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Car shopping? Think fuel economy

Tara Baukus MelloIf you are car shopping currently, you'd be wise to pay attention to the fuel economy, or the mile-per-gallon ratings, of the cars you are considering if you want to keep your ownership costs low. Gas prices are expected to be 50 cents higher per gallon on average nationwide during the summer driving season of April 1 through Sept. 30. The price per gallon of regular gasoline will average $2.94 nationwide this year compared to $2.44 per gallon last summer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Since the average U.S. driver will log 6,000 miles during the summer season, an additional 50 cents per gallon represents a big chunk of change no matter how fuel efficient your car is and, for those who are shopping for a new car with worse fuel economy ratings, the cost difference can be huge.

Even two fuel-efficient models, a seemingly minor difference in fuel economy can result in a much thinner wallet. For example, if last year you drove a car that gets 26 mpg on average, you spent $563.64 on gas during the six-month summer driving season, assuming you log an average number of miles. If you trade in your car for a similar model that gets 24 mpg on average, it doesn't seem like a huge cost difference until you do the math. This summer, you'll spend $735 on gas, a difference of $171.36. Change that to a 20 mpg average car and a 6 mpg spread, and you'll spend $318.36 more in fuel.

If you are buying a new car, noting average miles per gallon is easy -- it's on the window sticker. From there, it's just a simple calculation to determine your fuel costs. If you are purchasing an older car, visit the EPA's fueleconomy.gov to look up the ratings. The EPA changed the way it calculates its mpg ratings for the 2008 model year to put its rating more in line with real-world estimates. The site features the new, more accurate numbers for 2007 model-year cars and older, so this can be particularly useful if you are trying to compare your fuel-cost differences with an older car.

Don't assume that you need to buy a car with a small, slower-than-molasses, four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission to get good fuel economy. Traditional gasoline engines have come a long way in recent years and now feature a variety of technologies that improve fuel economy while providing power when necessary, making larger sedans or crossovers more fuel-efficient than ever. Look for features such as engines that are turbocharged or direct-injected. Or, consider cars with engines that shut down cylinders when not needed -- a feature called cylinder deactivation -- or have continuously variable transmissions, which do not require shifting to gain some fuel efficiency without compromising performance. Thanks to the government's push for stiffer fuel economy standards, many automakers offer some or all of these technologies in their model lineups.

Cars equipped with clean diesel engines are another way to gain fuel economy and still be good performers. Currently, there are 11 diesel cars and crossovers on the market and all have better miles-per-gallon ratings than their gasoline counterparts. Still, diesel fuel is more expensive -- currently about 20 cents per gallon more on average nationwide -- so some of the fuel efficiency savings is negated by the added cost.

Of course, hybrids are the cars with the best mpg ratings, but generally cost more than their gasoline counterparts -- sometimes a lot more. That means it will take longer to recoup the savings in fuel efficiency. A hybrid car can be a great financial choice for someone who drives more miles on average annually, especially if the buyer picks a less expensive hybrid.

Regardless of the car you choose, do the simple calculations to see your difference in fuel costs this summer versus last so you're aware of exactly how much cash will be coming out of your wallet.

Ask the adviser

If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.
 

Bankrate's content, including the guidance of its advice-and-expert columns and this Web site, is intended only to assist you with financial decisions. The content is broad in scope and does not consider your personal financial situation. Bankrate recommends that you seek the advice of advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances before making any final decisions or implementing any financial strategy. Please remember that your use of this Web site is governed by Bankrate's Terms of Use.

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Tara Baukus Mello

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