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Bang for your buck at the pump

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Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011 3:41 am | Updated: 10:31 am, Fri Apr 15, 2011.

I was filling my car with gas today, watching the numbers flip ever upward on the pump and scowling. Judging by the faces of the people around me, we are all troubled by the prices at the pump. So, I concluded fuel efficiency is something readers would be interested in.

There are several great choices of hybrids sitting at Lodi dealerships that sip gas like a baby hummingbird; but not everyone is willing to trade in their car for a new one, so I will give you some tips to make your current ride go farther between fill-ups.

The Toyota Prius is the staple among gas/electric hybrids, it has been around the longest and is the most well known. Honda also has a hybrid worth mentioning, the CR-Z. The CR-Z is taking Japan by storm, and is the choice for youngsters looking for a stylish sporty car that will not empty their pockets every time they fancy a drive. As a die-hard Honda nut, I saw the CR-Z concept renderings years ago, and I gave the Honda a once over at Autorama last year. I can tell you, it is awesome.

There are drawbacks to buying a hybrid — performance or lack thereof. Hybrids contain hundreds of pounds in batteries and this negatively affects performance. The Honda CR-Z, for example, made Road and Track's worst handling cars list in 2010. However, the car Honda billed as the "sports car hybrid" is not a bad car.

The CR-Z like all hybrids make necessary compromises in the name of efficiency. All hybrids utilize tires that have low rolling resistance. The use of these tires aid in those high mpg numbers, but slide on tarmac like a ballet dancer on a frozen lake. So if you are like most, looking for a quiet, comfortable car that can get you across town reliably and for minimal gas dollars, the Prius and CR-Z are perfect.

Some cars rely on the good old fashioned gasoline engine, and some of these are better value for the money than gas/electric hybrids. The Chevrolet Cruze for example manages a very respectable 42 mpg in the "eco" model. The Cruze manages this by using a small turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Turbochargers are often used in high performance cars to dramatically increase engine output; but they can also be used to make a small engine perform like a larger engine. When the Cruze is putt-putting around town the turbo is bypassed, allowing small engine fuel consumption. Power when you need it, 42 mpg when you don't — nice. The best part is a sub-$17,000 starting price.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Chevy Volt. I won't bore you with the absolutely brilliant way this plug-in hybrid uses Lodi Electric to get you back and forth from Raley's. I am not going to blab incessantly about how the Volt can charge itself with an on-board generator if it runs out of electricity on your way to San Francisco. I absolutely will not tell anyone within ear shot that this may very well be the future of motoring. What I will say is it is expensive, and rightly so. I couldn't possibly imagine the research and design that went into the Volt. If I were told that Chevy was selling each car at a loss, I could believe it, but more to the point, I wouldn't care. The Volt is for the guy who waits in line overnight to buy an iPhone, the tech junkie. Sadly, most of the tech junkies I know don't have the cash needed to buy one.

Okay, you love your current vehicle, or love that it is paid off. Lets talk about basic tips to squeeze every last mile out of your gas tank.

Maintenance: change oil and perform basic maintenance as specified in your owners manual. A poorly running engine, especially one with old dirty oil, will cost you a fortune in fuel.

Next, roll your car down to Les Schwab or Bruce's tires for a tire rotation and pressure check. Under-inflated tires significantly increase rolling resistance, lowering your mpg.

Most importantly, slow down. Quick sprints open your fuel injectors and increase fuel pressure. It's kind of like flushing the toilet — swoosh, money down the drain. Everytime I see a Toyota Prius on the interstate going 80, I just shake my head and think, come on. As your speed increases, wind resistance does its best to slow you down. Friction increases exponentially as your vehicle increases speed. The faster you go, the harder your Prius must work, and it will punish you at the pump.

All this talk of hybrids and fuel economy has polluted my brain a little. I think I will head for my garage, throw some bigger fuel injectors into the SRT-4 and see if I can make it to Chevron before the gas light comes on. I know, sounds a little crazy, right? Well, they do call me madman.

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