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RISMedia, June 20, 2011—(MCT)—With apologies to any and all excellent drivers under the age of 20, auto shop teacher Eric Varrelmann has this straightforward advice for motorists who want to save money on gasoline: “Stop driving like a teenager.”

Translation: Avoid sudden stops and starts. Don’t drive aggressively. Slow down.

The return of $4-a-gallon gas has renewed interest in fuel-efficient cars and also called attention to money-saving driving techniques—things that didn’t seem to matter so much when gas had tumbled to more-affordable levels during the recession and its aftermath.

It’s a given that buying a fuel-efficient car makes greater financial sense when gas costs a lot.

Consider, when gasoline costs $4 a gallon, a hybrid that averages, say, 45 miles per gallon and is driven a typical 15,000 miles a year will cost $1,333 for fuel during that year.

A conventional compact car that gets 25 miles per gallon will cost $2,400 for gas to cover those same miles—$1,067 more than the hybrid.

And covering the same ground in an SUV that gets 15 miles per gallon would cost $4,000 for fuel—$2,667 more than the hybrid, and $1,600 more than the compact.

The differential explains why smaller cars helped to drive automakers to improved sales during April as oil and gas prices were surging.

Beyond trading in your car for something smaller or more efficient, there are many tried-and-true methods for getting every possible mile out of every gallon of gas, no matter what kind of car you drive.

“Everyone comes in the door and complains about their fuel economy and what can they do about it,” says Varrelmann, the automotive instructor at Arrowhead High School in Milwaukee, who has been working on cars for 32 years.

The solutions aren’t exciting, but taken together they can make a big difference—hundreds of dollars per year in fuel savings.

Slow Down

Each 5 miles per hour your drive over 60 mph is like paying an extra 24 cents per gallon for gas, when gasoline is selling at $3.96 per gallon, according to the government’s

“Think about sticking your hand out the window at 30 mph and sticking your hand out the window at 70 mph,” says Ted Bohn, a research scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lamont, Ill., and an adjunct engineering instructor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “There’s a lot more force on your hand. That’s the same force that your wheels have to push the car forward, and it goes up exponentially” at higher speeds.

Slowing down a bit also can keep an engine running at its most efficient level. Pushing it harder costs more. “The engine is working harder to maintain that faster speed so it’s going to use more fuel to do that,” says Mark Griffin, service adviser at Hands-On Garage in Milwaukee. “If you decrease your speed, you will save gas. That’s pretty much just a given.”

Check Your Tires

“An underinflated tire is going to have more rolling resistance,” Griffin says. “If you have four tires that are severely underinflated and you air them up, you could save yourself quite a bit of fuel.”

Varrelmann says he and the students in automotive classes push a lot of cars around. He can always tell when a car’s tires are underinflated because pushing it becomes more difficult.

“If it’s hard for me to push, it’s going to be hard for the engine to push as well,” he says.

Change the Oil Regularly

With today’s computer-controlled engines, using the proper oil is important.

“Each engine is designed to run on a designated oil,” Griffin says. “Using the oil that is recommended is going to increase the efficiency of the engine, and in turn is going to increase your fuel efficiency. You might not see drastic numbers, but in watching fuel efficiency, every little bit is going to help.”

Bohn likens the situation to an exam in school.

“Is there anything I can do to get better than 100 percent on an exam? No. But every point that I miss, my score goes down,” he says. “It’s pretty certain that if you don’t inflate your tires, you won’t get expected fuel economy. If you drive aggressively and brake harshly and idle a lot and warm up your car for 5 minutes before you drive, you won’t get the baseline fuel economy—the expected fuel economy. You’ll get less than 100 percent on this ‘exam.'”

Heed the “Service Engine Soon” or “Check Engine” Light

Griffin has seen many drivers ignore warning lights because their car seemed to be running fine. “There could be a thousand different reasons why that light comes on,” he says. “It’s important to have that checked and have that problem fixed so it doesn’t cut into your fuel economy.

“If you have a bad oxygen sensor, your fuel mileage could be really suffering just because that computer on the vehicle isn’t operating at optimum efficiency,” he adds.

That points to the complexity of today’s engines.

“It is a complex puzzle that has to come together,” Varrelmann says.

Don’t Haul Extra Stuff Around

Golf clubs, extra weight that you added for more traction in the winter, the landscape blocks you bought over the weekend then forgot about—all can hurt gas mileage. “The rule of thumb is for every 100 pounds of stuff you carry, (you lose) another mile per gallon,” Bohn says.

Manufacturers have realized this.

“The automakers are just doing everything they can to shave weight off a car,” Varrelmann says.

Additional pointers from
• Avoid excessive idling: “Idling gets 0 miles per gallon,” the site points out.
• Use cruise control: “Using cruise control on the highway helps you maintain a constant speed and, in most cases, will save gas.”
• Plan and combine trips: “Several short trips taken from a cold start can use twice as much fuel as a longer multipurpose trip covering the same distance when the engine is warm.”

Planning, though, is often easier said than done, especially with the frenetic lives many of us lead.

“What’s the easiest way to save fuel on your trip to work? Leave earlier,” Bohn says. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m running late for my meeting. I have to pick it up another 5 to 10 mph.’ If, on your trip, you save maybe three minutes, by driving 10 mph faster, just leave three minutes earlier.”

In the real world, he acknowledges, that’s often easier said than done.

“That’s a hard thing—planning ahead.”