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What is Fuel Economy?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Fuel economy is calculated by the miles per gallon (mpg) or kilometers per liter (km/l) of fuel that a vehicle consumes. The more distance per tank of fuel, the better the fuel economy.

Through the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, fuel was relatively cheap and gasoline engines were not very fuel-efficient. This trend gave way to smaller imported cars in the 1970s, particularly after the gasoline shortage in 1976 when gasoline prices started their uphill climb. Today, consumers are struck not only by the exorbitant prices at the pump but also by a threatened shortage of fossil fuels. Combine this with continued unrest in the Middle East and it's easy to see why fuel economy has become a central issue to consumers.

Through the years, many engine designs have attempted to improve fuel economy without sacrificing power. Today's hybrid vehicles are the most recent example. Hybrids compliment a gasoline engine with battery power for use in city driving, where speeds are not excessive and frequent stops-and-starts are a major cause of poor fuel economy. When the driver hits the highway, the engine switches from battery power to standard gasoline power. Hence, hybrids use fuel more economically in the city than on the highway.

Regardless of the type of vehicle being driven, there are some things every driver can do to improve fuel economy. Experts recommend driving in a controlled manner at the speed limit, avoiding sudden starts and stops. Build momentum easily from a green light, and coast to stops.

Extra weight in the car also cuts down on fuel efficiency. Many people carry golf clubs or other heavy items in the trunk for no reason, or use the rear seat as a storage area. When vacationing, try to carry everything inside the vehicle rather than using a roof rack. Roof racks create wind resistance that reduces fuel economy.

Regular maintenance of a car also improves fuel economy. Be sure tires are inflated to the correct pounds per square inch (PSI). The steering wheel should not pull to the left or right when driving on a flat, straight road. If constant pressure is required on the steering wheel to keep the vehicle moving straight ahead, it likely needs a front-end alignment. Both issues impact fuel efficiency by creating added resistance against the pavement. The engine should also be tuned and running properly.

Gasoline expands in heat, so to get your money's worth, try to purchase fuel during the coolest part of the day. For those in warm climates, this might mean a visit to the pump early in the morning after the underground tanks have had a chance to cool overnight. Also try to combine short trips, as the engine runs more efficiently when warm. If you'll be idling one minute or longer in a standard gasoline powered vehicle, cut the engine. This saves money at railroad crossings, when chatting out the window, or when picking up passengers.

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Discussion Comments
By WilliamScher — On Jan 23, 2022

I totally agree. I own a Chevy and fuel economy helps a lot, especially when on a long drive. This article is very good.

By comfyshoes — On Dec 02, 2010

I totally agree. In fact I came across this quote that sums up this obsession with auto fuel economy which was offered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

They said, “"During the past 18 years, the office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress, the National Safety Council, the Brookings Institution, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the General Motors Research Laboratories and the National Academy of Sciences all agreed that reductions in the size and weight of passenger cars pose a safety threat."

We have to balance our desire for cars with better fuel economy and cars that are safer in a car crash.

By sneakers41 — On Dec 01, 2010

I heard that that SUV is awesome. My friend has one and she loves it.

I want to add that while focusing on fuel economy does save you money and offer a better environment, it may also make the car lighter which raises the likelihood that the accident would be more severe. Congress is now working on raising the gas fuel economy calculator to 40 miles per gallon by 2017.

While this seems like it would have a positive economic effect on gas prices this increase in fuel economy will make the cars lighter which in turn will make them less safe.

There has been a rise in fatal accidents as a result of these CAFÉ standards by mandating the increase in fuel economy.

A study conducted by USA Today found that since the CAFÉ standards were implemented in 1978 about 46,000 people have died that would have otherwise survived.

It is believed that for every 100 pounds that a car loses due to increase fuel economy, it raises the fatality rate of a potential car crash by 6%.

By mutsy — On Nov 28, 2010

The SUV fuel economy is usually lower than standard vehicles. The average fuel economy for an SUV is 15 miles per gallon in the city and 18 miles per gallon on the highway.

My car the Chevy Equinox is the exception. It offers 24 miles to the gallon in the city and 28 miles to the gallon on the highway. This car got excellent fuel economy ratings from Consumer Reports and Edmunds. Usually the best fuel economy cars are the small compact cars like the Honda CRV and the Smart cars.

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