Increasing Fuel Economy: Tips, Tricks, and Myths

Following these tips may save you money on gas and help the environment too

Gas Tank Empty / Increasing Fuel Economy: Tips, Tricks and Myths
Image: NCCC
October 26, 2017

Looking for ways to save money on fuel costs? These days, it seems that everyone is trying to stretch a gallon of gasoline a few extra miles.

There are a number of ways you can get better fuel mileage. We've compiled a list of things you can do to get the most out of your tank and get into the passing lane to save money.

Gasoline Alternatives

The best way to save gasoline is to not use any at all, of course, though this is not an option that most of us can consider. But you can certainly take advantage of gas-free alternatives, especially if you live close to your destination.

  • Walk or ride a bicycle for part (or, if possible, all) of the trip.
  • Take your lunch to work or school so that you don't have to drive for your food or fight the dreaded lunchtime traffic.
  • Drive an alternative-fuel vehicle, like an electric car or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
  • Try carpooling and/or public transit. While not as luxurious as driving your own vehicle, riding with other people limits the total cost to you. The further the distance you travel, the more money you could save. If you are driving less often to work, you may even be able to save on insurance costs.

Shopping for a New Vehicle and Accessories

Vehicles that weigh less typically use less fuel. Many of us buy a vehicle for looks rather than for needs. Next time you're buying a car, think about the following factors:

  • Do you really need all the space an SUV provides? Do you need a grocery-getting pickup truck? Can you get by on a lighter, more efficient and cheaper car? Think about your needs first and then ask yourself whether the extras are really worth it. You will spend far less money in fuel and insurance.
  • Consider the power under the hood. Those 300 ponies sound nice when pushed to the limit, but do you really need it? Vehicles with performance modifications use more fuel.
  • Vehicles with electric power steering pumps get up to three percent better fuel mileage over traditional gear or pulley-driven pumps. Not only are electric systems more efficient than traditional pumps, they are easier to replace, which in turn means lower labor costs. And most don't need any power steering fluid!
  • Smaller tires weigh less and have a lower rolling resistance, which in turn burns less fuel. Bigger and wider tires grip more of the road, but use more fuel.
  • All new vehicles now have cruise control. If you are searching for an older vehicle, make sure it has cruise control. Use it and maintain a constant speed for highway driving.
  • Some vehicles use Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs) that lack the traditional gears found in older transmissions. These constantly adjust engine and transmission speed to give you the optimal balance between fuel economy and power. CVTs yield roughly two to three miles per gallon (MPG) more than traditional four-speed automatics and one to two more than manual transmissions.
  • If you don't have the option for a CVT, consider a transmission with more "speeds." While transmissions with more gears cost more, they are more fuel efficient and much quieter.


Maintenance is the most important way to keeping your vehicle performing optimally. Keep it in shape and it won't be gasping for air (or gas). A properly maintained vehicle can get much better fuel mileage than a poorly maintained one.

  • Keep your tires properly inflated. In vehicles we tested, a five-PSI (pound per square inch) pressure drop resulted in an average 2.4 MPG decrease in efficiency. Check tire pressures weekly when the vehicle has not been moved for at least eight hours.
  • Over-inflating tires past the manufacturer's recommended volume does NOT significantly increase fuel economy. It makes the ride harsher, your tires wear faster, and increases the likelihood of a blow out. The manufacturer has set the recommended tire pressure to account for fuel economy, safety, and proper handling.
  • Use the cheapest type of fuel possible. If your vehicle needs regular unleaded, don't put premium in the tank. Modern vehicles are computer-controlled and automatically adjust for variations in fuel.
  • Replace components as recommended in your owner's manual. Bad spark plugs, air filters, oxygen sensors and the like will make your vehicle run much less efficiently. If the computer is getting a bad reading from one area of the vehicle, it will be giving wrong instructions to the rest of the vehicle.
  • Have your vehicle repaired immediately if any service lights come on in your dashboard. These lights indicate a failure in one of the components relating to fuel and emissions. Under the Federal Emissions Warranty, many repairs to emissions components are free for the first eight years or 80,000 miles.
  • Ask your dealer for an engine computer software upgrade, which is usually free if your vehicle has less than 80,000 miles. The software may be updated to provide more efficient operation, not to mention fix some serious problems. While you're there, the dealer can also upgrade all other modules in the vehicle.
  • Use fully synthetic motor oil in your vehicle. While more expensive, this oil is made from polymers, not crude oil, and results in superior performance, no sludge, better horsepower, and up to three percent better fuel economy. It also lasts longer than conventional oils. Some car manufacturers using synthetic oils recommend service intervals of 15,000 miles or longer.
  • Remember that the weight of a vehicle is not limited to the vehicle itself. The items you put into it also have an effect. Are you driving around with a 200-pound toolbox? Do you still have sandbags in your trunk from last winter? The extra weight adds up: for every 100 pounds of weight, fuel economy drops by about three percent.
  • Aerodynamic drag can kill fuel economy. Reduce wind resistance by removing luggage racks and like items from the outside of your vehicle. If comfortable, keep your windows up at highway speeds to reduce drag even more.

Driving Habits

Did you know that good driving habits can get you better fuel mileage for your car?

  • Don't warm up your car. Instead, get in and drive off normally. Your car will heat up faster and you won't waste gasoline sitting there. According to vehicle manufacturers, the stress an engine experiences from a cold startup followed by ten minutes of idling is equal to 80 miles or more of highway driving.
  • Don't speed. The faster you drive, the more gasoline you use. Most cars get the best efficiency at about 45mph; over that speed, you're just burning more than necessary. Always drive safely.
  • If you own a pickup truck, leave the tailgate up! Keeping your tailgate down while driving reduces your fuel economy by increasing aerodynamic drag. When the tailgate is up, a bubble of air called a vortex is created in the bed. This vortex pushes the air coming over the cab higher, causing it to flow over the top of the tailgate. When the tailgate is left down, the vortex collapses and the air rushing over the cab pushes down on the tailgate, increasing stress and drag.
  • Use overdrive whenever possible. If you have a manual transmission, shift gears sooner and drive in higher gears.
  • Don't accelerate suddenly. Sudden accelerations burn gas and put undo stress, wear, and tear on your vehicle.
  • Avoid rush hour traffic. You don't want to be sitting around, remember; an idling car gets zero MPGs. If you do get stuck in traffic, consider turning your vehicle off if you won't be moving very often.
  • Park in the first available space in the parking lot instead of cruising around for one next to the door. You may walk further, but you'll get needed exercise and save frustration.
  • Plan your trips and consider different routes. Group all of your tasks together so that you aren't driving to Point A, back home, then to Point B and back home again. A certain route may be two miles longer, but it might take the same amount of time and have less stoplights and stop signs, resulting in less fuel usage.
  • Park in a shaded location and use sun shades whenever possible to increase initial comfort when getting into the vehicle during summer and to reduce the load on the air conditioning. If your car is hot, lower your windows for about a minute or two before turning on the air conditioning.
  • Turn off the A/C in cooler weather to save an average of 15-25 percent. Keep in mind that any time your windshield defrost mode is turned on above an outside temperature of 40 degrees, your air conditioner is running automatically.
  • Air conditioning robs the most fuel during acceleration. Try turning it off momentarily while accelerating and turning it back on once you reach cruising speed.

Not all vehicles are created equally and some vehicles will reap better fuel mileage than others. NCCC does not recommend performing any action that can adversely affect the safety of your vehicle or its occupants. Always follow safety rules and laws in your area and follow the recommendations in your owner's manual.

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