Muzzle that guzzler

BY LENA MITCHELL

Daily Journal

The kind of vehicle you drive, how you drive, your vehicle maintenance habits, how often and how far you drive are all critical factors in how much you'll spend on automotive fuel costs.

Gasoline costs have risen steadily for the past six months, and if annual trends are an indicator prices will continue to rise through the spring.

“This time last year the average price of (regular) gas in Mississippi was $1.09 (per gallon) for unleaded,” said Don Redman, AAA spokesman for the Southern region. “This time last month it was $1.43 and currently statewide it's $1.61.”

The looming war against Iraq is but one of the factors that has pushed the wholesale price of gasoline to $40 per barrel. Venezuelan oil workers went on strike in early December, reducing the amount of oil available on the world market, and a colder than usual winter has put a heavy demand on home heating oil.

“Diesel buyers are really being hammered right now,” Redman said. “They're paying $1.69 a gallon today vs. $1.47 a gallon last month and $1.15 a gallon last year. We may see some of those diesel prices come down after a couple of months. The refinery process to make diesel is the same as for making home heating fuel, so because of cold weather refiners have switched attention to home heating oil. The spillover will appear in goods that we buy – from groceries to every retail good you can think of.”

Many drivers have become complacent with relatively stable gas prices during the past several years, overlooking concerns about fuel conservation and vehicle fuel economy.

However, there are ways to make sure you get the best gas mileage your vehicle can deliver. The American Automobile Association, Advance Auto Parts and the U.S. Department of Energy offer the following suggestions.

Driving habits

- Drive safely. Aggressive driving – speeding, rapid acceleration and braking – wastes gas.

- Slow down. Gas mileage decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. Each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional 10 cents per gallon for gas.

– Avoid idling. Restarting the engine uses less gasoline than idling for more than 30 seconds.

- Use cruise control. In highway driving it will save gas.

- Use the overdrive gear, which reduces the car's engine speed to save gas and also saves engine wear.

Vehicle maintenance

- Keep the engine tuned properly.

- Check and replace air filters at the appropriate times.

- Check tire inflation and keep them at the correct pressure.

- Use the appropriate grade motor oil, and have regular oil changes.

- Replace spark plugs and spark plug wires when necessary. Worn or fouled plugs reduce gas mileage as much as 12 percent.

- Clean fuel filter and fuel injectors. Clogged or dirty filters and injectors reduce engine performance.

Planning trips

- Using flexibility in the time of your commute to avoid heavy stop-and-go traffic will save gas.

- Car pool with others, when possible.

- Combine a number of errands into one trip.

- Do not overload the vehicle, which can reduce gas mileage.

Choice of vehicle model

Whatever kind of vehicle you choose to drive, there are some models within each category that are more fuel efficient than others. Compare the fuel efficiency of models within each class to get the most for your money. The Web site www.fueleconomy.gov has a “Find and Compare Cars” section which can be helpful.