5 Little Things You Can Do To Save Gas

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.


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18 Responses to “5 Little Things You Can Do To Save Gas”

  1. Adam says:

    Not sure I agree with #2….I was under the assumption that driving approx 50mph USED to be the optimal speed from the 1980s. I believe the speed for better economy is higher now. Please advise.

    Editor's Note: Changed the range to 45-60mph — the exact "sweet spot" varies by vehicle.

  2. Anon says:

    Mesh nets for most newer trucks *reduce* their aerodynamics. As the trucks are wind tunnel tested with all the OEM equpment for as much aerodynamics as possible (limited by price or other factors, of course.) And suggesting that taking winding side roads to use less gas, come on. If I drive 30% farther, even if my MPG is 20% higher, I've just used more gas. Also, side, or secondary, roads tend to have more stop/start which kills MPG. Oh, and how exactly is wearing out your tires faster better for the earth, or your pocketbook? Tires that are over inflated are also more prone to failure, and the priority of every driver should be how *safe* their car is, for themselves, and others (yes, I mean you huge SUV drivers)

  3. Schwinn says:

    I'm not so sure about the pickup-truck suggestion – the idea that a mesh gate is better has been "busted" by Mythbusters on TV, as well as numerous other sources. See: http://www.dailyfueleconomytip.com/aerodynamics/f

    The comment by "Lono" suggests there may even be some other scientific testing to prove that the gate-up is the best way to be, aerodynamically.

    Given this error, I, too, would like references to your #2 statement, as Adam has requested.

  4. […] Based on figures from the DOT, NHTSA and AAA, the Autochannel tallied up the numbers and came to the conclusion that 2.8 Billion gallons of gas were wasted due to underinflated tires. Tires underinflated by 7-10psi could decrease fuel efficiency by up to 10 percent, making the average vehicle burn an extra 44 gallons a year. In other words, use that tire gauge. Here are some other tips on how to get better mileage. […]

  5. Ysbrand says:

    You might try replacing the air in your tires with Nitrogen. Most of the larger tire dealers in Oklahoma have Nitrogen generators at their shops. This will give you at least a one mile per gallon increase and extend the life of your tires. Aveage cost is about $20.00 per car.

  6. Schwinn says:

    Nitrogen in your tires could help improve longevity of the tire, as the water and oxygen (both very good oxidizers) can degrade the tire (aka tire rot). Still, if you drive the vehicle enough, this is mitigated by any decent tire since the compound is made with chemicals to counteract that. This is why you don't see many cases of tire rot these days, except on very old tires and insufficiently driven tires.

    As for the MPG improvement, I question the truth in this, as the only "references" I can find are from N2 dealers. Care to point out an independent study confirming this, because it's sounds like snake oil.

  7. Corey says:

    I agree with number 2 regarding a truck and tailgate but, I have to point out that running air in a car or having the windows down have the same result. Only reason I point this out is MythBusters did the experiment using 2 brand new explorers both accelerated to 50mph and one having the windows up/air on and the other having windows down. Both of the vehicles had a full tank and they both had run out of gas within 1 or 2 miles of eachother.

  8. Alex says:

    I have a crazy "sweet spot" in my wrx. At 80 mph is where I get the best mpg. 27 vs. 23 in the city and doing 65 or 70 on the highway. There are "sweet spots". Imagine that….

  9. JR says:

    If you draft a semitrailer or bus by about 3 car lengths it will improve gas mileage up to 30%. Confirmed on an episode of Mythbusters. Now before someone replies and says this is illegal or dangerous, I never said it wasn't,
    I was just stating that it works.

  10. PJ says:

    Drive 60-70 on highway and you will see a huge difference. I started this test about 1 month ago and I am getting 110 miles more on my tank. I am averaging 27 mpg on a V-6 engine. I also keep my tires inflated, which seems to be helping as well.

    I know it's hard to believe, but I tried it and it works. Before my test I drove 80 on the highway and I was averaging 20 mpg if I was lucky.

    The reason I started this test was because of the increasing gas prices. At one point, I considered getting rid of my nice car and stepping down to a compact car. I would of lost a lot of money because my car is fairly new, so I decided to try this test. Now I can keep my V-6 car and still save gas. Oh yea and I won't go broke!

  11. mark says:

    The other thing I have heard you can do to improve your gas mileage is to make sure you have a clean air filter. If you hold it up the filter and can't see light through it, it's time to replace the filter.

  12. Schwinn says:

    PJ: Some vehicles show a big difference at slightly slower speeds, while others don't. The relationship to speed is largely based on aerodynamics, so a truck/van will have a larger affect with respect to speed compared to a car or sportscar.

    In fact, based on your "110 miles more" I would say you drive a truck or other large vehicle. I can tell you in my car, driving about 10-20mph slower does make a difference of about 3 mpg, or about 40 miles per tank… so you can see it's VERY vehicle dependent. (Maybe commuters should stop driving aerodynamically-poor trucks! :) Haha!)

  13. Hubcap says:

    Don't forget mechanical problems. I *doubled* the gas mileage in my '95 Nissan 240. How? I fixed the brakes!

    The rears went metal-to-metal so I decided since I had to replace the rotors–and there was almost 170k on the odometer–I would overhaul the calipers.

    I had no idea the brakes were dragging as much as they were. The car suddenly had a lot more pep and a tank of gas now lasts me two weeks instead of one.

    Those kind of problems build up slowly over time so you don't notice them.

  14. PJ says:

    Schwinn: "You are incorrect, I have a car not a truck!"

  15. Schwinn says:

    PJ – just curious – what kind of car is it, then? That's a big change in mpg for such a small difference in speed, for a car. Maybe it's an aerodynamic "brick" of a car?

  16. amcginn says:

    The following link will take you to a detailed and independent study demonstrating that driving with the tailgate down or off of a pickup has an adverse affect on aerodynamics and therefore, we might presume, on mileage.

  17. PJ says:

    Schwinn: Toyota Avalon 05'

  18. Schwinn says:

    PJ: You got me there. No idea why you're seeing such a large difference in mileage… maybe that particular vehicle is poorly geared, maybe it's losing power at higher revs, who knows… all I know is that it's very different from other vehicles I have experienced – none have shown that much difference (other than large vehicles) for such a small speed difference.

    In any case, the original point stands – it's very vehicle dependent… as evidenced by your car!