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It’s time to reevaluate your choices behind the wheel, since there’s not much you can do about the numbers at the pump.
Gas prices are absolutely wild right now, demolishing historical records for the highest costs ever seen at the pump in the U.S. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), the national average price for a gallon of fuel today is $5.00—up about 62 percent from $3.08 just a year ago. The U.S. set its record high average price for a gallon of fuel on June 14 at $5.01.
Worse still, experts don’t expect the situation to improve until at least November, when you may start to see sub-$4 prices at the gas station. Primarily, Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine is to blame for the steep price hikes, since Russia is a major exporter of oil, but inflation is a culprit, as well.
With that in mind, it’s time to evaluate your choices behind the wheel, since there’s not much you can do about the numbers at the pump. To find the best expert-backed tips for increasing your car’s fuel economy, we spoke with David Bennett, a repair systems manager for AAA.
If you’ve been a little lazy about those lingering trash bags full of donations for Goodwill in your trunk, or you’ve been keeping heavy tools in the bed of your truck from your last side job, it’s time to ditch the dead weight. The more weight in your vehicle, the more rolling resistance it will experience, meaning it will take more work for the car to move, Bennett tells Popular Mechanics. “Whatever you can do to lessen the weight of the vehicle will help you get the best gas mileage that you can,” he explains.
Perhaps you grew up with parents who told you to roll the windows down when it’s warm outside; that may have been sage advice back in the 1960s or the 1970s, but it’s now an idea as outdated as a 1973 Pontiac Grand Am. According to Bennett, it’s more efficient for most people to drive with their windows up, relying on their vehicle’s air conditioning to cool down rather than the breeze.
“Engines are designed better today to be able to handle the load of the air conditioning compressor,” he says. Older cars’ air conditioning systems really did drain on the engine, decreasing your fuel economy, but that’s a relic of the past.
You won’t achieve more fuel economy by putting your car into neutral to coast down the road, Bennett says. Not only is it dangerous to do so—when the vehicle is not in gear, it’s impossible to dodge a car that swerves out in front of you, for instance—but it also won’t save you much fuel, either. All you’re really doing is disengaging the transmission. This is commonly confused with the tip below.
While coasting in neutral to a red light isn’t useful for fuel economy, turning off your engine in situations where you’ll be stopped for more than a single traffic light cycle is a good call, Bennett says; otherwise, you’ll waste gas. So don’t just put your car into park while you’re stuck in traffic due to an accident up ahead—turn off the engine. Newer cars even come with an eco mode that closes the throttle to reduce gas entering the cylinder.
And this really does make a difference: AAA estimates that your engine consumes ¼ to ½ gallon of fuel each hour that it’s idling.
Lead-footed drivers, it’s time to change your ways. Avoiding “jackrabbit stops or starts” is a surefire way to increase your fuel economy, Bennett says.
“As you come up to a stop, take the foot off the gas earlier and allow the vehicle itself to come to a stop, and let the inertia slow you down in lieu of you slamming on the brakes at the last second,” he explains. “You’re not starting in a drag race.”
Fuel economy peaks at around 50 miles per hour, then drops as you continue to speed up. Cutting your highway speed by five to ten miles per hour could increase your fuel economy by as much as 14 percent, according to AAA.
Follow the manufacturer instructions—a placard located on the inside of your driver’s side door—to find your vehicle’s optimal tire pressure, expressed in units of PSI (pounds per square inch). Just be careful not to over- or under-inflate those tires, Bennett warns. Over-inflating causes more rolling resistance, which leads you to use more gas. Under-inflating wears on your tires’ tread, which could cost you more in the long run if you need a replacement.
When you’re at the gas station, be selective with your fuel choice. You should always use the correct octane rating for your car’s specific make and model, according to the manufacturer guidelines in your owner’s handbook, Bennett says. Octane ratings are measures of fuel stability, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
The ratings (see below) are “based on the pressure at which a fuel will spontaneously combust (auto-ignite) in a testing engine,” the EIA says. The higher the octane number, the more stable the fuel. Depending on which gas station you hit, the names for these fuel grades might look a bit different (unleaded, super, super premium), but they all refer to the octane rating:
Manufacturers are increasingly recommending the use of higher-grade octane fuels in newer cars, Bennett says, but if it’s a recommendation and not a requirement, skip it. Sports cars, high-end luxury vehicles, and those with turbochargers frequently require premium octane fuel, for instance, and in those cases you absolutely should use that type of gasoline. But if you drive a regular ol’ sedan, like a Volkswagen Jetta, your owner’s manual will likely list regular fuel as the requirement and premium fuel as a recommendation. Go with the regular fuel, Bennett says, because “you’re not going to see a significant difference” in fuel economy, but the premium gas costs more.
But there’s a major, major caveat here: do not confuse “premium gas” with “Top Tier gas,” Bennett says.
Top Tier fuel is a “premier fuel performance specification developed and enforced by leading automotive and heavy duty equipment manufacturers,” according to the company of the same name, based in Midland, Michigan. Top Tier fuel helps keep your car’s engine cleaner with a detergent additive “that keeps carbon deposits from forging inside the engine,” Bennett says. Look for the TOP TIER™ logo at the pump to find this type of fuel. You can also use the locator tool on the Top Tier website to find the closest retail station that offers it.
This should go without saying, but if you see a check-engine light on your vehicle’s information panel, you need to have the car properly inspected and repaired as soon as possible. “Proper maintenance of the vehicle will ensure that you’re getting good gas mileage as the vehicle is running at its peak performance,” Bennett says.
If you’re lucky enough to have multiple vehicles, drive the one that gets the best gas mileage. So if you have a classic car that you usually take out for a cruise on Sundays, that’s fine, but don’t make it a habit. If you own a motorcycle—and are properly licensed and can take a safe route—you may want to opt for those two wheels, instead, since they get better gas mileage.
As for Bennett? He has two cars in rotation: a 2007 Acura MDX and a 2017 Acura ILX. He drives both equally, he says, since his office is only four miles from his house.
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