How to Get Better Fuel Economy

By: Ed Piotrowski
Image Gallery:
Small and Tiny Cars

Getting better fuel economy is easy if you follow a few simple driving rules.
Getting better fuel economy is easy if you follow a few simple driving rules. See pictures of fuel-efficient
small cars.

With gasoline prices continuing their wild fluctuations, many consumers are demanding more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Automakers have responded by offering gas-sipping subcompact cars and gas-electric hybrid vehicles. But what are consumers to do when they have four years of payments left on a gas-hogging, V8-powered SUV?

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Surprisingly, there are a number of ways that new or used vehicle owners can improve overall fuel economy by as much as 20 percent. For a vehicle that averages 18 miles per gallon, that's an improvement of almost 4 mpg and an annual fuel savings of $400 or more. Consumer Guide's® fuel economy improvement tips don't just apply to vehicles that use the most gas. Even if you have a fuel-efficient vehicle, you can still use these guidelines to get more mileage between fill-ups, thereby keeping more money in your pocket.

The Auto Editors of Consumer Guide® recommend a comprehensive approach in order to achieve the greatest fuel economy savings. Don't let that "c" word scare you. Not only are our tips easy to follow, you'll see results almost immediately. In this article, we'll cover:

  • How to Improve Your Fuel Economy
    We'll show you a comprehensive set of driving tips that will help you improve your vehicle's fuel economy. These tips are easy to follow, and you should realize a near-immediate improvement in fuel economy. We recommend a three-step approach: Alter your driving style, maintain your vehicle, and modify your driving mentality. We'll also show you just how much you can potentially save, both in fuel and money.
  • How to Buy a Fuel-Efficient Vehicle
    We'll explain the factors you should consider when selecting a more fuel-efficient vehicle, whether you're looking for a hybrid or a conventional vehicle. While hybrids may be the most efficient overall, they also tend to be expensive. The extra cost over a frugal conventional vehicle may take years to recover in fuel savings. As such, a small, subcompact car may be a better fit for your needs. We'll provide you with a list of fuel-efficient vehicles rated by both the EPA and Consumer Guide®


How to Improve Your Fuel Economy

Consumer Guide®'s recommendations for getting better fuel economy may seem like no-brainers, but they really can make a difference. Our strategy is a three-prong approach: Alter your driving style, maintain your vehicle, and modify your driving mentality. Combine any of these tips, and you should start seeing an improvement right away.

Alter Your Driving Style
  • S-L-O-W D-O-W-N. Going fast is so tempting. Not only do we do it to keep up with the flow of traffic, but if we can save even five minutes, it seems worth it. But if you're on the highway, driving 60 miles per hour instead of 70 mph will save you 2-4 miles per gallon over the duration of your trip.
  • Take it easy on the throttle. Don't accelerate quickly or stomp on the brakes. Coast to a stop. You'll save on fuel as well as wear and tear on your brakes, which will save you even more money.
  • Shut down. If you're waiting somewhere for a while, like at a train crossing for instance, turn off your engine. Even if it's just for a minute, it can make a difference in your fuel economy, especially if you drive in the city a lot.
  • Don't warm up your vehicle for more than 30 seconds. This is a tough one, especially for us here at Consumer Guide®, where Chicago's frigid winters are a way of life. Thanks to technology, however, most modern fuel-injected cars only really need 30 seconds to warm, and hot air can start blasting into the cabin very shortly thereafter.
  • Windows up. Again, this is tough, especially on pleasant days. But having the windows down creates aerodynamic drag that causes an engine to work harder. On the highway, this can decrease fuel economy by up to 10 percent.

Keeping your tires properly inflated will save you gas.
Keeping your tires properly inflated will save you gas.

Maintain Your Vehicle
  • Check your tire pressure. Making sure your vehicle's tires are set to the recommended pressure can increase fuel economy by as much as 3.3 percent.
  • Breathe easy. Next time you get your oil changed, have the air filter checked as well. Replacing a dirty air filter with a clean one can save up to 10 percent on fuel costs.
  • Make sure your vehicle is in top running order. Read your owner's manual and follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule. If it's time for a tune up, do it and you can realize up to a 4.1 percent increase in fuel economy.
  • Buy the right gas. Your owner's manual will list the correct octane gasoline you should use for your vehicle. Purchase whatever is recommended and no more. Premium-grade fuel is more costly and won't improve economy in vehicles designed to run on regular.
  • Lighten up. The less weight in your vehicle, the better your fuel economy. Clean out that trunk!
  • Grease up. Using the manufacturer's specified motor oil, and changing it per factory recommendations, can improve fuel economy as well.

Carrying things around in your trunk might be costing you at the pump.
Keep your trunk empty. Carrying extra cargo
around might be costing you at the pump.

Modify Your Driving Mentality
  • Combine trips. Don't run out two or three times a day. Hit all the stores you need to visit at once, and if possible, go to shopping malls where you can park and walk to several stores at the same time.
  • Let someone else drive sometimes.
  • Get some exercise. If you have the time and your destination is close, walk or ride a bike.
  • Cool down. Gas up on cool mornings. Fuel is denser when cold. Gas pumps measure by volume, so if you pump when it's cold, you get more gas for your buck.
The Biggest Savings

For most of you, altering your driving style and maintaining your vehicle might seem like enough to increase fuel economy. You're likely to see perhaps a 10-15 percent improvement in fuel economy by doing those two things. However, you can save the most money by changing your driving mentality.

Consider this: If you get 16 mpg right now and you follow the steps outlined in "Altering Your Driving Style" and "Maintain Your Vehicle," you're likely to notice a 15 percent improvement in your fuel economy. That means you'll average 17.6 mpg. Over a 12,000-mile year, that's a cash savings of about $200.

By following the steps in "Modifying Your Driving Mentality" you could easily reduce the miles you drive each year by 1000. All else being equal, reducing the miles driven per year from 12,000 to 11,000 will save you $375. Combine the two, and you can reduce your annual fuel costs by $500 or more.

Next, we'll look at what you need to know about buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle. We'll look at gas-electric hybrids, as well as conventional vehicles that will allow you to squeeze out the most miles per gallon.


How to Buy a Fuel-Efficient Vehicle

How to Go Green
Discover more fuel-efficient cars with ­Planet Green's green car article.

­our tips should help you realize an increase in fuel economy for your current vehicle(s), there's no substitute for owning a car that's easy on gas from the day you buy it. If you're in the market for a new vehicle, there are many fuel-efficient choices across a variety of classes.

The most obvious choices for fuel-efficient vehicles are hybrids. Hybrids use a gasoline engine as their main power source, and they also have an electric motor for additional energy. The electric motor assists the gas engine during acceleration, instantly starts the gas engine at stoplights, and charges the batteries while decelerating and braking. There also are exhaust emission benefits from the hybrid system shutting off the gas engine while at stoplights. Further, purchasing a hybrid qualifies you for a tax credit. Depending on the vehicle, the credit can save you several hundred dollars.

The Toyota Prius
The EPA estimates that the Toyota
Prius averages 60 miles per gallon
during city driving and
51 mpg on the highway.

Toyota Hybrids

The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid car sold in the United States, and it continues to be extremely popular. In Consumer Guide®'s tests, we averaged 36.7-45.2 mpg. That's a far cry from the EPA estimates of 60 mpg city/51 mpg highway, but it's still better than just about any other vehicle we've ever tested. We'll have a more detailed chart of gas sippers on the next page.

Toyota's other hybrid vehicles include the new-for-2007 Camry midsize sedan. Like Prius, Camry pairs a four-cylinder engine with an electric motor. The Highlander midsize SUV also has a hybrid model. It combines its electric motor with a V6 engine and is geared to be a "performance" model. It's the quicker than conventional Highlanders, but it's also more fuel-efficient.

Toyota's premium Lexus division also offers hybrid models. The RX 400h midsize SUV is similar to the Highlander with its V6 engine/electric motor combination. Like the Highlander, it's meant to be a fuel-efficient SUV that also offers good acceleration performance. Also fitting this mold is the GS 450h. It also combines a V6 engine with an electric motor. Lexus pitches this midsize sedan as one that offers the acceleration performance of V8 engine but fuel economy of a small V6.

Other Hybrids

Though Toyota may have the largest overall lineup of hybrids, other automakers offer vehicles with gas-electric technology. Honda, Ford, and General Motors are hoping for a piece of this ever-growing pie.

Honda's hybrid lineup includes versions of its popular Civic and Accord sedans. Ford offers its Escape and Mercury Mariner compact SUVs. This year, General Motors' Saturn division introduced a hybrid version of its Vue SUV, dubbed "Green Line." Vue is scheduled to be joined in calendar 2007 by a Green Line hybrid version of Saturn's Aura midsize sedan. Chevrolet also is scheduled to get into the hybrid act in 2007 with a gas-electric Tahoe large SUV.

Saturn Vue Greenline
Saturn's first hybrid is the 2006 Vue Green Line.

Hybrids aren't for everyone, however. They tend to carry a steep price premium over conventional gasoline vehicles. For example, a front-wheel drive Toyota Highlander with a conventional V6 engine has a base price of $25,940. The same vehicle in hybrid form starts at $32,490. Factoring in tax credits and fuel savings, it would take most hybrid owners five years or more to recoup the cost difference between their vehicles and conventional ones. However, with owning a hybrid comes the personal satisfaction that you're doing something positive for Mother Nature, and that's something not for sale.

Efficient Conventional Vehicles

Subcompact cars are an emerging force affecting the American automotive landscape. These small vehicles typically have wheelbases of 100 inches or less. Many are available in a  hatchback body style, which enhances cargo versatility. Sedans also are available.

The Honda Fit, Suzuki SX4, and Toyota Yaris are all new vehicles for 2007. Chevrolet's Aveo sedan was redesigned for '07, and the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio were redone in 2006. Toyota's youth-oriented Scion brand will replace its subcompact xA hatchback and xB wagon in calendar 2007.

In addition to these vehicles being frugal at the pump, subcompacts also don't have steep bottom lines. The Chevrolet Aveo5 hatchback starts at less than $10,000, and most subcompact cars won't break $17,000, even when fully loaded. With this market segment getting more attention from shoppers, automakers are designing these vehicles to not only be fuel efficient, but also stylish, refined, and fun to drive.

But again, such small cars don't suit everyone' s lifestyle. Fear not, for there are other vehicles that have conventional engines and incorporate technology to help them be more fuel-efficient. One such technology is cylinder deactivation. An onboard sensor is programmed to sense certain driving conditions, such as coasting, cruising, or deceleration. It will then tell the engine to shut off half of its cylinders. Less active cylinders mean less fuel is being burned. This fuel-saving technology is employed by several automakers, including DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, and Honda.

On the next page, we'll give you a list of vehicles that are among the thriftiest you can buy, conventional or hybrid.

The Most Fuel-Efficient Vehicles By Class

Here is a list of fuel-efficient vehicles, both conventional and hybrid, as rated by the EPA and in Consumer Guide® road tests. The list is in alphabetical order. It doesn't include every single vehicle, but these vehicles are the cream of the gas-sipping crop.

 Vehicle  Class Transmission  CG mpg  EPA city/hwy 
Acura TSX
Premium Compact Car
 Manual 27.3
Ford Escape Hybrid
Compact SUV
CVT  28.4 33/29
Honda Accord Hybrid  Midsize Car  Automatic  27.5  28/35 
Honda Civic Hybrid
Compact Car
CVT  38.0  49/51 
Honda Fit  Subcompact Car  Manual  35.6  33/38 
Kia Spectra  Compact Car  Manual
28.5  25/33 
Mercury Mariner Hybrid
Compact SUV  CVT 28.8  33/29 
Toyota Camry Hybrid  Midsize Car  CVT  28.5-31.2  40/38 
Toyota Corolla
Compact Car  Manual  28.5  32/41 
Toyota Highlander Hybrid  Midsize SUV  CVT
22.8-26.4  31/27 
Toyota Prius   Midsize Car
CVT 36.7-45.2  60/51 
Toyota Yaris
Subcompact Car

In this age of continually climbing gas prices, consumers need to learn how to save gas any way they can. With the tips outlined in this article and in the above chart, saving fuel and money can be easy.