A little preventive maintenance can help save money at the pump

Times Staff Writer

As the price of a gallon of regular gasoline in Southern California climbs well past the $2 mark, watching the gas gauge has become as important as keeping an eye on the speedometer.

And although spiraling gasoline prices have spurred demand for fuel-efficient hybrid gas-electric vehicles such as Honda's Hybrid Civic and Toyota's Prius, most people aren't going to toss out old Betsy and buy a hybrid just to save a few hundred dollars a year.

Yet those who aren't planning on changing vehicles can still cut their fuel bills with a little preventive maintenance.

With that thought in mind, Highway 1 asked the folks at the Diamond Bar-based Specialty Equipment Market Assn. to provide some tips for saving money at the gas pump. The organization represents companies that manufacture performance-enhancing equipment for cars and trucks.

"Everybody has become uncomfortably aware of their vehicles' fuel economy," said SEMA spokesman Chris Horn. "You can save money by driving fewer miles, but that isn't an option for most of us. Fortunately, it's easy for practically any vehicle to get better gas mileage. And there's a bonus: Many modifications also improve your vehicle's performance, and they reduce emissions."

SEMA's suggestions

* Check your tires. Underinflated tires not only reduce fuel economy, but they also wear out faster. If you're not diligent about using a tire pressure gauge, you might consider installing a tire monitoring system to alert you when it's time to add air.

* Make life easier for your engine. Engines hate friction, so anything you can do to reduce it will make your motor -- and your wallet -- happier. For starters, change your oil regularly, and use high-quality or synthetic motor oil to reduce internal friction. Many mechanics say 3,500 miles is the preferred interval for oil changes, even for new engines.

* Add some spark. Is your engine overdue for a tuneup? If so, new spark plugs and wires will make a huge difference. Even if you're not behind in maintenance, an upgrade to high-performance spark plugs and low-resistance plug wires can improve fuel economy and performance as well as reduce emissions.

* Breathe deeply. If you've ever tried to drink a thick milkshake through a straw, you know how hard it is to pull fluid through an opening that's too small.

Your engine may be trying to gulp air through a small intake system -- or through a dirty air filter. Something as simple as changing to a new high-flow air filter can help your engine inhale more easily.

* Let it out. If your engine is trying to exhale through an exhaust system that's too small, a high-flow muffler or headers can help.

Make sure your catalytic converter isn't clogged -- you'll know, because your exhaust will smell like rotten eggs. When it's time to change, a high-flow "cat" will further increase your fuel economy.

* Don't idle while you're waiting. When you aren't moving and the engine is running, you're getting zero miles per gallon. If you're going to be sitting still for more than a couple of minutes, turn off the engine.

* Don't floor it. It may be fun to see how fast your vehicle can accelerate, but it's definitely not the way to maximize your fuel economy.

More information on improving gas mileage, as well as other automotive tips, is available on SEMA's consumer Web site at www.enjoythedrive.com.

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