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Gas-saving sites miss the obvious

I saw a link today called "Gas Stations Hate Us." It promised money-saving tips. I clicked on it, of course. It had some advice I hadn’t heard anywhere before, like a good credit card for gas rebates, and to fill up in the morning because when it’s cooler, you get more gas per gallon.

It also had some advice on vehicles–it pushed the Toyota Prius, for instance. But it missed something obvious.Now, I have no objections to people trading in their SUVs for a Toyota Prius like the site suggests, on principle. Anything that cuts your fuel consumption is a good thing. The problem with that is there’s a long, long waiting list to buy a Toyota Prius, so you can’t follow that advice. And a lot of people aren’t going to take that advice just because of the Prius’ styling.

But there’s a less drastic way to cut your gas consumption:

Drive the speed limit, and drive nice.

I drive I-70 through St. Louis at least once a week these days. In the course of doing this, I noticed something. An awful, awful lot of people want to drive 70 on I-70. But the best way to find someone who wants to drive 80 on 70 is to pull into the fast lane, speed up to 70, and pass someone. Someone will be on your bumper in a heartbeat. And there won’t be anything you can do about it either, because on the left side, there’ll be people doing 72, 75, or some other speed faster than you, so you can’t even get over.

And of course, once Dale Earnhart gets past you, he floors it for about 10 feet, then slams on his brakes just before he kisses the bumper of the guy who was ahead of you who was doing 72. Then the whole game starts over again, until the maniac gets off the road, either by arriving at his destination or a cop pulling him over. It’s not the latter very often, unfortunately.

The speed limit on the stretch of I-70 that I’m describing is 55 miles per hour, by the way.

I got sick of trying to keep up. So I just pull onto 70, stay as far to the right as I can, and set my cruise control for 55. Sure, people zoom past me. Sure, I get there about five minutes later than I would otherwise. But you know what? I feel a lot better when I get there. I’m less tense.

And my gas mileage jumps. At 70 MPH, my Honda Civic seems to get 32-33 miles per gallon. At 55, I get closer to 38.

I’ve also taken on another habit. My Civic just happens to have a tachometer, so I can look down and get a quick idea of how hard my engine is working. If my engine is doing 3,000 RPMs or more, I back off. My Civic is a light enough car that it can get up to speed even if the engine only does 2,200 RPM. The engine doesn’t work as hard, which saves gas. And I don’t hit the brake pedal as much, which saves gas. And yes, it’s possible to develop a feel for how to keep your RPMs low while maintaining a constant speed. Dale Earnhart won’t appreciate you when he gets right up on you, but if you’re on a stretch of road where the speed limit is 35, do you really need to accelerate to 35 in four seconds?

Now, I’d love to tell people to buy a Toyota Prius. I really would. Because the only way the price of hybrids is going to come down is if more people buy them. But I thought about a hybrid when I bought my Civic. I thought about it long and hard. And this was when gas was $1.35 a gallon and people were bellyaching about it.

My Civic cost me right around $16,000. A hybrid would have cost me around $24,000. That’s an $8,000 difference. Assuming $2 per gallon, which is actually less than it costs today but it makes the math nice, the price difference would buy you 4,000 gallons of gas. That’s enough gas to drive at least 120,000 miles. A lot of people don’t keep their cars long enough to drive that far. And that’s not even the break-even point. Assuming a Prius gets 50% better gas mileage than my Civic (it doesn’t), the Prius doesn’t start paying for itself for another 60,000 miles or so.

I think it’s better to buy the most fuel efficient conventional (or diesel) vehicle that meets your needs for size and space, then drive like you would if there was a cop behind you all the time.

As it sits now, I get about 38 MPG driving that way. If I were better about using fuel injector cleaner and changing my air filter, I might get closer to 40. With better spark plugs and a really good synthetic oil like Mobil 1 or Ams oil, I might get 40. That’s not Toyota Prius territory, but it’s better than some people report getting from their Honda hybrids.

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