Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tips on saving gas for summer driving season

Gas gauge getting awfully close to empty.
Gas gauge getting awfully close to empty. iStock

(MCT) -- As the summer driving season begins in earnest, keeping an eye on your fuel economy can put dollars in your pocket.

The folks behind the invaluable website Fueleconomy.gov - the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency - offer some new tips.

First is a new feature that lets you get a detailed cost estimate of your trips and compare the cost of different routes and vehicles. Called My Trip Calculator (http://www.fueleconomy.gov/trip), it's full of surprises.

For instance, fuel for a family trip from Birmingham, Mich., to the Cedar Point amusement park would cost $14.93 in a 2014 Honda Accord, $20.77 in a 2014 Chrysler Town & Country minivan and $12.34 in a 2014 Chevrolet Cruze diesel compact.

There's one surprising omission in the site's calculations: It expects you to estimate what percentage of your trip is highway versus city driving, rather than using the mapping database for specific figures. (Based on the route directions, I told it to assume 85 percent highway for the Cedar Point trip.) Despite that oversight, the site allows you to compare the cost of different vehicles and routes.

You can also program multiple stops. If, for instance, you continued from Cedar Point for a weekend at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the cost rises to $47.93 in the Accord, $66.70 in the minivan and $39.66 in the Cruze diesel.

FuelEconomy.gov also offers tips to maximize the miles per gallon of hybrids, electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

Among the suggestions:

-Keep EV and plug-in batteries fully charged. Contrary to popular opinion, frequent charges to top off lithium-ion batteries do not reduce a battery's storage capacity or shorten its life. Full charges also maximize the distance plug-ins cover before their gasoline engines take over.

-Avoid hard braking. Steady, gentle braking maximizes the amount of regenerative energy that's pumped back into the batteries.

-Use the economy mode. It seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people don't. The econ mode affects other systems, particularly climate control and acceleration, but you won't know if the change bothers you unless you try it.

SO THAT'S WHAT THE LITTLE PICTURE OF A TIRE IS FOR: Few things a driver does have a bigger effect on fuel economy than proper tire inflation. The tire pressure monitors that have been mandatory on all new vehicles since model year 2008 should make that easy, but a whopping 42 percent of drivers have no idea what the tire pressure warning means, according to Schrader International, a supplier of sensors.

U.S. government statistics say underinflated tires lead to 660 deaths and 33,000 injuries annually. Correct tire pressure improves fuel economy 3.3 percent, but American drivers waste 3.5 million gallons of gasoline a day because of under-inflated tires.

MINI'S BIG IDEA: Meanwhile, Mini delighted many observers by dropping a few clues about how the retro small car brand may end the lookalike nature of its current cars and SUVs.

Minis offer great handling and impressive fuel economy, but it's tough to offer seven or eight different models when your brand's identity relies on copying the look of a single classic design.

Imagine if every Chevrolet had to look like a '57 Bel Air, or if Porsche forced the Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan to look like the 1963 911 sports car. On second thought, don't.

Mini's new idea appears to hinge on building a range of small cars with retro looks borrowed from a variety of sporty old models.

The charming Mini Superleggera concept roadster explores the idea. The little convertible's headlights and grille recall the original Mini, but it's clearly a new and different car. The stretched hood, long wheelbase and a trunk all break new ground for the brand.

Credit the concept's Italian flair to Touring Superleggera, the independent design house Mini worked with. Mini hasn't announced any plans to build the Superleggera, but executives seem enthusiastic about the new vision.

Mark Phelan Detroit Free Press