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5 Ways to Get Better Gas Mileage Right Now

A few simple steps can help you get the most out of every gallon

silver SUV on the road
Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Improving how many miles per gallon of gas your automobile gets makes a difference to your wallet and to the environment.

It’s easy to increase your vehicle’s mileage when you make a big commitment like buying a new hybrid or bolting on aerodynamic body panels. But even small changes in how you drive and maintain your current automobile can make a difference: Upping your car’s average miles per gallon from 27 to 30, for example, would be like getting every 10th fill-up for free. And if you drive 20,000 miles per year, it would save nearly 75 gallons of fuel.

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“Many consumers consider fuel economy when purchasing a vehicle, but they also need to consider that their fuel economy is heavily influenced by many different factors that are within their control, such as speed and driving style,” says Stacy Davis, the principal investigator of the Fuel Economy Information program at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Try these tips and smart strategies to increase your car’s gas mileage. They add up down the road.

1. Check the tires

The wheels and tires are the feet and shoes of your car, and for all the running around you do, this is a great place to begin when looking to improve your car’s fuel efficiency. Start by checking the pressure on your car’s tires monthly. Many new vehicles will provide this data as part of their information readouts in the car, and a manual tire pressure gauge costs only a few dollars. 

 The pressure is measured in pounds per square inch (PSI), and heat is a major factor. Your owner’s manual will give you a cold PSI rating, which is what your tires should read in the morning before they heat up from driving and friction. Be wary of the myth that over-inflated tires will yield big fuel economy returns. It’s really marginal at best. But under-inflated tires can both lower fuel economy and produce uneven wear.

 Also remember, when the weather turns cold, the denser air will make tire pressure automatically drop. So check the PSI after the first cold snap and add air if necessary. 

 2. Consider a tune-up

If the tires are the shoes of your car, then your motor is the heart and the veins. In the same way a poor diet makes you lethargic, neglecting maintenance means your car is not getting the right diet of air, fuel and spark mixture. A healthy car will run better, and it also knows how to be more efficient with every gallon of gas. 

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If you’re a bit handy, an afternoon tune-up changing spark plugs, wires and the air filter can improve fuel efficiency. A few advanced jobs, like cleaning the mass air-flow sensor or changing a belt can help, too. But don’t feel compelled to do any of this yourself; it’s fine to take these jobs to a trusted mechanic for a general tune-up. 

3. Watch your speed

Those who remember the national 55 mph speed limit days may recall that the first motivation for this was fuel savings. In today’s world, going above the legal 65-70 mph on many interstates will significantly reduce fuel mileage. According to FuelEconomy.gov, there’s an average 14 percent decrease in fuel efficiency from 60 to 70 mph and an additional 15.4 percent decrease when going from 70 to 80 mph. This happens because the vehicle is not only working harder to achieve the extra speed, but it also has to combat additional wind resistance.

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4. Strive for smooth and steady driving

Even if you don’t feel like slowing down, how you get to the higher speeds matters, too. Aggressive stop-and-go driving is asking the car to work its hardest to achieve any desired speed. We all watch our speedometer, but in this case, it’s worth also watching the tachometer. (It’s the other large dial often right next to the speedometer.) Mashing the accelerator to the floor will show a rapid increase, and it’s letting you know that each cylinder is cycling thousands of times more per minute — and each cycle means more fuel is being used. An ORNL study published by SAE International found that “aggressive behavior behind the wheel can lower gas mileage in light-duty vehicles by about 10 to 40 percent in stop-and-go traffic and roughly 15 to 30 percent at highway speeds. This can equate to losing about $0.25 to $1 per gallon.”

5. Get rid of junk in the trunk

If you are one of those people who uses their car like a storage unit, the extra weight can be like driving with an extra passenger at all times. A vehicle that has to work harder will be less efficient. Take some time now to clean out your car, and try not to let things pile up over time. But don’t take weight cutting to an extreme. If you live in a snowy area, for example, then it’s still good to carry your traction-ready kitty litter in the winter. Just don’t forget to take it out in the summer. You can leave the spare tire, but the paint cans will have a better home on the garage shelf. 

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AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

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Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.