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How to Buy a Fuel-efficient Car

Rising Fuel Costs

Most of the timely tips in this article will help -- whether you drive 1,000 miles a week or never cover that much distance in a month; whether you drive a subcompact, a hybrid, a sports car, or a sport-utility vehicle; whether you agonize daily in rush-hour traffic or seldom stray from uncrowded rural highways.

Much of driving economically is a matter of breaking a few bad habits and substituting some good ones. We've all been warned about "jackrabbit" starts and speeding. Such actions are both dangerous and uneconomical, and yet we see them all the time.

The trouble is, many of us learned to drive at a time when economy was not a high priority and when cars weren't built with thrift in mind. Even the basic scheduled maintenance was mainly for the purpose of boosting performance, not for adding extra miles per gallon.

Americans seldom gave much thought to fuel economy before the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. The specter of long lines at the gas station, unreliable supply, and fluctuating prices reared again with the fuel crisis of 1979-1980. Those events were wake-up calls, and Detroit and Asian auto-makers responded with lots of gas-sipping compacts. But by the late 1980s, horsepower and performance were back in vogue.

Average fuel economy for passenger cars, after rising steadily for more than a decade, began to decline by 1989. Cars were getting faster, more powerful, more laden with gadgetry -- and gulping more fuel. Americans had evidently decided that a new crisis wasn't going to happen. The popularity of light trucks, notably sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, grew quickly in the late 1980s when Ford's F-150 pickup became the best-selling vehicle in America, and trendy was spelled S-U-V.

In short, life on the American road was good. We were paying far less for our automotive fun than were motorists in most European countries -- just as we had for decades. Adjusted for inflation, motor fuel costs in the late '80s had reached their lowest point since the years just after World War II.

Then, in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Within a week, the average price of gasoline shot up more than 16 cents a gallon. A month later, prices stabilized somewhat, though at a level 30 cents higher than before the crisis. Suddenly, government officials issued stern warnings about the need for frugality. Polls suggested that many Americans would return to fuel-sipping cars if gas prices reached $1.40 per gallon. More than half claimed they would do so if prices hit $2.00. Many simply said they were already cutting back on driving.

Of course, the modern automobile was already far more frugal than its elephantine ancestors. The average new passenger car achieved 27.8 mpg in 1990. Sure, that was down from a high of 28.6 mpg in 1988, but it was still far thriftier than the 14.2-mpg average of 1974. Maybe America was on the right track after all.

SUVs and Other Light Trucks

Things were also changing at the high-mileage end of the fuel-consumption spectrum. Gas-sipping imports, which had played a major role in redirecting the industry during the 1970s, weren't quite so thrifty anymore. Japanese automakers were veering away from the subcompact and minicar market in which they'd gained their reputations. Instead, they moved upscale, turning to handsome but thirsty performance and luxury models, such as the Infiniti and Lexus sedans introduced for 1990.

By that time, barely 3 percent of shoppers were driving off in cars that yielded 40 mpg or more. About 30 percent of cars available in 1990 offered more than 30 mpg, but few Americans seemed to want one. This is ironic because gas prices, adjusted for inflation, were startlingly high, by U.S. standards.

From 1980 to 1983, pump prices ranged from the inflation-adjusted equivalents of $2.60 a gallon to $2.70 a gallon. Of course, the actual gas prices were much lower during those years, so the bite didn't seem as bad.

Adjusted for inflation, pump prices actually declined from 1985 to 1987, and then leveled off (except during the price spike of 1990-1991 caused by Gulf War I) at about $1.30 to $1.50 a gallon. Then they dropped to $1.00 (adjusted) per gallon in 1998-1999.

That time period marked a high point in America's love affair with the SUV, which was prized for its practical nature, commanding view of the road, presumed safety, and high-class image. And many SUVs, like many pickups, have the added allure of 4-wheel drive -- a system that eats up more gas than 2WD.

SUV sales skyrocketed in the early '90s, and by the end of the decade virtually every automaker that maintained a presence in the United States offered one or more sport-utes -- even Porsche. There was an SUV or pickup for every budget, demographic, and attitude.

SUVs seriously hurt the sales of more economical station wagons and fuel-efficient minivans. In addition, SUV popularity encouraged the production of a proliferation of pickup trucks. These vehicles, as well as a flock of imported and domestic luxury sedans, swallowed gas the way a thirsty horse gulps water.

Global trouble, domestic disaster

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, initiated a gradual but steady climb in pump prices, which accelerated after America's spring 2003 invasion of Iraq. The American war machine required massive amounts of gasoline and other fuels, and as with any war, combat costs soon made their way back to the folks at home.

When Congress legislated new fuel economy standards in 2003 for all cars and light trucks sold in the United States, the passenger-car average was a meager 13.5 mpg, while the light truck average was 11.6 mpg. Those low figures made America vulnerable to future gasoline price hikes, but drivers didn't seem to notice. A devastating price spike was just speculation. And anyway, inflation was low, and if the economy wasn't exactly robust, it did seem to be shaking off some of the effects of the 2000 to 2002 recession.

The $2-per-gallon barrier was shattered in 2004, but prices didn't stop there. Iraqi oil production was crippled by the war, and American demand for gas -- 360 million gallons every day -- continued unabated.

The Environmental Protection Agency's city and highway mileage estimates for 2005, which were put together in late 2004, assumed 2005 gas prices of $1.90 per gallon for regular and $1.95 for premium.

But in 2005 the per-barrel price for crude oil on the world market jumped to $50, startling economists and other analysts. Pump prices rose. Then came $60 per barrel. Pump prices continued to rise. The average cost of a gallon of gas in the United States at the end of summer 2005 approached $3 a gallon, a figure exceeded in many urban areas. Every oil-producing country save Saudi Arabia was producing at full capacity. We wanted more oil, but it wasn't going to come easily. President Bush authorized use of the nation's strategic oil reserve to help keep pump prices in check. Europe, too, released some of its reserves onto the world market.

At the end of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf States and badly damaged oil refineries and port facilities vital to America's fuel interests. Because the disaster prompted oil companies to increase the wholesale gas price charged to station owners, pump prices in the days following Katrina rose by 10, 20, 30 cents, and more, in single leaps. Some stations exploited customers with pump prices closer to $4; in the South, some motorists paid as much as $6 per gallon.

When the federal government declared a prohibition on price gouging, the most egregious pump prices declined. But underground tanks at a few independent stations ran dry, and drivers began to worry that big oil stations might have similar shortfalls. By September 2005, some experts looked to the near future and saw an average pump price of $4 per gallon, perhaps higher.

It's easy to see why interest in fuel economy had nearly evaporated prior to 9/11 and again before the American action in Iraq. Americans felt that at $1.50 per gallon, even $2.00, the pleasure-to-pain ratio was acceptable. At $1.50 per gallon the average driver -- who consumes a bit more than 500 gallons each year, traveling just over 10,000 miles -- paid about $750 annually. Two-dollar gas took the average over the $1,000 mark -- a significant amount, but one that Americans were willing to pay. But $3 per gallon means an annual outlay of $1,500, and if you're already paying more than $3, well, you can do the math for yourself.

Still, it's important to note that gas prices in late 2005, adjusted for inflation, were at about the same level as in the early 1980s, and overall improvements in fuel economy meant that drivers paid nearly 40 percent less to drive a mile than they did 20 years ago.

Gasoline remains a bargain in the United States, particularly relative to the retail cost of premium bottled water and other everyday commodities. For example, a 20-ounce cafe mocha costs about $3.50, and although it tastes good, it won't get you nearly as far as a gallon (128 fluid ounces) of gas.

Consider, also, that U.S. gas prices are only about half of what is charged in Europe, where drivers and automakers have learned to adjust. Further, U.S. capacity to refine oil, though compromised by Katrina, was not harmed critically. All of us benefit from the social and economic opportunities made possible by gasoline and the American tradition of personal transport. Calm, sensible driving and buying decisions will see you through almost any fuel-economy challenge.

If you're shopping for a new vehicle while fuel prices are on the rise, there are many factors you can keep in mind to help keep your mpg nice and high. In the next section, we'll discuss vehicle size, weight, and safety features, and how those can impact your fuel economy.