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Rising fuel prices have motorists continually looking for ways to get the most out of every gallon of gasoline.

A couple of states on the West Coast have already hit the $3 per gallon mark. Although analysts don't think a majority of the country will see that high of a price before the start of summer, the gloomy prospects have many motorists looking for ways to get the most out of every gallon of gasoline.

One driver, Jim Schmidt, told about his "death-defying experiment" last year on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. He said he drove his 2001 Toyota Corolla for 195 miles at just 45 miles an hour—so he could see what kind of mileage he got.

Schmidt calculated he used only 3.376 gallons of fuel in his subcompact Corolla, "which means I averaged 57.7 miles per gallon" on this highway run, he said. This contrasts with the official federal government highway fuel economy rating for a 2001 Corolla only as high as 41 mpg.

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The downside, though: Schmidt felt he was "almost . . . killed by several tractor trailers" that came up fast on his slow-moving vehicle. Schmidt's results as well as his focused—some might say risky—driving behavior on busy roadways illustrate how much effect driving habits can have on fuel economy.

Indeed, many of the recommendations from automotive engineers about improving fuel economy have to do with drivers changing their behavior.

Experts such as Eric Kaufman, engineering manager for fuel economy and drive quality at General Motors Corp., don't necessarily advocate driving on the freeway at the minimum speed of 45 mph.

It might, as Schmidt wrote, create some perilous situations with other drivers out there who want to travel at faster speeds.

But automotive engineers do have lots of other helpful advice, which Kaufman shared in an interview.

"Throwing Away Energy"

Kaufman's training as an engineer taught him to look at vehicles as well as driving, itself, as a use of energy. He's confident that with careful, "fuel-conscious driving behaviors," a driver of any kind of vehicle might be able to save a considerable amount of energy, perhaps "as much as a tank of gas every other month."

His tips for improving fuel economy start with the obvious:

  • Plan your trips and driving routes to avoid traffic congestion. Backed-up traffic and redundant trips cause you to be on the roads for a longer time, burning more gasoline.
  • Accelerate evenly and drive smoothly so you keep abreast of traffic but aren't putting on the brakes frequently. "Any time you hit your brakes, you're throwing energy away" in a traditional gas-powered vehicle, Kaufman said.
  • Use cruise control when traffic conditions allow because it "will smooth out the transitions" and help maintain an even speed.
  • Don't carry more than you need on your vehicle. For example, rooftop cargo carriers, no matter how aerodynamically shaped, will detract from fuel mileage by creating drag, he said.
  • Get rid of things inside the vehicle you don't need for your trip, such as sports equipment stored in the trunk. Kaufman estimates there's a "2 percent penalty" in fuel economy for every extra 100 pounds of cargo and people in a vehicle.
  • Make sure your vehicle is properly maintained. This includes keeping the air filter clean, getting regular oil changes and, most especially, routinely checking to ensure tires are properly inflated. Underinflated tires can tax fuel economy by as much as 10 percent, he said.

Other Things to Consider

If you drive a pickup truck, keep the tailgate closed and don't replace the tailgate with netted fencing. According to Kaufman, a lowered tailgate or a tailgate that's replaced with netting result in the same problem: Extra air turbulence at the back of the vehicle that causes drag and reduces fuel economy.

On the other hand, a tonneau cover over the pickup bed in the back of a truck can help fuel economy by lessening the drag from air being buffeted into and around that open bed, he said.

Kaufman doesn't believe it's necessary to use a different kind of engine oil from what the manufacturer of your vehicle recommends.

He noted that at GM, vehicles are developed for use with a certain oil quality "to get the right balance between fuel economy and vehicle reliability, so the oil we list [for each vehicle] is good."

While it may be tempting to tuck closely behind a semitrailer and drive in the turbulence-free air back there, don't. Tailgating is dangerous, because for it to really be effective, a driver needs to be really close to the back end of the vehicle ahead. And this does not allow enough space for emergency maneuvers, Kaufman said. It's also an extremely fatiguing exercise for the driver.

Generally speaking, it's better to keep the windows closed as you travel. "Open windows create drag" because the air cannot flow smoothly around the vehicle, he said.

Still, Kaufman said drivers need to understand that accessories, such as air conditioning and even headlights and rear defroster, are energy users and can affect fuel economy. So he suggests limiting the use of some accessories, if possible. For example, he said once a back window is free of ice, a driver should turn off the rear defroster. A driver also can turn off the air conditioning once the interior of a vehicle reaches a comfortable temperature, he said.

Still More Fuel Economy Tips

Many car owners like to modify their vehicles. Unfortunately, this can lead to energy losses, too.

According to Kaufman, installing wider or bigger tires on a vehicle can drop fuel mileage because both kinds of tires change the vehicle's aerodynamics, and both typically add to the mass of the vehicle at each corner. With more mass to move, the engine needs to use more fuel.

Bold light racks look cool on the roofs of some sport-utility vehicles and trucks, but they can contribute to drag and reduce fuel economy, Kaufman said.

Don't use lift kits to boost the height of your SUV or pickup. Besides the fact a vehicle's height is maximized for fuel economy, safe handling as well as design by the auto manufacturer, Kaufman noted that in fuel economy, "generally speaking, lower is better."

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