Skip These … If You Want to Save Gas

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Getting a car to burn less fuel is actually pretty simple. It boils down to – make it do less work.

Here are five ways to do do that – no hybrid technology required:

* Skip the all-wheel-drive –

AWD may be the most oversold feature for the average motorist since 4WD.

Certainly, AWD can deliver better traction under extreme conditions – including high-performance/high-speed cornering. But most people, most of the time, do not drive under extreme conditions – or even in heavy snow – just as relatively few people ever go seriously off-roading.

In normal driving, most of the time, front-wheel-drive (or even rear-wheel-drive) will get you there just as well – and with less weight, and thus, better fuel economy.

AWD typically adds at least 100 pounds to the curb weight of the vehicle, as well as increases the inertial/frictional load – so it takes more engine power to push/pull the car along.

As a result, an AWD version of a given car will almost always be slightly slower – and its mileage will typically be 2-3 mpg lower.

Unless you drive really fast – or drive in heavy snow, often – AWD is probably something you can live without.

You’ll save money up front as well as down the road – because the MSRP of an AWD-equipped car (when AWD is an option) is usually several hundred dollars higher than the MSRP of the same car with FWD – and sometimes, a lot more than that.

* Skip the aggressive rolling stock –

The wider your tires – or the more “knobby” the tread (for 4×4 trucks and SUVs) the higher the vehicle’s rolling resistance. Higher rolling resistance equals lower fuel economy. People seem to like the looks of huge (wide and tall) wheel/tire packages, but if you want to save some coin, stick with the smaller wheel/tire package when possible.

Also aggressive sport (and off-road) tires tend to wear out faster – and cost more to replace – than standard tires. You pay more to buy specialty-type tires – and they cost you more to drive every time you get behind the wheel. The reality is many (probably most) of the cars equipped with such tires are used for normal everyday-type driving – just getting from “a” to “b.” If you don’t routinely drive faster than 100 mph, or routinely dive into corners at 20 mph over the recommended maximum speed – then you really don’t need (and won’t miss having) high-performance, speed-rated tires.

Or 19, 20 -inch tires, either.

Ditto M/S-rated “off-road” knobby tires for pick-ups and SUVs. If the Manly Look is worth the higher cost – and increased fuel consumption – go for it. If not, stick with standard all-season tires. It’ll put money in your wallet – as well as save you dollars at the pump.


* Maybe skip the smaller engine –

This one sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me.

When there’s a choice between a four-cylinder and a V-6 (or a V-6 and a V-8) many people assume the larger engine will necessarily be the thirstier one. Usually, that’s true. But maybe not. An overloaded/overtaxed four-cylinder might end up using more gas in real word driving than a six-cylinder engine in the same vehicle subjected to the same type of use.

Consider the example of a compact pick-up truck that offers both a four-cylinder and an optional V-6. On paper, the V-6 uses more gas. But if the four cylinder is chosen – and worked like a Phoenician galley slave – it could be a draw, or even a net loser. Also, over the long term, the life of an overburdened small engine could end up being shorter than the life of a larger engine that isn’t constantly being hammered. If your vehicle lasts a few years longer than it otherwise might have – and hits you with fewer repair/maintenance costs – then you’ve saved potentially thousands of dollars that way. And the bottom line is really all about saving money as much as it is about saving gas.

* Don’t necessarily skip the automatic transmission –

It was once true that, all else being equal, a car equipped with a manual transmission used less gas than the same car with an automatic – mainly because with the automatic, there was an efficiency loss through the slippage of the torque converter. But today’s automatics all have lock-up torque converters – which establishes a physical link between the engine and transmission when the car is cruising along, mostly eliminating the efficiency losses associated with old-tech automatics. Also, today’s automatics have six or even seven (or eight) forward speeds – unlike the three and four-speed automatics of the recent past – designed to maximize the fuel economy potential of the engines they’re paired with. The top gears are often very steep overdrives that cut engine RPMs at 70 MPH highway speeds to 2,000 RPM or less. Modern manuals do that, too. But the automatics shift smarter – and more consistently smart – than most human drivers can and so return better gas mileage. I recently test drove a new 2011 Camaro V-6 with the six-speed automatic and its rated EPA mileage is higher than the same car with the six-speed stick.

So, before you assume the stick version of any new car you’re looking at is the most efficient, check the EPA ratings. You might be surprised!

* Skip the power options – if you can….

Air conditioning and power options hurt fuel economy in two ways: They add weight to the vehicle and they create load on the engine, which then burns more fuel than it otherwise would.

Unfortunately going without AC is no easy thing in most parts of the country. When the roads were not so jammed with cars and traffic – and when cars came with good venting systems (and wing vent windows) you could survive without AC. There are still temperate/moderate areas where it is possible to live without AC – and if you can buy a car without it, you’ll save money on the car and on fuel, too. Ditto weight-adding power options, especially power windows. Each power window requires a heavy electric motor, plus wiring and other secondary stuff. The bad news is, it’s getting hard to find any new car that doesn’t already come standard with power windows.

That plus air bags and other safety-related technologies (including the changes made to parts you can’t see that are necessary in order to meet federal impact requirements) have made the typical new car much, much heavier than its equivalent of 20 years ago. New “economy” cars weigh about 500-800 pounds more than the economy compacts of the late ’70s and early ’80s – which is the major reason why modern economy cars still can’t match the fuel efficiency of the cars that were being built a quarter century ago, despite all the technological advances.

But unfortunately, we can’t skip new cars… though it’d be nice if we could lighten them up some.

Throw it in the Woods?








  1. Toms post makes me want to cry,I bet I could work on this car and keep it going for years.Speed kills,mileage(just as it does brakes)How come we cant teach drivers to march? the time the”train” gets moving the lights already changed,just to be difficult I love the old timed lights,because in a place like Salem,VA you could hit one light and run the speed limit and go all the way through town without stopping again,the old timey lights were a lot more truck friendly.
    Some Clovers gripe about sitting at lights when there is no traffic,there is a simple solution’ when there is no one around and its safe,go for it. The comment about the @#$%worldlers is hitting pretty close to the mark,I’m glad I won’t be around when this country hits a billion,what are people going to do when there are no more rich sort of free nations to run to?
    And finally English should be our national language,put it on a referendum tomorrow,if immigrants dont like it,then throw it in the woods-Kevin

    • Kevin, I come to a complete stop when I simply can’t avoid it. It’s a holdover from being a truck driver(and still am). I once drove 600 miles without the ability to disengage the clutch. It was a matter of timing and really didn’t cost much time. I recently had the clutch linkage break on a big KW just as I was going to leave a quarry with something well over legal weight. Luckily, the engine didn’t stall(I really wouldn’t have expected it to since on an 18 wheeler you’re pretty much engaged or not)and I left the pit and drove to town through a few stop signs I wouldn’t have stopped for anyway given good traffic conditions(and you make those often, just watch to let traffic go by before getting there, and yes you may have to brake early and use a very low gear but it’s worth it). On site, I just stopped by letting it roll to the point I wanted and waited to unload when I had the new linkage.

      This would be a great lesson for every driver on the road. Makes no difference if I’m driving the car or the pickup, I unconsciously time things to not stop…..ever…..if I can manage it. I use downhill to my advantage also and that’s a big plus. I’ve come out of a place I loaded many times in 1st and let the downhill and impetus allow me to next use 5th and have to keep it there to slow for a turn. I could be a super-miler easily if my foot weren’t so heavy. I don’t have any qualms of using every ft./lb that 14 L diesel has to ball the jack. Please don’t pull out in front of me and make me do the unthinkable, use brakes. When my headlights come on, don’t just zone out and think I’m gonna slow down behind you if nobody’s coming in the other lane. I want to scare hell out of you for doing something that stupid. Really, it’s often not a matter of slowing down by choice. Physics is not changeable.

      My wife’s been pushing my right hand down for 45 years since I will reach to grab another gear no matter if I’m driving a car with an automatic, just habit. I get to the downhill or uphill and want to change gears. I’ve shifted out of OD in my pickup so many times I can’t recall just because I had reached an rpm that would allow me to grab another gear. Nothing like an old Spicer 5X6 to keep a guy entertained.

  2. I drive an old 86 Jetta diesel. I keep up with maintenence, keep my tire pressure at the sidewall recommendation, and in the summer I get 65mpg @55mph without the a/c on. In the winter I get 50mpg. Old diesel technology in a car that only weighs 2100 lbs.

  3. Plus a lot of mandated government features that add so much to the cost of a car.How about more truck only routes and more railroads?Yes, we really have enough people in the country now,I do wish some of the people that insist on having 10-12 kids would pause and consider the amount of resources each person needs to have a decent life style(if you want a large family consider adoption,children are children,blood can be selfish)-Kevin

  4. Hi,
    I was curious if you think it’s possible a car without AC might actually use more gas because of the drag created through ventilation, especially when all of the windows are down? Just a thought I had when I read your article.

    Thanks, Donnie..

    • Hi Donnie –

      The answer is… it depends.

      Older cars (for example, my ’76 Pontiac) had these huge – and power consuming – AC compressors that put such a load on the engine you could literally feel it when you turned on the AC. Newer cars have much more efficient systems. Still, any engine-driven accessory is going to increase fuel consumption. The question at hand is whether that consumption is negated by the decreased aerodynamic efficiency at speed (by having the windows down, especially). I think you’d have to establish this on a case by case basis as vehicle aerodynamics vary considerably.

    • I think on the average car this is absolutely true at highway speeds. AC on and windows up is more fuel efficient than windows down and AC off. Of course we could go on to say outside vent on and windows slightly cracked would be even more fuel efficient. Basically what Eric said.

  5. Good points. To that I would add the following:

    1. Don’t overbuy for your needs. Don’t get that nice SUV when a wagon will do the same job YOU need done but at a lower cost and better gas mileage. Even consider a minivan, since they have more interior room than the largest of SUVs but are generally cheaper to buy, fuel, and insure. And many of them have nearly 300hp and can outrun a lot of 70s era muscle cars. 

    2. Front wheel drive is the king of fuel economy. Just as AWD reduces gas mileage vs 2WD, on average, rear wheel drive is worse than front wheel drive. The driveshaft on a RWD car typically adds weight and rotational inertia that FWD cars don’t have. It’s one of the reasons cars trended to FWD in the 80s to achieve mandated fuel economy standards. The fuel mileage disparity between AWD, RWD, and FWD has been cut dramatically in the past 20 years, but it can still be significant. 

    3. Lose weight. Not just around the middle but in the car, too. Don’t carry around that toolbox or that spare set of dumbells just to have them handy. Clean out the trunk, back seat, etc. I tend to be bad about this (tools, not weights) since I tend to have the “be prepared” mentality. the best way I’ve found to deal with this is to keep a very basic set of items in my vehicles at all times (simple toolkit, flashlight, etc) and then take a modular approach to other things. If I’m going off road, I have a bag full of tow straps, block and tackle, etc that I can put in the truck. It probably weighs 80 lbs. but I only need it occasionally. I have a more extensive toolkit that I can put in the back when I am going to work on something. I have a bag of tie downs for when I’m helping someone move. I even have a bug out box that I can throw in the back at a moment’s notice. Altogether, that’s like carrying around about another person’s weight, yet by only taking it with me when I need it, I keep things light. 

    4. Do the math. Yes hybrids get better gas mileage, though not as much better as you’d expect, but they cost a lot more than otherwise comparable models that are not hybrid since you only have to pay for one engine, not an electric motor, too. Calculate the cost difference between the hybrid and the non-hybrid, do the math to determine how many miles you’d have to travel to break even on gas money saved to account for the cost difference, and you’ll be surprised that, more often than not, a hybrid is a worse deal than a sports car. The same calculation should be made for diesel vs gas power. Even though diesel gives a consistent 20-30% bump in mileage, it costs a little more at the pump and initial purchase price is higher. 

    5. Keep it old school. Do you REALLY need that new car? Can you buy used? Better yet, can you make your paid off current car go on a bit longer? It’s almost never a better deal to get a new car vs used, and most people are financially better off sticking with what they have. The difference in gas mileage between the new car and your current one may sound tempting, but when you calculate how much gas you could buy for the money you spent on a new car vs fixing your old one, it hardly ever works out in your favor. 

    All of this is considering the financial aspect of the gas saving equation as the top priority. There are, of course, lots of other value judgments that influence such decisions. That’s free market choice, and that’s good.

    But I sure do miss the wing vents. 

    • good points to think about regarding buying a new car vs keeping the old car.

      I also miss wing vents.

      My cousin’s CV special (citroën from the 60s) did not have wing vents, but it had a vent that opened beneath the the windshield. When the vent was opened you received a nice breeze.

      That car was amazing to me. I could not drive it since the seat was not adjustable and my legs were too long. Otherwise it was a fun car to drive on a daily basis.

      • I used to have a (restored) ’64 Corvair. It had an excellent ventilation system (including wing vents) that made driving it without AC not only possible but pleasant. So long as you weren’t caught in gridlock, there was enough air coming intot he car that you felt comfortable, even wearing a business shirt and tie.

        It’s gridlocked traffic that has made having AC an essential – just another cost of too damn many people …. especially too damn many Clovers!

        • “just another cost of too damn many people”

          Eric I’m starting to worry about you keep making too much sense, and that is NOT politically correct.

          In 1999 the US Census projected that there would be ONE BILLION people living in the USA by end of THIS century, the 21st.

          Heck the Amish can’t even find affordable farmland anymore and have to take up JOBS in outside industry that is how crowded the US is NOW.

          Back in the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin pointed out that the less crowded the country, the lower the land prices and the higher the wages.

          • Hi Ron,


            When I was born in the late ’60s, the population of the US was less than 200 million. In my lifetime – 40 something years – we have added more than 100 million people. Instead of having a few crowded metro areas (NY, LA) as when I was a kid, we now have congealed Masses in almost every state. The worst part is a great portion of the increase comes from Turd Worlders whose culture is at odds with the Western/Classical Liberal tradition upon which this country was founded.

          • immigration has been used by the ruling class in the USA for about a century and half now… maybe more. On top of that people (in general, with some exception) leave a place and then do exactly the same things in the new place that eventually caused them to leave the old one. Some day perhaps people will learn to rule themselves and try not to live at the expense of others.

            The problem on the roads with a lot of people is the ass-backwards teachings of american driving. The existing roads should have a much higher throughput, but people don’t know how to drive properly. The part of Germany I experienced wasn’t bombed in WW2, but there what was probably some cart path in 16whatever flows automobile traffic better than huge arterial roads where I live. But when government teaches people to wait two seconds after the car in front of them moved to start moving themselves… well throughput is going to suffer.

            In the 1980s cars stopped being designed for airflow. The natural cooling in my ’73 with the quarter panel vent windows open is great… my ’97 those windows don’t open.


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