Trying to Find Happiness With Higher Gas Mileage
Do you get ticked watching the dollar totals spin upward on the gas pump? Are your neighbors razzing you about still driving a huge SUV? Do you feel guilty about the greenhouse gases spewing from your tailpipe or the boost you're giving to foreign oil imports? If you recognize yourself in any of these pictures, consider switching to a vehicle with much better gas mileage--and thus less oil consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Since heavier vehicles usually mean worse gas mileage, you probably need something smaller than 'you re driving now. But we may not be talking way smaller.
Just switching from a full-sized truck-based SUV to a smaller SUV could give you a 35% or more jump in gas mileage. "People are switching from the big SUVs to smaller, car-based crossover vehicles because they see they can still haul everything they need with better mileage and more maneuverability," says analyst David Healy of the Wall Street firm Burnham Securities, New York
And gas-electric hybrid technology really can boost that advantage. A 30-mile daily commute, or 150 miles a week, would use up just a bit more than four gallons of gas in a small Ford Escape hybrid (if it matched the Environmental Protection Agency 36 mpg [miles per gallon] rating for city driving) vs. nearly 11 gallons in a large Ford Expedition (rated at 14 mpg).
But you don't have to opt for a hybrid--almost always more expensive than its gasoline-only counterpart--to get good gas mileage. Modern diesel engines--neither noisy nor smelly like their 1970s versions--often can come close to hybrid mileage in models that are less expensive. Diesel engines get higher mileage than their gasoline counterparts and diesel fuel often is cheaper than gas.
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In addition, standard gasoline versions of long-popular small sedan models like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla show up on Top 10 lists for mileage. (To see the top-mileage vehicles, check the Web site fueleconomy.gov.) Now, in addition, new even-smaller sedans and wagons such as the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, and Nissan Versa offer average mileage from 28 mpg to 32 mpg. "Young urban drivers seem to be moving to small cars," says Philip Reed, consumer advice editor of auto information Web site Edmunds.com. "If you are in the city, it is hard to park a big pickup or SUV."
Shopping for better mileage
Here's a closer look at in how to shop for better mileage:
- Know why you're buying this vehicle. If your goal simply is to save money, the premium of $3,000 or more you'll pay for a hybrid will take several years to recoup in lower gas costs. In that case, get a high-mileage gasoline-only model. But if environmental convictions or a desire to use less imported oil are important to you, the satisfaction you feel in having a hybrid may be worth the extra money--much as buyers who like fast cars pay extra for performance. Whatever your motives, check out total ownership costs--including depreciation.
High mileage is only one attribute of the vehicle that is right for you.
Furthermore, federal tax credits can help offset the cost of a hybrid. These credits decline as more hybrids are sold by a given company.
- Check availability. Hybrid models have waiting lists in some areas (especially California) but not in others. Among small gasoline-powered cars, the new Honda Fit (rated 31 mpg in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway) also can be hard to get.
Diesels also aren't available everywhere. An Edmunds analysis showed that first-year ownership costs for a 2006 Volkswagen Golf TDI diesel--with mileage rated at 37 mpg for city driving and 44 mpg on the highway--were lower than those of any competing hybrids. But those Volkswagen diesels (also available in the Jetta and the New Beetle models) can't be sold in California because of their smog-boosting emissions, nor in the states that follow California standards (New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont). Starting in January 2008, however, Volkswagen will introduce a new, cleaner diesel Jetta expected to pass standards in all states, with other VW diesel models coming out later that year. In Europe--where gas prices are much higher than in the U.S.--nearly half of all vehicles have diesel engines. While such market penetration is not likely in the U.S., analysts believe that cleaner diesels will make some gains here as well.
Federal tax credits can help offset the cost of a hybrid.
- Don't expect to match EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) ratings. New hybrid owners, especially, often are disappointed that their gas mileage does not match EPA numbers for the vehicle. Cars are tested on lab machines according to EPA guidelines setting out city and highway driving conditions. Analysts of the procedures say the city driving portion has fewer stops for traffic congestion than is typical on the road. And on the highway test, average speed is about 48 mph--much lower than typical Interstate speeds. Not only hybrids but also regular gas engines typically show real-world numbers below the EPA ratings.
But hybrids do match one facet of the EPA ratings: Unlike other cars, their city mileage is higher because the gasoline engine shuts off at stoplights or any other full stop and the electric motor then starts the car moving again. Reviews from sources like Consumer Reports or its online Web site (if you are a subscriber) will give you a realistic idea of real-world mileage from their test-drives.
Switching from a full-sized truck-based SUV to a smaller SUV could give you a 35% or more jump in gas mileage.
- Buy what meets your needs. High mileage is only one attribute of the vehicle that is right for you. If you haul your kids and their friends, you may need a third row of seats--not available in many small SUVs. So maybe instead consider minivans--with plenty of space for kids, sports equipment, and whatever else you haul. The gas mileage--such as the Chrysler Town and Country's EPA-rated 19 mpg in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway--is well above what you would get with a big SUV.
And if your car isn't decrepit, think twice before you let high gas prices or other factors push you toward spending for a new car. Says Reed of Edmunds.com: "Sometimes the best economic decision is just to keep driving what you're driving."
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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