Gassing Up and Down: How to Improve Your Mileage

10/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hey Mr. Green,

In your latest column about cars' failure to get better gas mileage, you didn't answer the mileage question directly. I have a 1986 Toyota Corolla that gets a consistent 39 to 41 miles per gallon on the highway. My friends with new Corollas rarely get 34 mpg on the highway. I don't think their driving habits differ substantially from mine. With supposed "better" technologies, it seems their cars should be doing better than mine. Any thoughts? --Byron in Portland, Oregon

Hey Byron,

Despite "better" technologies, the actual mpg of many cars has improved precious little. Your 1986 Corolla with a manual transmission is rated by the EPA at 34 mpg on the highway. The 2008 model is rated at 37. Slightly improved technology has been partly offset by increased weight, with the newer models about 500 pounds heavier than your old car.

Not that the technology is much better anyhow. Thanks to the political influence of oil and auto industries, we were stuck with the same fuel-economy requirements for more than 30 years, until last December when our solons finally approved a modest increase from 27.5 mpg to just 35 mpg by 2020. The best that some folks can hope for is that the hearse hauling them
to their final resting place gets marginally better mileage than today's models. As the great Janis Joplin might have sung if she'd survived to this point in history:

Ain't got no fam'ly,

ain't got no nurse,

Oh Lord, won't ya buy me

an eee-lec-tric hearse.

But the difference between your mileage and that of your friends may also result from the fact that they don't know how to drive or maintain a car. How a person operates a vehicle has a huge impact on its gas mileage. Don't assume your buddies drive as smart as you until you conduct a bit more research into their behavior. The EPA lowered its mpg ratings to reflect "real world" driving conditions, which include faster speeds and other dumb behavior. Your old Corolla was originally rated at 37 mpg on the highway, but the new rating drops it to 34 to reflect the real world and its incompetence. Big loss of mileage can result not only from high speeds, but also from senseless idling, excess weight, jackrabbit starts, and lousy maintenance.

Your higher-than-rated mpg is quite achievable. I know from experience. On one occasion when forced to drive a car, I rented a Corolla. I got 42 mpg on the highway, simply by maintaining a speed of 55 mph and using the cruise control. Billions of gallons of gas--and billions of dollars--could be saved by exquisitely simple maneuvers like this.

Meanwhile, drive as little as possible and drive carefully, because automobiles remain a major public-health threat, whether you're in a car or getting mashed by one. Annual highway fatalities in the United States are more than 40,000. You can be quite sure that if any other device had a comparable mortality rate, its use would be strictly limited. The fatalities per mile on streets and roads are almost 6,000 times higher than in airplane crashes.