Will Buying a Gas-saver Save You Money?

“I don’t want to pay $100 for a tank of gas!”

We at Driving Today have heard consumers say that over and over in the past few weeks, and many of them are acting on it by ditching their current ride and buying a new vehicle that offers better miles per gallon. They’re saving money, they think. But are they really?

Certainly with fuel prices at an unprecedented and painful level, many people are looking for ways to save. And the general media is pouring gasoline on the flames with its ongoing coverage of the fuel price issue. But as a rational consumer, there is a question you should ask yourself: Do you want to save fuel, or do you want to save money? And while at first blush, they might seem like the same thing, they can actually be very different. The good news is that there are simple, cost-effective things you can do to save both fuel and money. The bad news is that they are not the most obvious steps people are taking today.

Let’s take a long hard look at the idea of replacing the car you drive today with a new model that gets better fuel economy. That seems an obvious money-saver, but even if you go from a notorious gas guzzler to a super-mileage champ like a Toyota or Honda hybrid, while you will certainly save gas, you are very unlikely to save money. Why? Because you are almost always better off financially keeping your current vehicle than buying a new vehicle. The reason can be summed up in one word: depreciation. Very likely your current ride has already taken a huge value hit in depreciation, but at the same time, it likely has a great deal of useful life left in it. To this, when you factor in the losses in passenger- and cargo-carrying abilities that you are likely to suffer, and the premium prices hybrids are commanding in today’s marketplace versus conventional vehicles, what seems like an obvious money-saver becomes a pretty serious money-loser.

From a strictly dollars-and-cents point of view, you are far better off to look into keeping your current vehicle and optimizing its fuel economy with low-cost maintenance items. For example, experts recommend that consumers strategically invest in short-term maintenance tactics to achieve long-term savings from improved engine efficiency and fuel mileage. Specifically, replacing air filters, fuel filters, oxygen sensors and spark plugs will help boost fuel mileage. And usually this efficiency increase will be more than enough to offset their modest costs.

Properly cleaning, maintaining and replacing air filters when necessary will ensure better air flow through the entire engine system. Since an engine is essentially an air pump, this simple step to help it “breathe better” will improve engine efficiency and result in more power and better fuel mileage. According to a recent EPA study, air filters can increase fuel mileage by as much as 10 percent, and the EPA estimates that the payback for replacing a clogged air filter may amount to more than 25 cents per gallon, based on current fuel prices.

In addition to a free flow of air, efficient combustion also needs a well-regulated flow of fuel and strong, consistent spark. When fuel filters become plugged, sensors signal a car’s computer to send more fuel into the engine, resulting in poor fuel economy, emission testing failure and engine system wear. Regular cleaning of fuel filters will help reduce consumption by not triggering the sensors. Spark plugs are subjected to extreme conditions in the engine’s combustion chamber, which can result in the engine misfiring and fouling. Replacing spark plugs at regular intervals will help keep the engine operating at an optimum level, while improving fuel economy and reducing emissions.

Finally, properly functioning oxygen sensors, which regulate airflow into the engine, are good for the environment and can save hundreds of dollars in fuel costs over the life of the sensor. Replacement intervals for oxygen sensors are similar to those for spark plugs and range from 30,000 miles to 100,000 miles, depending upon the type of sensor. U.S. Department of Energy studies and others have shown that replacing worn oxygen sensors can increase fuel mileage by up to 40 percent.