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U.S. motorists tune in to gas-saving tips

I know I've posted a bunch of threads about saving money on gas.  Here's another, but it looks like there are a few more tips.

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<DIV class=source><IMG height=20 src="" width=135 border=0></DIV>Pain at the pump can be lessened </H1><!-- END HEADLINE -->
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<DIV class=storyhdr>Fri Aug 19, 7:24 AM ET
<DIV class=spacer></DIV></DIV>The $50 fill-up? That's about what owners of pickups, SUVs and larger cars are having to shell out each time they pull into a gasoline station.

And the pain at the pump is worsening. Prices averaged $2.59 a gallon Thursday, up another 2 cents in a single day, according to AAA's daily fuel tracking survey.

In Chicago, the average was $2.80 a gallon.

Motorists, however, don't have to become gas-price road kill. They can vent their outrage by taking a few simple steps to improve their vehicle's gas mileage - whether it's changing spark plugs or driving more wisely.

Experts consulted by USA TODAY say drivers of newer cars have another advantage: The engines are among the most efficient ever built because of sophisticated computers that optimize fuel consumption.

Reporter Chris Woodyard asked the experts for tips to save gas. Some suggestions:

• Tire pressure.

Driving a car with underinflated tires is like running laps with 5-pound weights strapped to each leg. Underinflated tires can sap 4% to 10% out of a car's potential gas mileage, says John Frala, associate professor of advanced transportation at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif.

The correct tire pressure, which might be different for front and rear tires, is found in a car's owner's manual. Sometimes it's pasted inside the glove box door or attached to a door frame.

Check the pressure when the tires are cold. When replacing tires, try to buy a new set with the least amount of rolling resistance, Frala says.

• Lower-octane gas.

Drivers can get by with using low-octane fuel - regular rather than premium - in many cars, says Boyd Coddington, a hot rod builder and host of American Hot Rod on the Discovery Channel. But not all. Coddington says owners with high-performance engines, such as the one in his Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL, need to stick with higher-octane fuel.

• Economical driving habits.

Everyone knows not to treat stoplights like a trip to the drag strip. But fewer know that trying to squeeze through an intersection on a yellow light can conceivably use more gas than stopping for one.

The problem is that drivers stomp down on the accelerator to make it through the light, sometimes driving gas consumption to higher levels than if they had stopped and idled, Frala says.

Coddington says the key is smooth driving. "If someone is always on and off that gas pedal all the time, that's going to kill the gas mileage," he says. "Brake pads are cheaper than gas."

Try to squeeze more out of a gallon of gas by combining trips. Coddington says he encourages workers to have parts delivered to his plant rather than driving out to suppliers to pick them up.

• Weight reduction.

It's time to open the trunk and see what kind of weight can be jettisoned. Golfers who love to tote around their clubs can save weight by leaving them at home when they aren't headed to the course. But don't get ridiculous. Keep the spare tire.

• Tuning up.

Cars run more efficiently when they are kept in tune. It often makes sense to get them tuned more often than the manufacturer recommends.

You might do some of the work yourself. For instance, spark plugs can be easily checked and cleaned or replaced, says Mike Forsythe, managing editor of Haynes Repair Manuals in Newbury Park, Calif.

He also recommends pouring a bottle of fuel-injector cleaner in the gas tank every six months or so to help the engine maintain peak efficiency.

• Air conditioning.

If you can get away without using air conditioning, you'll save gas. But opening windows as a replacement won't help.

"If you roll down the windows, you create more drag," Frala says. "Late-model cars are designed for more aerodynamic efficiency by having their windows in the 'up' position."

A Honda Civic driven at 45 miles per hour incurs a 4% energy efficiency loss if the windows are open, he says.

• Proper oil grade.

Use the lightest grade of oil recommended by the vehicle's manufacturer. A multiviscosity oil such as 5W30 can save gas compared with regular 30-weight oil because it creates less friction, Frala says. The engine doesn't have to work as hard.

• Filters.

Dirty air filters make it harder for the engine to breathe, Forsythe says. Frala says air filters should be checked once a year and replaced every 18 months.

Gas cards: You'd better shop around

Credit cards that offer up to 10% in gas rebates can take the edge off soaring prices at the pump - as long as you don't dig yourself deeper into debt.

Discover has a credit card that gives up to 5% cash back on gas purchases and up to 1% on other purchases. The Chase Perfect Card offers a 6% rebate on gas for the first 90 days the account is open and a 3% rebate after that.

You can find better rewards, but to get them, you may have to stick to one brand of gas. Chase has a Hess Visa Platinum card and a Marathon Platinum MasterCard with up to 10% rebates.

As gas prices rise, issuers are getting more aggressive about marketing these cards. In late June, Shell and Citibank posted advertisements at gas stations urging consumers to "Earn 10c/gallon rebates," based on an average gas price of $2.05 a gallon. Discover plans to start running print ads for its gas and other reward cards in September.

Mailboxes are getting stuffed with these offers. Last year, 13.6 million pieces of direct mail about oil and gas cards were sent, compared with 6.6 million in 2003, according to Synovate, a market-research firm in Chicago. This year's volume is on track to exceed last year's level.

Should you get a gas credit card? It generally makes sense only if you plan to pay off the balance each month. Accruing debt and then paying interest to save a few dollars at the pump doesn't make much sense.

Also, "If you're only going to spend a couple hundred dollars a month, (the rewards) might not be worth the hassle of switching credit cards," says Robert Manning, finance professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Credit Card Nation.

If you decide to get a gas card, shop around. Most have no annual fee, but rebates vary widely.

As with any credit card, the issuer has the right to change features and fees on short notice.

When you see the words "up to" used to describe a reward, it means that you may not get the maximum reward for all purchases. For example, the AAA Visa card, issued by MBNA, offers an up-to-5% rebate on gas purchases but restricts how much you get back to 2% of total retail purchases. So, if you buy only gas on the card and you spend $100 a month, you'll get a $2 rebate.

Also be aware that some offers last for a limited time and apply only to certain regions. The Citi AAdvantage card is offering double miles on gasoline, supermarket and drugstore purchases. But the offer expires Oct. 31 and applies only to card holders living in Miami and the New York tri-state area.

By Kathy Chu

Tax tips: Car used on business can drive up your deductions

If you're self-employed and use your car for business, you're probably experiencing severe gas pains. But at least you can deduct those costs when you file your taxes.

The IRS offers two choices for deducting business-related miles: actual costs or the standard mileage rate. With the actual cost method, you claim all the expenses associated with operating a car for business, such as gas, maintenance, repairs and oil. If you use your car for business and non-business excursions, you can deduct only the percentage of miles that were business-related.

With the standard mileage allowance, you multiply the number of miles traveled for business by the IRS mileage allowance. For 2005, the standard mileage allowance is 40.5 cents per mile. If you drive 1,000 miles for business this year and use the standard mileage method, you'll deduct $405.

Many self-employed workers use the standard allowance because it's easier to calculate. "All you have to do is substantiate what you traveled," says Donna LeValley, contributing editor of J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax 2005. "Keeping a travel log should satisfy the IRS, as opposed to keeping all those receipts."

But with gas prices soaring, some frequent drivers might get a bigger tax break by using the actual cost method. Gas prices have risen more than 34% since November, when the IRS announced the standard mileage rate for 2005. This year's higher prices will be figured into the allowance for 2006, but that won't help offset higher gas prices in 2005.

If this is the first year you're using your car for business, go with the standard mileage deduction. That gives you the option of switching methods at a later date. If you use the actual costs deduction the first year, the IRS requires you to use that method for as long as you use the car, says Mark Luscombe, federal tax analyst for tax publisher CCH.

Other potential driving deductions:

•Moving expenses. If you change jobs this year, you might be eligible to deduct your moving expenses, including transportation costs. The 2005 standard allowance for moving expenses is 15 cents per mile.

•Medical expenses. Deductions for medical expenses are limited to costs that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. If you manage to breach that threshold, you can deduct the cost of traveling to a hospital or doctor's office. The standard mileage rate for medical expenses is 15 cents per mile.

•Volunteer work. Taxpayers who use their cars for charitable purposes and itemize on tax returns are eligible for a tax deduction. The standard allowance for volunteers is 14 cents per mile.

By Sandra Block

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