Clean the insides of the windows. Use a cleaner appropriate for whatever upholstery your car has. You'll probably find just what you need at a car parts store. Clean the roof liner and dome light, too. Use Q-tips or a small brush on the vents.

Once you've finished with the passenger compartment, detailing the trunk seems a breeze. Use the same techniques and materials there. While you're at it, make sure the spare has adequate air pressure and there's a jack and lug wrench. Apply rubber preservative to the trunk lid gasket and to the passenger compartment door gaskets.

As cruddy as some car interiors get, theirs is a life of ease compared with what the exterior endures. Assaulted by air pollution and acid rain, sandblasted by wind, and bombed by birds, the outside of your car leads a truly challenging life. Wax can make things much easier for it.

Use a nonabrasive wax on paint that's in good condition. There are many brands, both paste and liquid, and difficulty of application is no guide to quality. Try a conditioning wax on dull paint. And on very dull, oxidized paint, use a rubbing compound followed by wax. Many cars have a clear coat over paint, so choose a wax that's safe for clear coat; the label will say.

Apply wax to a cool, shaded car, and try to keep it off plastic and matte-finish trim as the wax haze may become a lifelong feature on them. Use chrome polish only on chrome, not on plastic (you can wax both with ordinary car wax). Open the doors to wax jambs and sills. Once the haze has developed, use soft cloths, Q-tips, and whatever else it takes to rub it all off. Zeal may flag before the job is done, but remember that you're nearing the end of your chores. Only wheels and tires remain.

There are many types of wheels and various cleaners designed for each. An all-purpose wheel cleaner may do the job, especially if you use scouring pads and tar remover where appropriate. Tires are your final task: A good wash and a coat of gloss make the sidewalls look better than new.


For more information, including fuel use figures for specific cars, visit the United States Department of Energy site, The Federal Trade Commission site also offers suggestions: You'll find the EPA Green Vehicle Guide at AAA can help you keep your car in top shape through its Approved Auto Repair program. There are more than 600 Approved Auto Repair facilities in Northern California, Nevada, and Utah. For the location of the facility nearest you, call (800) 645-4288.


This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.