You Can Improve Your Gas Mileage


Sep 1, 2005 (Updated Sep 8, 2005)


The Bottom Line There are lots of ways to improve your gas mileage, from cheap to expensive. The basics are easy and fast.

After putting nearly $50 of gasoline in my small pickup truck last night, I am focused like a laser on maximizing the gas mileage of my vehicles. I have always been interested in getting good gas mileage in my cars and have learned a few things over the years. Some of these are cheap and easy, the sort of thing that everyone should do to save a little on gasoline. A few are expensive, the sorts of things that you should consider in special circumstances.

In addition to saving money, every drop of gasoline you don't burn means fewer emissions that the environment has to absorb. So improving the gas mileage of your car is a win-win situation: you save money and you help the rest of us by keeping the Earth a little cleaner.

There are all sorts of legitimate ways to improve gas mileage at a wide range of costs. I'll start with the cheap stuff first.

Cheap

Probably the best thing you can do to maintain or improve the gas mileage of your car is to regularly check tire pressure and ensure the pressure is correct. Most modern tires have maximum pressure ratings of 35 pounds per square inch (psi) and you should pump your tires close to (but not above) this level. If you do not have a tire pressure gauge, get one -- they cost less than $5 and you can just toss it in the glove box when you're done. Some cars may have recommended tire pressures listed by the manufacturer; I'm not saying to ignore that but you should err on the high side. Your car's tire pressure is listed on the tire's sidewall somewhere; it may be hard to find but it's there.

Every extra pound you haul means more work for your car's engine and lower gas mileage. The solution is to put your car on a diet, removing everything you don't need to carry. Do you still have last semester's books on the floor? A box of videotapes? Old clothes? Stuff you've been meaning to throw out? Look at your car carefully and remove anything that doesn’t need to be in it. If you have a 3000-pound car and you remove 30 pounds of unneeded stuff, you've just made your car one percent lighter. Not only will you get slightly better gas mileage, you will be rewarded with better performance and braking. (My pickup truck has a large hitch assembly in back that I've never used. It's coming off this weekend.)

If you have ever noticed that your car runs smoother and more quietly after an oil change, you are onto something. You will get better gas mileage with clean oil than with dirty oil. In addition, you will get a bit better gas mileage with synthetic oil than standard (mineral) oil. I recommend oil changes at 5,000 miles for mineral oil and 10,000 miles with synthetic oil. Always change the oil filter during an oil change. Also, check your oil regularly and top it up between changes.

Your engine sucks in air through its air filter to burn with gasoline. A clean air filter will make it much easier for your engine to breathe and you will be rewarded with better gas mileage. (However, never run your engine without its air filter. That will wear the engine very quickly.) A new air filter usually costs less than $10. Fancy filters, such as the $50 ones sold by companies like K&N, do a bit better job of letting your engine breathe. Good breathing means good gas mileage.

Likewise, a clean fuel filter is best for your car. Replace the fuel filter at least every 30,000 miles, more often if you drive in dusty conditions.

Learn how to do the basics to your own car. This will not only save you money, you will be able to do things more often and at your own convenience.

Tall, skinny tires lead to better gas mileage than low, fat tires. The style trend today is for fancy wheels and w-i-d-e tires, but these are bad for gas mileage. If you are shopping for a new car and want the absolute best gas mileage, get the cheap skinny tires instead of pricey aluminum wheels and wide tires.

If you need to replace tires on your car, consider getting tires that have a higher pressure rating. The more air you can safely put in your tires, the better gas mileage you are likely to get.

Never ever drive with your foot on the brake pedal. In fact, it is always best to use only your right foot for the gas and brake pedals. Even the lightest touch of your left foot on the brake pedal as you drive can seriously reduce your gas mileage.

It's obvious that driving slower uses less gasoline than maintaining a fast pace. Shaving five MPH off your average highway driving speed will result in a savings that you will eventually feel in your wallet.

In addition to driving slower, tch7 (Kenn) reminded me that there is much gas savings in driving smoothly. Accelerate smoothly and easily, and try to maintain a reasonable steady speed. Keep enough room between you and other cars without using your brakes. In fact, I sometimes try to drive as if using my brakes would be a sign of failure, accelerating smoothly, keeping my distance and using engine braking to slow down the car for turns. Of course, always be prepared to use your brakes but try to drive in a way that you use your brakes less. Every time you touch your brakes, you throw away energy. Not to mention the wear and tear to your brakes!

Use your cruise control when you are on the open highway. I am a dedicated cruise control user, which may have something to do with why I almost always do better than the EPA gas mileage in whatever car I drive. This fine suggestion was brought to you by riverrafter247.

If your car has an automatic transmission with an O/D (overdrive) off/on button, be sure your overdrive is on. This will greatly lower your engine RPMs at highway speeds, improving gas mileage and putting less wear on your engine. This excellent tip is from drive571 (PJ).

Use your turn signals. This will not give you better gas mileage but it will let others around you drive more smoothly, saving them aggravation and fuel. Maybe they'll even return the favor.

Moderate Cost

A full tune-up will make your engine run its best. The full Monty includes new spark plugs, fuel filter, air filter and PCV valve. Some cars still require new distributor caps and rotors with a tune-up but many modern cars no longer have caps and rotors. If it has been a year or two since your engine has had routine maintenance, consider doing a tune up. Consider using platinum spark plugs, which maintain a proper spark gap far longer than traditional copper plugs. Anything that keeps your car in its optimum operating range is good for gas mileage. The tip on platinum plugs is from riverrafter247.

After dark, lift the hood of your car and start the engine. If you see any sparking coming from its spark plug wires, replace the wires. A new set will be around $20 to $60 and can be replaced by almost anyone with modest mechanical skills.

Brakes can drag and ruin gas mileage. Have a good mechanic check your brakes to make sure they are not binding or dragging.

Incorrectly aligned wheels will reduce gas mileage. Have your car's wheel alignment checked and get it adjusted if it's out of whack. Some cars need only a front-end alignment, while others require a more expensive four-wheel alignment. Either way, it should cost around $100 or less.

Expensive

Since a car has to breathe in and out, replacing your exhaust system with one that flows better will result in better gas mileage. Although this makes engineering sense, getting good information about how an exhaust system will work on your car is a difficult proposition. If your car needs an exhaust system, it makes sense to ask whether it will help your car get better gas mileage.

Tires and tire pressure have a great deal to do with your car’s gas mileage. If you put a lot of miles on your car, consider swapping the car's tires and wheels so that you end up with tall, narrow tires that have a high pressure rating. This may easily cost you $500 or $600 but could make your gas mileage jump from 18 mpg to 22 mpg. A couple of added benefits are that skinny tires are generally better in the rain and on snow, and tall skinny tires give the car a softer ride. That's usually a good thing for highway cruising.

Look carefully at your vehicle requirements. If you have a bigger vehicle than you really need, think about selling it and getting a smaller, more efficient car. You know far more about your situation than I do, so there's only so much I can say here. However, if you REALLY need a large vehicle (for towing, soccer team shuttle, work, etc.), consider adding a small, efficient car for your commuting and errand running chores. Sure, I know that not everyone can do this but if you're thinking about a $32K crew-cab pickup for both family and hauling needs, consider getting an $8K used pickup and a $20K efficient sedan.

Parting Thoughts

You'll notice that I don’t have any "miracle" additives, mystical magnets or other products of dubious operation in my list. Any gas mileage claims that are too good to be true are, in fact, too good to be true. You will not make a mouse hair's change to your car's performance or gas mileage by pouring a $10 miracle additive into your gas tank. It just ain't that easy. If you really want to save money, treat gas mileage panaceas as you would botulism. Trust me, you don't want it.

Finally, if you want to keep your car running smoothly and efficiently, nothing will pay bigger dividends than learning how to maintain your car yourself. A good kit of hand tools will cost less than $100 and your local library has books (and possibly videotapes) on car maintenance. Ask your friends and neighbors for car maintenance tips. The power of positive thinking is a wonderful thing, particularly if you combine it with action. If you really want to have better gas mileage, go out to your car and do something about it.

I honestly think that the price of gasoline will fall some in the US but it will never get to where it was a year or two ago. International business and politics means that there is more competition for the same finite petroleum resources the world had 30 years ago and it is only going to get worse in the long run. Saving money is just one of many reasons why it's a good idea to improve your car's gas mileage but it's a great place to start.

I'm sure there are some excellent tips not in this list. If you have any thoughts, leave a comment -- I may add your idea to my list and give you credit. It is important for all of us to place some reasonable effort into getting the best gas mileage from our cars.

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