How to spend less on gas: Fix your car. Drive slower. Ignore Shaq

A man pumps gas into a white vehicle at a Chevron station in Orange.
Juan Galaiviz of Santa Ana fills up in Orange, where prices were lower than in his hometown. On Tuesday, $50 got him just under nine gallons.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Outrageously high gas prices are killing your wallet. But they could lead to a better life for the car or truck you’ve been driving into the ground.

That’s because caring more for your ride can reduce your gasoline costs, experts say. Catch up on all the maintenance you’ve put off. Drive less aggressively. Leave the car in the driveway and walk instead of driving a mile to the store.

There’s a long list of simple things you can do to squeeze a few extra miles out of each gallon of gas. Yes, some of them will cost you more than your next fill-up. And yes, some of them will consume more of your time.

But think of these steps as an investment in a more fuel-efficient future, where fewer of your dollars get hoovered up by oil companies.


Here are tips offered by engine mechanics, the American Automobile Assn., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other experts on fuel economy. And one from Shaquille O’Neal, which — let’s just say your mileage may vary.

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Maintenance issues

Stick to the schedule. You know how much harder it is to run a couple of miles after you’ve been idle for a few months than when you’ve stayed in shape? The same is true for your car. According to the EPA, “fixing a car that is noticeably out of tune or has failed an emissions test can improve its gas mileage by an average of 4%, though results vary based on the kind of repair and how well it is done.”

“The biggest thing is that people don’t follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule,” said Mia Bevacqua, chief mechanic and technical writer at “All that maintenance plays a role” in keeping your car running well, she said. You can find your car’s maintenance schedule in the booklets that came with your car or on the manufacturer’s website.

Don’t put off repairs. Bevacqua said another bad habit among vehicle owners is that they ignore problems. “They’ve got the Check Engine light on and look away.”


Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to fuel economy. “Fixing a serious maintenance problem, such as a faulty oxygen sensor, can improve your mileage by as much as 40%,” the EPA warned (with gusto).

It’s not just the engine that’s at issue, Bevacqua said. Transmission and powertrain problems can reduce your fuel economy too.

Use the right motor oil. Lower-weight oils (that is, the ones with lower numbers) do a little better in mileage tests, so don’t use 10W-40 when your manufacturer recommends 10W-20. Regardless, stick with the manufacturer’s recommendation.

Use the right grade of fuel. There’s no clear advantage to using a higher grade of fuel than called for by your vehicle’s manufacturer. At the same time, says you can save money by using a lower grade than your manufacturer recommends — as long as it’s just a recommendation, not a requirement.

Check the octane sticker on the inside of your gas tank door. Using regular gas when premium is required can cause the engine to knock, impair its performance and possibly lead to long-term damage.

Be kind to your older vehicle’s carburetor. A dirty air filter can lead to poorer performance by older model vehicles without fuel injection. Take a look at the filter — cleaning it is an easy DIY task.


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Driving style

Slow and steady wins the race. Years ago in my high school driver’s ed class, I watched a filmstrip (yes, I’m that old) of two cars heading across town, one driven like a maniac, the other like a Zen master. The maniac reached the destination first, but the difference was only a few minutes. The bottom line was that you won’t save much time by racing from light to light.

Worse, you’ll waste a lot of gas. Studies show that rapid accelerations and hard braking consume up to 40% more gas in stop-and-go traffic, and up to 30% more on the highway. The best strategy, AAA says, is to find a pace in sync with the lights so you can keep rolling instead of braking.

Don’t speed. You’re not going to like this, but driving faster than 55 to 65 mph on the highway is bad for your mileage, according to England’s Energy Saving Trust. And according to Consumer Reports’ tests, 55 is significantly better than 65, if you don’t mind being passed on all sides. By everyone.

Granted, Southern California highways usually clamp a governor on your accelerator, but even in those rare, glorious moments when traffic parts like the Red Sea opening, you’ll get better mileage at or below the speed limit.

Don’t leave the car idling. Do you let your car warm up a bit before driving? Cut that out. “To save fuel,” AAA advises, “start the engine and then drive the car normally to warm the engine to operating temperature more rapidly.”

And when you see a long drive-through line at your favorite take-out spot (we’re looking at you, Chick Fil-A), park the car and go inside to order. Bevacqua said idling can burn up to a quarter of a gallon per hour. At today’s gas prices, that’s more than 2 cents evaporating every minute.

You should even turn your car off at stop lights, as some newer cars do automatically. The California Energy Commission says that idling for just 10 seconds will consume as much gas as you would use turning your car off and on again. So if you’re going to be stopped for longer than it takes you to read this paragraph, you’ll save gas by turning the engine off.

Cruise control isn’t just for cross-country trips. As Motor Trend magazine explained, cruise control saves gas by preserving a car’s momentum. The standard version can be hard to use on L.A.’s clogged streets, but the latest wrinkles — adaptive cruise control, which lowers your speed automatically to keep you safely behind the car in front of you, and adaptive cruise control with stop and go, which seems purpose-built for the 405 Freeway — can be a gas-saving asset. A 2019 study by Volvo and federal researchers found that adaptive cruise control can trim gasoline use by 5% to 7%.

But experts caution not to use cruise control on slick roads, where it can exacerbate traction problems. Bevacqua also advised turning it off in hilly terrain, because otherwise it will waste gas pushing your car to maintain its speed on the inclines.

Monitor your mpg. Many newer cars display your fuel efficiency as you drive. And if your car can’t do that, Bevacqua said, you can buy an mpg meter that you can mount on your dashboard (if your car is no older than the 1996 model year). According to a study financed by the U.S. Department of Energy, drivers who actively monitored their mpg for the sake of improving their mileage boosted their fuel economy by about 10%.

Get into a higher gear. If you’re one of the lucky few driving a stick shift these days, bear in mind that higher revolutions per minute can be less fuel efficient. Upshift with the tachometer at 2,000 to 2,500 rpm, not 3,000, Toyota advises.

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Wind and road resistance

Pump up the (air) volume. Check your tires every month to make sure they stay at the pressure recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer, which is listed on the jamb on the driver’s door. Severely underinflated tires can reduce your mileage by about 3%, Bevacqua said.

Stop messing with the aerodynamics. Increasingly, manufacturers are designing vehicles to reduce the air resistance and improve mpg. But you can undo all those efforts by putting a couple of bikes or a big cargo box on your roof rack. Yes, you’ve got stuff to haul, but if you’re rolling down the interstate with that cargo box on top, you’re getting up to 25% fewer miles to the gallon, a federal study found.

Shed the weight. Got a bunch of collapsible chairs, sports gear, camping equipment and the like stashed in your car? You’re wasting gas. According to AAA, each 100 pounds of stuff can reduce your mpg by up to 1%.

Cover that truck bed. There’s conflicting evidence on this, but most sources agree that a light cover can help reduce drag without adding too much weight. The potential improvement in fuel economy is about 2%.

Lose the fluttering displays. You love the Rams. Or the LAFC. Or the USA. We get it. But if you’re flying a flag or extending any other object from your car, you’re creating drag.

Fix your front bumper. On newer vehicles, the front is designed to improve the flow of air around it as you drive, particularly when on the highway. If your bumper is dangling or badly damaged, you’ll lose that advantage.


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Vehicle usage

Take fewer trips. Nothing cuts your gasoline costs like leaving your car in the driveway. Walk, bike and take mass transit when you can — a round trip on Metro costs less than a gallon of gas nowadays.

If you really need to drive, a warm engine is more efficient than a cold one, so try to combine multiple errands into a single longer excursion instead of separate short ones.

Beat the heat. The engine powers the air conditioner on most cars, which means that running the AC burns fuel, reducing gas mileage by 1 to 4 mpg. And the hotter it is out there, the more energy your vehicle’s AC will consume. So try to keep the car’s interior cool by parking it in the shade and putting a sun screen in the windshield.

Once you get rolling, you have a choice. You can try to cool off by rolling down the windows, but that’s louder and more annoying the faster you drive. Open windows also increase drag, which some analysts say offsets the benefit of turning off the AC. But Consumer Reports found that opening the windows caused an insignificant drop in mpg, even at 65 mph. So pick your poison.


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What not to do

Don’t drive your truck with the tailgate open or removed. This would backfire pretty dramatically, in terms of fuel efficiency. One test found that the aerodynamic drag on a Ford F-150 jumped almost 20% when its tailgate was removed. That’s ... not helpful.

Don’t put the car in neutral and coast. I admit I do this all the time because I live at the bottom of a hill. But according to The Guardian, “modern fuel-injected cars consume proportionately more fuel when in neutral as they perceive the car to be idling.” So that’s not helpful either.

Don’t believe Shaq’s math. As an NBA analyst on TNT, the former Lakers great has expounded several times about the money-saving virtues of pausing halfway into a trip to put in a quarter of a tank of gas. I have listened to his explanations several times, and I still have no idea what he’s talking about.

But there would be one potential benefit to Shaq’s strategy: Not filling the tank completely would mean less weight in the vehicle, which could translate to better fuel efficiency if you stopped frequently at gas stations for partial refills. If you do see results, make sure to let TNT know.


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