If you want to get better gas mileage and save big bucks at the pump, simply changing your driving habits can improve your miles per gallon by 30 percent or more. To illustrate this point, two General Motors fuel economy engineers each drove an identical 2011 Chevy Cruze on a combined city/highway route, each using a different driving style. The 2011 Cruze has an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel economy rating of 26 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. The engineer who drove aggressively turned in an average of 20.5 mpg, while the engineer who employed fuel-efficient driving techniques delivered an average of 37.4 mpg on the same course. That’s a positive difference of 16.9 mpg due solely to driving style!
Many people falsely assume that the vehicle they drive should regularly deliver its official estimated fuel economy rating. The key word here is “estimated.” The city, highway and combined mpg numbers are calculated by running the vehicle through preprogrammed driving cycles on a stationary chassis dynamometer. This test does not completely allow for various human factors, including driving style, as shown by the Cruze example.
This is actually good news: A little bit of human control can go a long way toward meeting or even exceeding a car’s mpg rating. The following 12 fuel-efficient driving techniques are easy to learn and apply. Try these tips for how to get better gas mileage and call upon your competitive spirit to see how much you can improve your vehicle’s gas mileage with each tank.
12 Fuel-Efficient Driving Techniques
1. Light Touch on the Accelerator. Because the accelerator pedal controls how much gasoline or diesel fuel (or electricity, in the case of electric cars) is fed to the engine, it makes sense that a light touch will yield the best mpg. A vehicle is least efficient when it is accelerating, so the trick is to use just enough power to get up to the desired speed quickly enough, without hard acceleration and without prolonging that phase. On the other hand, accelerating too slowly can actually hinder overall gas mileage.
2. Avoid High-Speed Cruising. Wind resistance compounds with speed, meaning high-speed cruising greatly diminishes fuel economy. The threshold for most vehicles at which highway mpg really begins to degrade is at about 60 mph, above which fuel economy drops off at a rapid rate. You can increase mpg by running below the speed limit, but only when it’s feasible and doing so won’t impede traffic or cause other safety issues. Electric cars will see their range drop significantly at higher speeds, so if you feel “range anxiety,” slow down.
Running air conditioning or other engine-powered accessories makes the engine work harder and hurts fuel economy. At slower speeds, roll the windows down to cool off. At higher speeds, however, having the windows down creates aerodynamic problems, so it’s actually better to use air conditioning.
3. Steady and Smooth. After you get up to cruising speed, avoid aggressive use of the accelerator and brakes unless needed for merging or emergency stops. Use just enough pressure on the pedal to maintain a consistent speed. On shorter hills, avoid acceleration up the hill to maintain speed unless you’re in heavy traffic. You can pick the speed back up on the downside of the grade. Many drivers can increase gas mileage by using the cruise control, which maintains a set speed with minimal throttle input.
4. Read the Road Ahead. Increasing your efficiency behind the wheel can also make you a safer driver because it requires careful attention to the conditions ahead of and around the car. Shifting focus farther down the road will allow you to time traffic lights, stops and other potential conditions that can hinder progress. The idea here is to conserve momentum so you don’t need to accelerate back up to speed from a stop. If you see a red light ahead, let off the gas and allow the vehicle to coast. If you see a green light that’s about to turn yellow and traffic isn’t heavy, back off the accelerator so you can avoid braking hard or even avoid braking altogether. These techniques also will reduce brake wear.
5. Coast in Gear. When you do need to slow down, always leave the vehicle in gear. It seems logical that a car idling in neutral would use less gas when coasting, but that’s not true with modern fuel-injected engines. Most have a computer-controlled fuel cutoff that stops the flow of fuel through the injection system, so the vehicle uses no gas at all. In hybrids and electric cars, coasting in neutral will also limit regenerative braking, but most hybrids do provide a good level of electric regeneration when you coast in gear.
6. Use Higher Gears. Modern transmissions save gas via overdrive ratios that slow engine revolutions per minute (rpm) after you’re up to cruising speed. You can also save gas in a manual transmission by shifting to a higher gear a little earlier than normal. Diesels are particularly good at this because they offer a lot of torque at low rpm. An advanced technique is to “short shift,” or purposely shift to a higher gear early, if there’s sufficient torque to do so and you can maintain acceleration.
7. Plan Your Route. It’s amazing how much gas you can save by combining trips and planning the most time-efficient driving route before you go. Use this technique to make sure there is sufficient range before leaving home in an electric car. A route with right turns is generally more efficient than one with left turns because you won’t have to turn across oncoming traffic. Plus, many states allow cars to turn right at red lights, so you’ll spend less time idling.
8. Limit Idling. When a car is motionless and idling, it’s producing zero mpg. If you have a real-time mpg display in your car, you can watch the average fuel economy going down when you’re idling. Gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles shut off the gas engine when stopped for this reason; it seamlessly restarts when the driver takes his or her foot off the brake pedal. Of course, don’t shut the engine off at a traffic light or in other potentially unsafe situations, but if you’ll be idling for more than one minute, you can turn off the engine. Unlike older, carbureted cars, today’s fuel-injected engines don’t require a long warm-up time or much gas to restart. Unless you need heat to keep the windows clear, use a quick start-and-go to save gas.
9. Maintenance for Peak Performance. The two easiest maintenance tips are proper tire pressure (see the next technique) and a clean air filter. A dirty air filter restricts air into the engine and can choke off fuel economy because the engine will have to work harder to propel the car. Check your owner’s manual and follow the manufacturer’s schedule for tuneups and routine maintenance to keep it running at its best. This recommendation also applies to the oil change schedule in the owner’s manual.
Clear the clutter out of your car and trunk on a regular basis, too: Any extra weight drags down fuel economy.
10. Proper Tire Pressure. According to the EPA, tire pressure that’s 1 pound per square inch (psi) low will reduce mpg by 0.3 percent, costing you more at the pump. All tires lose pressure over time and need to be topped off regularly. Check them at least once a month, and use a digital tire pressure gauge to ensure accuracy. (Learn more about tire pressure in Tire Pressure: Use a Digital Gauge and get Better Gas Mileage.)
11. Drive Less. Naturally, the surest way to save gas and save money on gasoline is to reduce how much you drive. You can carpool, ride share, cut out unnecessary trips, and walk or ride a bike instead.
12. Positive Feedback. Keeping track of mpg will help improve your frugal driving skills. Many newer cars make this task easy with a fuel economy function built into the trip computer, and most provide an average mpg display. The most useful tool is an instant mpg readout: It gives real-time feedback to help you learn what hurts your fuel economy. If your car doesn’t have one, you can buy an aftermarket add-on. By keeping records, each time you head out on the road can be a new chance to discover how to get better gas mileage.