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Top 10 Tips for Buying a Fuel-Efficient Car

Top 10 Tips for Buying a Fuel-Efficient Car

The Toyota Prius is the darling of the ultra-green crowd, but a few common sense steps will serve any car buyer looking to reduce oil consumption and the environmental impact of driving.

March 5, 2008 —

For many years, new car buyers considered cup holders more important than fuel economy. Forking over three dollars for every gallon of gas has shifted those priorities. The auto industry has responded to the new desire for fuel economy by offering a growing number of fuel-efficient models—not just hybrids. Auto engineers are getting more and more sophisticated, but buying a fuel-efficient car doesn’t have to be rocket science—if you follow these common-sense shopping tips.

1. Analyze Your Needs

Before you get your mind set on any particular make or model, it’s important to take a step back and consider why you drive. Are you looking for a car primarily to commute to and from work? Or is it a second car for quick errands around town? How many passengers do you usually carry? Shopping for a car that meets—but does not exceed—those real needs is an essential first step toward fuel efficiency.

2. Choose a Right-Sized Vehicle

After an honest self-assessment of how you’ll use your car or truck, it’s time to think about the vehicle size (commonly referred to as “segment”): SUV, Minivan, Pickup Truck, Crossover/Wagon, Midsize Sedan, Compact, or Subcompact. Why is segment important? Because when it comes to fuel efficiency, size matters. Bigger vehicles weigh more than smaller ones—and vehicle weight is the single biggest setback for fuel efficiency. A heavier vehicle needs more power, and thus uses more fuel to accelerate. You’ll be way ahead of the fuel economy game if you “right-size” your vehicle.

3. Choose a Right-Sized Engine

You might imagine yourself as Jeff Gordon or Danika Patrick on your morning commute, but the amount of horsepower required for your daily needs is well below NASCAR standards. In almost all cases, a smaller engine will result in greater fuel economy. Giving up a few horsepower can mean serious gains in fuel efficiency. The key stats are the number of cylinders and the amount of engine displacement. For maximum fuel efficiency, select a four-cylinder vehicle over a six-cylinder, or a V6 over a V8. With engine displacement, as in golf, low scores win.

4. Research the MPG of Specific Models

With a short list of a few models in hand, you can boil down your research to one statistic: the window-sticker MPG rating supplied by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Be aware that EPA numbers are likely to be inflated compared to your real-world mileage. Nonetheless, those numbers are very useful as points of comparison. As you walk through the showroom, take note of the MPG ratings of the various vehicles on your shopping list.

5. Consider a Hybrid

When gas-electric hybrids were first introduced to the American market, they were viewed as science projects. No longer. In 2007, more than 300,000 shoppers are expected to buy a Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid or one of about a dozen available hybrids. The growing popularity of hybrids is directly related to the technology’s ability to save fuel. In any segment—from compacts to SUVs—hybrids are at the top of the list for fuel efficiency. You’re likely to pay a little bit more for the hybrid system; however, many consumer information organizations, including Consumer Reports, report payback periods on the premium of less than five years for the most efficient hybrids.

6. Consider Diesel

Diesel vehicles operate more efficiently than their gasoline counterparts, because they use higher compression ratios and higher combustion temperatures. The efficiency advantage is enhanced by the fact that a gallon of diesel fuel contains about 10 percent more energy than a gallon of gasoline. These two factors help modern direct-injection diesels achieve roughly 50 percent higher fuel economy than gasoline engines. That’s a big reason why diesel vehicles now account for nearly half of all new vehicle sales in Europe. Diesel still carries a black smoke stigma for many American car buyers, but that’s changing. For now, there are only a handful of diesels, some of which are not available in all 50 states because of strict emission standards at the local level. But expect greater choice in diesel engine vehicles in the next few years.

7. Avoid Gas-Guzzling Vehicle Options

After you select a vehicle segment, and a specific make and model, you’re still not done. If you have a choice between two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive versions, opt for the two-wheel drive. When is the last time you drove a stick shift? Going with manual transmission will earn fuel economy points. And remember that anything adding weight to the base vehicle will result in lower fuel efficiency. Rooftop luggage racks, kayak holders, and ski racks add weight and reduce aerodynamics.

8. New Beats Used

As your car ages, so can its ability to squeeze more miles out of a gallon of gasoline. If your budget allows, purchase new rather than used. Newer cars are more likely to use advanced technologies, such as camless systems, low friction lubricants, idle-stop, and cylinder deactivation, which shuts down cylinders when not needed. Of course, late model used cars can also feature many of these technologies—and can be a great value. Older cars should not be dismissed out of hand. Purchasing used simply means that you need to be careful that the vehicle has been well maintained.

9. Plan Your Shift to Low-Resistance Tires

Don’t just kick the tires. Think about swapping them out with a low-resistance option. The tire offered by the manufacturer is a compromise designed for the widest range of customers. Fuel efficiency aficionados know that tires with lower rolling resistance have a big impact on mpg. See if the dealership will sweeten the deal by making the switch for you. Decreasing the resistance by 20 percent could raise mileage by as much as five percent. No matter what kind of tire you use, proper inflation is essential. For every three pounds below recommended pressure, fuel economy goes down by about one percent.

10. Maintain Your Investment with Good Driving Habits

The EPA window labels say “your mileage may vary” for a reason. The way you drive is every bit as important as what you drive. First of all, don’t speed. Driving 65 mph instead of 75 mph will increase your fuel economy by about 10 percent. In addition, avoid "jack rabbit" starts and anticipate stops. Flooring the gas pedal and speeding up to a red light is a waste of gas. After spending your hard-earned dollars on a fuel efficient vehicle, you don’t want to see your investment get wasted on unnecessary trips to the pumps.

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