Americans love driving — and pay dearly for it. In 2010, it cost more than $8,500 to drive a midsize sedan 15,000 miles, according to the American Automobile Association, which factored in gasoline, maintenance, insurance, and depreciation. Car expenses run second only to housing costs in the United States, and they are getting no cheaper: Compact used cars sell for almost 17 percent more than they did in summer 2010, reveals the Manheim used-car price index. But there's good news: New technology and old-fashioned common sense can transform your driving lifestyle and cut your costs in half, or more. Here's how.
Planning is key
Instead of multiple short hops, pack several trips into one longer errand, and drive to your farthest destination first (that also gets the engine warm, so it runs most efficiently). To plan an itinerary, smartphone users can use the free app Maps + Compass; to monitor traffic, download the app Aha, which gives real-time road info. To find cheap gas, preview prices online at GasBuddy or GasPriceWatch.
Keep it running
Gone are the days when many drivers felt as if they needed to replace their vehicle every few years: Today's cars are staying in service longer than ever. According to the marketing firm R. L. Polk, the average age of cars and light trucks on the road now is 10.2 years — 21 percent older than it was 14 years ago.
You know the car-survival drill: Change the oil regularly, rotate the tires, and don't ignore weird noises, especially squeaky brakes, says Fort Myers technician Pam Oakes, author of Car Care for the Clueless: "Nothing is more important than your brakes. If your car doesn't start, it's frustrating, but it's not going to be dangerous." Get your hands dirty and do easy preventive maintenance yourself — changing wiper blades, topping off fluids, checking belts and hoses for wear. For gas savings and safety, check tire pressure monthly. Clean dust and dirt from the engine's air-filter element by knocking it against a tire. And don't let gas drop below a quarter tank — that can lead to a burned-out fuel pump.
Tune up your insurance
Peter Kaufman, a 57-year-old Potomac, Md., gastroenterologist, isn't exactly a cheap driver: He has five cars, including two classic Porsche 911 Carreras. But he still likes saving money, so he registered both Porsches for historic license plates, which cut his insurance bill for those cars by more than half. Kaufman also insures his cars and his home through the same company; bundling policies can save 10 or 15 percent. Several other cost reductions are available for older drivers, says David Snyder, vice president of the American Insurance Association. Many insurers provide 5 to 10 percent savings for participating in driver-safety programs, paying your annual premium in full, paying via automatic withdrawal, or riding public transit to work. But the biggest savings go to drivers who keep clean driving records, Snyder says.
Tai Stillwater, a transportation researcher at the University of California, Davis, is a fan of the eco-driving movement known as hypermiling, in which drivers compete to squeeze amazing fuel economy from their cars. He doesn't recommend resorting to such extreme hypermiling measures as drafting behind 18-wheelers, removing the backseat to save weight, or zooming around corners without braking, to avoid losing momentum. But here's what you can do:
Slow down: Driving 5 miles over 60 miles per hour is like paying 29 cents extra for every gallon of gas you burn. That premium goes up as your speed increases.
Be a smooth operator: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, drivers who accelerate moderately and evenly and go easy on the brakes (coasting whenever possible) can save $1 or more per gallon.
Lose the rack: Add-ons such as flags, bike carriers, and luggage racks undermine your car's aerodynamics. (Close the windows, too, particularly at highway speeds.)
Chuck the junk in the trunk: Extra weight makes the engine work harder — so resist the urge to store your bowling balls in the backseat.
Kill the engine: Fifteen minutes of idling can burn a quarter of a gallon of gasoline, especially if the AC is blasting.