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Save Money at the Pump


All rides are gas guzzlers if drivers don't know how to trim fat.

Saving gas is like dieting: It's easy to see what needs to get done, but hard to break old habits.

Gas prices above $3 a gallon provide incentive to drive economically – and you can expect prices to spike further during the summer.

"Sometimes, people just aren't mindful of their driving," says Ronnie Kweller, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of businesses and non-profit groups based in Washington, D.C. "Something as simple as carrying extra weight in the trunk -- golf clubs or a bag of sand for winter driving -- can reduce mileage."

Conservation has three basic components: how you drive, the type of vehicle you drive and how it's maintained.

The most basic money-saving measure: Obey the speed limit. The U.S. Department of Energy says that every five miles per hour you drive over 60 is like adding 15 cents to each gallon of gas. Do the math: If you keep adding miles per hour, you'll subtract miles per gallon – and eventually meet a cop with a radar gun.

Driving a consistent speed will save gas. Shift into high gear when driving at highway speeds and use cruise control when possible. This will cut engine speed, reduce engine wear and save gas.

Don't throw money away on jackrabbit starts and tire-screeching stops. This can cut your mileage as much as 33% on the highway and by about 5% in town. Aggressive driving also increases wear and tear on your car, running up repair costs and turning it into a clunker before its time.

When stuck in traffic, you're getting zero miles per gallon. If you expect to stand still a few minutes, shut the engine off. This is how hybrid cars get good mileage – the engine shuts off when stopped and an electric motor gets the car rolling again. The gasoline engine then kicks in at a pre-determined speed. Hybrid technology isn't fancy, just efficient. Shutting off the engine of a conventional vehicle, rather than idling for long periods, will save you money.

It's easy to make a lot of short trips around town as needed. But with a little thought, you can combine trips and save gas.

If you drive to work, talk to your boss about starting a little early or late. Avoiding the morning and evening crush will save time and gas. Telecommute when possible.

If goofball summer movies are to be believed, families hit the road with luggage piled high on the roofs of their station wagons. This increases weight, and the added wind resistance can cut fuel economy by about 5%. The solution: Put as much stuff as possible inside the car and remove the rack when not in use.

Heavy use of the air conditioner can increase gas consumption by as much as 20%. For some it's too horrible to even consider, but on hot days, roll down windows instead.

Follow the recommended service schedule in the owner's manual to keep your car running in top form and save money over time. Ensuring the engine's tuned will reduce emissions and can save at least 5% on gas. Don't neglect the little things like replacing the air filter at recommended intervals. A fouled one can reduce gas mileage by as much as 10%.

Proper inflation of tires is also central to maintenance. Pick up a tire gauge at an auto parts store and check air pressure once a month. The Department of Energy says soft tires can lower gas mileage as much as 0.4% for every one pound per square inch drop in pressure. Remember: Under-inflated tires will always wear out faster than a properly inflated set.

Don't buy higher octane gas than your car requires. An engine designed to run on 87 octane regular won't perform any better on 92 octane premium. Buy on price – gas is gas.

Finally, think about the type of car you drive.

The long-term cost savings from a car that gets 30 miles per gallon over a car than gets 20 miles per gallon is striking. If you drive 15,000 miles a year and pay $3 a gallon, you'll spend $1,500 a year on gas for the higher mileage car compared with $2,250 for the lower mileage vehicle. Over five years, gas will cost $7,500 for the 30 miles per gallon model and $11,250 for the larger model.

Consumer Reports magazine offers valuable tips on fuel economy and reliability for a range of cars. Also check out the websites of major auto manufacturers. Honda Motor (HMC), Toyota (TM), Ford Motor (F) and General Motors (GM) offer cars that get good mileage.

Careless or inattentive driving will boost the bottom lines of oil companies, including ConocoPhillips (COP), Chevron (CVX) or ExxonMobil (XOM). Saving money on gas involves common sense steps that most folks don't think about. The choice is yours: Pay attention to the small details when driving or pay up at the pump.
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