Mechanic Offers Fuel-Saving Tips

Goodness gracious, gas is expensive! These days, gasoline is running in the $3.20 per gallon range in many parts of the country, and some pundits are even predicting $4 per gallon by the middle of the summer.

Short of buying a Prius hybrid, there are several ways you can increase your vehicle's fuel economy without breaking the bank. One expert on the subject, Kit Johnson, is the 2007 NAPA Technician of the Year and hails from East Helena, Mont.

"Gaining more fuel efficiency from your vehicle is not an easy task -- it takes a concerted effort to increase the number of miles achieved per gallon," said Johnson, who doesn't talk much like a mechanic. "In many instances, common sense is the fuel efficient way to go. Start with two strategies: better driving habits and car maintenance."

Some strategic planning involving your driving can reduce the amount of miles driven and strain on the engine -- both big users of fuel. So placing some of your efforts in that area can pay big dividends. First, plan ahead. When going out to run errands, map an efficient route to handle all of your tasks in one trip and not backtrack. Added miles and/or added trips mean extra expense.

When you are driving, there are several things you can do to improve fuel economy. Among them, try to predict the flow of traffic. In heavy traffic, do your best to avoid constant accelerating and braking -- without running into anybody, of course. Research suggests that driving techniques can influence vehicle fuel efficiency by as much as 30 percent. Getting on and off the gas pedal frequently blows dollars out your tailpipe. And it is interesting to note that observing the speed limit can have a significant impact on fuel usage, too. With most vehicles, increasing your speed from 55 mph to 65 mph will increase fuel consumption by about 20 percent, but it won't improve your arrival time by 20 percent.

Another tip: don't drive with your windows open. This is especially true in the winter, when you'll burn more fuel trying to keep the interior of the vehicle warm.  But even in summer, driving with your windows down drastically reduces your fuel efficiency, far more so than using the air conditioning during highway driving. In the warmer months, Johnson recommends keeping the windows open during city driving and turning the air conditioning on during trips where you exceed 55 mph.

You can also keep some much-needed cash by putting your car on a diet. We hate to tell you this to your face, but your vehicle could stand to lose a few pounds. Those heavy bags of sand and salt you may carry around in your trunk during the winter serve no useful purpose in spring, summer and fall. The extra weight just means wasted fuel and unnecessary emissions. Treat your trunk to a spring cleaning.

Another area of pure waste is something many of us do without thinking -- letting the engine run when we're not going anywhere. Avoid excessive idling. The vast majority of today's newer cars do not benefit from idling for more than 30 seconds before you first get underway. In fact, the opposite is true: In addition to wasting fuel, excessive idling can contaminate engine oil and damage engine components. If you're going to be standing still for a minute or two, turn off the engine. It is a myth that you will waste more gas by restarting the car than by letting it run. That's why today's highly fuel-efficient hybrids have an automatic engine shutoff and restart feature.

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about the environment and fossil fuels.