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DRIVER'S ED | Car Smart

How to Squeeze Every Last Mile Out of That Too-Dear Gallon of Gasoline

April 29, 1999|STEVE PARKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you bought that 6,000-pound sport-utility vehicle with the big V-8 engine, it probably seemed like a good idea. Or maybe you've been a frugal consumer from the start, spending time and money to eke out as many miles per gallon as possible from your little four-cylinder econobox.

Either way, higher gasoline prices are affecting us all. And in Southern California, where the real public "rapid transit system" is the freeway network, gas prices and their rise and fall affect every individual deeply, as perhaps nowhere else in the nation. That's certainly the sentiment that has inspired Friday's "Great Gas Out," a one-day gasoline-buying boycott being organized by community leaders.

Still, the situation in Southern California is not as bad as in Europe and Asia, where prices have traditionally hovered between $4 and $5 a gallon. There, drivers go so far as to turn off their headlights when they stop at red lights to reduce the drain on their vehicles' engines.

Although we haven't yet reached that point in this country, there are lots of things you can do to increase your fuel mileage, whether you're driving one of the popular SUV gas hogs or one of the many cars that can achieve more than 30 mpg. Here's a checklist to clip, study and save:

General Wear and Care

* Check and adjust tire air pressure every week according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Find those numbers in your owner's manual and on stickers located inside the driver-side doorjamb. Over- or under-inflated tires can cost you as much as 15% of your total fuel mileage.

* Run the air conditioning as little as possible. While I know this is tough medicine for all of us in Southern California, it's worth a try whenever the opportunity presents itself. You can gain an additional 5% in fuel mileage by prudent AC use.

* Make sure the car is in tiptop tuneup condition. Most modern cars and trucks with electronic ignition systems perform "tuneups" automatically every few minutes, but it's a good idea to get a diagnostic readout from your dealer on your car's condition--and get a smog check too. Heavy emissions probably mean your engine is burning and wasting raw fuel in the cylinders rather than using it properly to propel your vehicle.

* Adhere to "lightness," as race car engineers do all the time. Your home equivalent of the latest Formula One insider secrets? Clean out your trunk, empty the truck bed and tidy up the storage area in your SUV. People who know tell me that each 100 pounds you can lose in your car equates to an improvement of 0.1 mpg.

* Do you really need to use high-octane gasoline? Try running your car on less expensive lower-octane gas. If the engine does not knock or ping and you don't notice a difference in performance or mileage, keep on using it. If you experience problems, just switch back to the high-octane stuff, but then try alternating tankfuls and see if that works for you.

Automatic Transmissions

Modern electronic automatic transmissions have some controls of which you may be unaware. Here's how to use them to save gas. Check your owner's manual for details on switch location and operation:

* Make certain the overdrive switch is always on. This allows your car or truck to run in the highest gear possible when traveling at higher speeds, saving lots of fuel.

* Many automatics now have controls for an "economy" or "power" setting. When set to "power," the transmission will shift into the next gear at a higher rpm. This will make your car's performance a little zippier off the starting line, but there's no prize money in this race to save dollars, so keep it set to "economy."

* Some imports have an "ice" or "snow" transmission setting that allows the car to start in second gear rather than first. Use it.

Standard Transmissions

Stick shifts generally get better mileage than automatic transmissions anyway, but there are a few things you can do to really leave those automatics in the dust, economically speaking:

* Again, do what the racers do: Short-shift. This means that when accelerating, shift into the next gear at a lower rpm than you normally would.

* When slowing, don't downshift. Put the vehicle into neutral and use the brakes rather than the engine's compression to come to a halt. Not only will this save you gas, but it will also save wear and tear on the clutch and transmission. And brakes, as Formula One racer Jackie Stewart once told me, are cheaper to fix than a worn-out gearbox.

* Forget the Stoplight Grand Prix. If, by giving a little extra gas at takeoff, you can start your vehicle in second gear, you can save fuel. Remember, any time you spin the tires, you're costing yourself money in tire wear and fuel loss.

Other Tricks to Consider

* Synthetic lubricants are slipperier than conventional petroleum products, and some experts say using them can help the engine parts run freer. Theoretically, then, they require less gas to do the same amount of work. You can try them and see, but they may not be worth the expense.

* Any time you can help an engine "breathe" better, you can increase both performance and mileage and even help the engine to work cleaner. You can choose from many quality aftermarket high-performance air filters, and several companies make bolt-on replacement exhaust systems that will help you make the best use of our too-expensive fuel.

Gasoline prices traditionally rise during Memorial Day weekend, so it will be interesting to see if they drop suddenly during the next several weeks, before the seasonal run-up we've come to expect.

*

Steve Parker is the auto expert on KCBS-TV Channel 2 News on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and host of "The Car Nut," a call in program from 7 to 9 a.m. Sunday on KXTA-AM (1150). He can be reached at steve@steveparker.com.

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