Ways to help reduce pain at the pump

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Buyers, owners, and drivers have many options when it comes to saving money at the pump.

The way fuel prices are rising, $3-a-gallon regular gasoline will soon have as much nostalgic resonance as nickel beers and 15-cent hamburgers. Obviously, we W-2 twerps have to find ways to counter these spiraling costs.

Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do as vehicle buyers, owners and drivers to cut down on fuel use. Let's take a look:

As a buyer. Remember that vehicle weight is the chief determinant of fuel economy. So, the obvious tactic here is to buy the smallest vehicle that meets your needs. If your family fits comfortably in a compact sedan, why buy a thirstier midsize or large car? Why purchase a full-size pickup if a compact gets the job done?

Engine size is another important consideration. Mileage typically goes down as engine size goes up. Consider, for example, the manually shifted Ford Ranger pickup. It has Environmental Protection Agency ratings of 21 city and 26 highway with the 2.3-liter engine, 16 and 22 with the 3-liter, and 15 and 20 with the 4-liter.

So, here again, you want to think small.

And, unless your need for speed exceeds your need to save money, you should stop thinking about performance-enhancing devices such as turbochargers and superchargers. They can make little engines drink like big ones.

You might also want to consider an alternative to the gas engine, notably a diesel or hybrid. Both get much better fuel mileage than gasoline vehicles but are more expensive to buy, so you'd have to calculate whether the fuel savings during your ownership would exceed the vehicle-cost differential.

Here's something else to think about: There is an engine innovation coming into the marketplace - Chrysler L.L.C., for example, is already putting it in some of its pickups, SUVs and sedans - that, in effect, shrinks the engine to save gas. The Chrysler system alternately shuts down cylinders once the vehicle is up to cruising speed, thus converting the company's Hemi V-8 into a four-banger.

According to Reg Modlin, Chrysler's director of environmental affairs, the system allows a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy.

You also want to think about the type of fuel your prospective purchase uses. Premium gas costs about 20 cents a gallon more than regular. If you drive 12,000 miles annually and get 20 m.p.g., that's an extra $120 a year.

Keep in mind, too, that four-wheel or all-wheel-drive systems increase vehicle weight and friction and, consequently, knock off a couple of m.p.g.s.

As an owner. There are several engine components that can really hurt mileage if they aren't properly maintained. One of the most important is the air filter, according to Pat Regan, assistant service manager at Echelon Ford, in Stratford, N.J. A dirty filter can take 10 percent off your mileage.

Keeping your ignition system in good tune is also crucial. Tired spark plugs hurt mileage. A bad oxygen sensor can effect a 30 percent reduction.

Proper tire inflation is another biggie. If your tires are 10 pounds under the proper pressure, your m.p.g.s are taking a 4 percent hit.

As a driver. Minimize speeding and jackrabbit starts. Those culprits can cut mileage 33 percent.

"As a rule of thumb," says the EPA, "you can assume that each 5 m.p.h. you drive over 60 m.p.h. is like paying an additional 20 cents per gallon of gas."

Another way to save fuel is to jettison unneeded weight. As Chrysler's Modlin puts it, "If you don't need to carry it, leave it at home."

Why? Because every 100 pounds you carry diminishes your mileage by 1 percent to 2 percent.

Here are some more driving practices that save fuel:

Avoid idling for long periods. Your modern vehicle doesn't need a long, wasteful warm-up.

Remember that your air conditioner runs off an engine belt and costs you a mile or two per gallon when it's on.

I know, a mile per gallon increase here, a 4 percent improvement there, it doesn't sound like much. But when you add them all up, we're talking about a lot less pump pain.

How are you saving at the pump? Post a comment.


Contact Al Haas at BusinessNews@phillynews.com.