You might be cringing every time your car's low-fuel light comes on, but you can stretch the miles between fill-ups this summer by following the money-saving tips and advice below.
Use a GPS navigator or an online mapping service, such as Bing, Google, or Yahoo, to find the most efficient route. Let's say you're traveling from New York to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A quick comparison shows that you'll drive 86 fewer miles and save 2 hours by going west of the Appalachian Mountains on Interstate Highway 81 rather than taking I-95 south through Richmond, Va., and heading west.
Underinflated tires require more energy to roll along, which eats up fuel. They also can affect your car's handling and accelerate tire wear. Make sure your tires' air pressure is set to the automaker's recommended level (see the owner's manual), not the maximum pressure printed on the tire's side. If you need to replace your tires, look for highly rated models with low rolling resistance, which helps fuel economy. Two good bets are the Continental ProContact EcoPlus+ and the Michelin Energy Saver A/S.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fixing a car that is out of tune or has failed an emissions test can improve gas mileage by 4 percent. Replacing a faulty oxygen sensor can boost fuel economy by as much as 40 percent. And using the wrong grade of oil can cut gas mileage by 1 to 2 percent.
If you plan on renting a car, try to reserve one with good gas mileage. For about the same rate, for example, you could get a 26-mpg Nissan Altima instead of a 20-mpg Chevrolet Impala. Or you could get a 32-mpg Toyota Corolla instead of a 24-mpg Chevy Cobalt.
Some GPS navigators and smart-phone apps let you size up local gas prices from your car. Or use a laptop at any Wi-Fi hot spot to search a gas-comparison site such as GasBuddy.com. A Manhattan search in May turned up prices for regular gas ranging from $4.21 to $4.73 at stations about only a half-mile apart. In Santa Monica, Calif., prices at stations about a mile apart ranged from $4.27 to $4.79. Gas prices are often lower at stations affiliated with big-box stores and supermarkets and may be discounted further if you shop at the store. Prices at independent stations can be lower for what is often the same gasoline used in name-brand stations, but sometimes it's formulated without additives designed to clean the engine.
The faster you drive on the highway, the worse your gas mileage will be. We saw the gas mileage in our tested Toyota Camry drop 5 mpg when we increased our cruising speed from 55 mph to 65. Driving at 75 mph cut it by an additional 5 mpg.
Avoid hard acceleration and braking when possible. In our Camry, for example, frequent bursts of acceleration and braking reduced fuel economy by 2 to 3 mpg.
Don't add to your car's aerodynamic drag by carrying things on top of the roof if you don't have to. When we installed a large car-top carrier on our Camry, gas mileage dropped by a notable 6 mpg when we drove at 65 mph.
If your car is designed to run on regular gasoline, as most vehicles are, don't waste your money on premium. It won't make your engine run any better, and the only real difference you're likely to see is about 20 cents more per gallon. Many cars that are designed to use premium gas can even use regular. Check with your mechanic.
After testing several devices that were claimed to improve fuel efficiency, we have yet to find one that provides a significant difference in gas mileage or acceleration. And we're not alone. The EPA's website lists scores of such devices that the agency tested, with similar results.