The national average price of unleaded regular gasoline has been hovering between $3.50 and $4 for almost a year now and it's a pretty safe bet that the day of gas for $2.50 per gallon is long gone. In fact, many people worry about someday having to pay $5 per gallon, or more. As gasoline prices rise and fall, but never seem to fall very far before rising again, some people will be tempted to dump their current cars for more fuel-efficient models. Others will fall prey to the latest gas-saving gizmos and concoctions from the auto parts store.
There's a chance, though, that some who hurriedly decide to downsize will get burned. There's an even greater likelihood that those who spend money on devices and additives claiming to magically improve a vehicle's fuel economy will be dumping that cash down the drain.
Don't be one of them.
What makes sense is to think about the way you use your car. Then change your driving habits. If you decide that you need a new car, shop smart for a fuel-efficient model. Strategy is what you need, so we've organized a number of sensible measures that will let you ride the rising tide of gasoline prices with minimal distress.
Survival Strategies for Car Owners
- Figure out the mileage you get in the cars you drive now. This will help you see the actual impact of the price increases, measure any improvements you attain by changing your driving patterns and help you decide whether it would make sense to move to a more fuel-efficient car. In addition to paper-and-pencil record keeping, you can use Web sites such as Fuelly.com to track mileage and gasoline costs online.
- Realistically assess what rising gas prices mean to your family. The impact might not be as dire as you think. Or if gas prices do threaten to sink the budget, it might be time to reexamine how your household is spending money overall.
- Save fuel by changing your driving style and attending to simple car maintenance: Edmunds editors have rigorously tested driving styles, aerodynamics and some basic car-maintenance steps to measure their effect on fuel economy. By far, the largest fuel-saver was a switch to calm driving. Compared to a fast, lane-changing, sharp-braking style, calm driving improved fuel economy by 35 percent. Conversely, driving on underinflated tires lowered fuel economy by an average of 3.75 percent.
- Get the big picture on gas prices. Use sites such as Gasbuddy.com to check prices in your area, but don't drive across town to save a few pennies. Some other strategies for minimizing the cost of gas include using cash-back gasoline credit cards (which you should pay off monthly), participating in supermarket gas discount-shopping programs or getting gas at membership stores such as Costco or Sam's Club.
- Don't immediately dump your gas-guzzler. That instinctive reaction could cost you money. As Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed points out, the resale value of an SUV or other especially thirsty vehicle drops "as fast as the needle on its gas gauge" when gas prices are high. The taxes and fees on new cars are considerable. And the demand (and thus prices) for fuel-efficient cars tends to climb along with gas prices. If you still have the urge to switch to a more fuel-efficient car, use Edmunds.com's gas-guzzler calculator to assess how long it will take for the switch to pay for itself.
- Don't buy "gas-saving" devices. Most of them don't work, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA's list of the top 10 misconceptions about fuel economy is also instructive. Manual transmissions don't always deliver better mileage than automatics, for instance.
New Choices, Shopping Challenges for New Car Buyers
In some ways, Americans may be in a better position now to deal with expensive gasoline, as far as the availability of fuel-efficient vehicles is concerned. Auto manufacturers are driven by federal fuel economy mandates to build more cars that get better fuel mileage, and the results of their efforts have been trickling into the market for the past several years, giving shoppers a small but growing pool of more efficient cars and trucks to consider as gas prices remain high.
If you are in the market for a car, Edmunds experts offer these strategies:
- Do your fuel-efficiency homework before you shop. Take a look at our list of gasoline-powered cars that deliver 40 mpg on the highway and our list of conventional, hybrid and electric cars that achieve at least 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving. The 10 most fuel-efficient vehicles for the current model year can be found on the EPA's list.
- Check our real-world comparison tests. Some of our recent tests focused on fuel economy include a 2012 test of cars that claim to get 40 mpg on the highway and our 2011 Fuel Sipper Smackdown. We also have tested SUVs and electric vehicles.
- Shop smart for fuel-saving cars. When gas prices spike, so do the sales of small, fuel-efficient cars. In February 2008, when gasoline was $3.03 per gallon, small cars had a market share of 17.9 percent, according to Edmunds data. It can be frenzied out there, and sometimes the competition drives up prices. Prepare yourself with these tips for buying a fuel-efficient car. They can shield you from an overheated sales environment.
- Consider a smaller vehicle. "Some people's lifestyles demand a larger vehicle. But those who can switch to a smaller vehicle will often find that they save money on the purchase of the vehicle, on fuel costs and on maintenance — all with only a slight trade-off in size," says Edmunds Consumer Advice Editor Ronald Montoya. It might be far less expensive to own the small car and simply rent a larger vehicle the few times a year it is needed. After all, why bear the costs of operating a full-size pickup, SUV or other large vehicle that is under-utilized most of the time?
- If you typically keep your vehicles for five years or more, you might find that the math works well if you consider a hybrid, says Edmunds Senior Editor John O'Dell, an expert in hybrid and electric vehicles. There are more than three dozen hybrid models in the market today and the number and variety is growing.
While most hybrids cost more than comparably sized and equipped gasoline-only vehicles, O'Dell says that for some gas-electric models, fuel savings over the years can pay back the price premium and even put money into your pocket. Edmunds explains how in "The Real Costs of Owning a Hybrid." New hybrids aren't the only way to go. Edmunds.com's guide to used hybrid shopping can be helpful if a previously owned hybrid interests you.
- If you really do need something bigger, take advantage of the buyer's market that arrives with serious and prolonged price spikes. If you need a new SUV or minivan big enough to haul around your youth hockey team, or a large heavy-duty truck for work, a gas spike could be the very time to buy. Lots of people will panic and dump their big, burly vehicles. And some dealers will be stuck with new large vehicles that are suddenly hard to sell. When gas prices skyrocketed in the summer of 2008, dealers priced large SUVs and large trucks at 20-23 percent off their manufacturer-suggested retail prices. A future spike could be the time to strike. Identify the vehicle you have in mind online and track it as it ages on a dealer's lot. The discounts go deeper the longer the vehicle sits. If it's been there longer than 60 days, that's good for you. Longer than 90 days is even better.
There are winners and losers when gas prices rise. Have a plan to make sure you're on the winning side.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.