Gas pain

How to fight rising fuel prices - and stay on the road

When gas prices soar, a trip to the pumps may seem more like a stickup than a fill-up. A big hike in gas prices is a powerful reminder to motorists that the freedom and convenience our vehicles give us carries a steep price.

It may be cold comfort to Canadians, but Europeans have long endured pump prices that make even our peak prices look like a bargain. For example, this past January, motorists in the United Kingdom paid an average of $1.80 a litre, French drivers paid $1.53 a litre, Italians paid $1.49 a litre and Germans paid $1.33 a litre.

Europeans cope by driving smaller cars, often equipped with manual transmissions. Gas-miserly diesel engines are also more popular. What can econo-minded Canadians do? Even if you can’t switch what you drive, you can still change how you drive to get the most out of every tankful, even with a gas guzzler.

A poorly tuned engine can increase fuel consumption by up to 50 per cent, according to Natural Resources Canada. A misfiring spark plug alone can reduce fuel efficiency by up to 30 per cent. Follow the service schedule in your owner’s manual and replace parts and fluids at the recommended intervals. Underinflated tires and poor alignment can increase fuel consumption and decrease tire life. Check your tire pressure at least once a month.

If your car was designed to run on regular fuel, using premium won’t turn it into a road rocket. Instead of pampering your car, you’ll just create costly exhaust. Most cars don’t require premium gas. For example, premium gas is required for only 1.1 per cent of General Motors vehicles and is recommended for another 3.4 per cent. Don’t get hosed by the high-grade hype. Use the octane rating in your owner’s manual.

Whatever your octane, you might as well get the most bang for your buck. Compare incentive and loyalty programs offered by gas retailers. If you charge purchases to a gas station card, make sure you pay by the due date. Gas cards have steep interest rates – 24 to 28 per cent is typical. If you regularly carry a large balance, consider switching to a credit card with a low interest rate.

Natural Resources Canada estimates that differences in driving styles can account for a 20 per cent variation in fuel economy. Avoid jackrabbit starts and don’t race on the highway. Driving 90 kilometres an hour instead of 120 improves fuel consumption by 20 per cent. You’ll save on gas and speeding tickets.

Avoid prolonged idling, which is a huge fuel waster. If your engine is running with the car in park, you’re getting exactly zero kilometres per gallon. Shut off your engine while waiting for passengers. Remote starters may be a great convenience in cold weather, but they also encourage excessive idling. If you can’t keep your vehicle in a garage in the winter, a block heater is a better way to warm up your vehicle quickly.

Using the air conditioning can increase fuel consumption by 20 per cent in city driving. Try using your windows and ventilation system more often to cool down. If you must resort to the air conditioning, cycle it off and on rather than running it continuously.

Trips of less than five kilometres burn more fuel, particularly in winter, because the vehicle doesn’t reach its most efficient operating temperature. Schedule errands together for fewer trips and share rides for work or children’s activities. Bike, walk or take public transit. You’ll save money and stay in shape.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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