The prices at the pumps are accelerating, but you can slam the brakes on fuel use

From 'hybrids' to LPG cars to taking off your roof box and keeping your tyres inflated, MaryRose Fison shows how to drive further for a lot less money
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The Independent Online

With the cost of petrol now exceeding £5 per gallon, the wallets of some drivers might be running on empty.

But there are a number of steps that any driver can take to cut their costs.

Simple changes to your routine can make a big difference. For example, according to the Money Savings Handbook, a guide published by the consumer organisation Which?, just driving at 50mph instead of 70mph could skim as much as 30 per cent off your fuel bills.

Other tricks of the trade include not using a roof rack and checking your tyre pressure. According to estimates, a roof rack or box can add up to 30 per cent to your fuel bills because of the obstruction it causes to the car's aerodynamic flow, while under-inflated tyres can add another 8 per cent as they cause more resistance, forcing the engine to work harder.

The same principle applies to cluttered boots, in that fuel use will go up as the engine labours to transport heavy loads.

Even switching off the air conditioning can cut costs by as much as 10 per cent if you normally have it on all the time, and a further 25 per cent can be saved by simply changing up and down the gears at the correct times.

John Lepine, general manager at the Cheshire-based Motor Schools Association (MSA), says driving economically doesn't need to be a drag.

"Research suggests you can save 7 or 8 per cent on fuel costs with a little forward planning, using cruise control all the time if possible and not accelerating suddenly," he explains.

Advanced driving courses, such as the RAC-approved Pass Plus, will not only show you how to reduce fuel costs permanently, but can also qualify you for up to 30 per cent off insurance premiums. Depending on where you live, an advanced driving course will set you back between £150 and £200.

But if you are feeling adventurous, there are more radical ways to cut down on fuel spending. For example, you could consider buying a "hybrid" car, which uses both a petrol engine and an electric one. While the petrol version is running, it charges up the battery, so that when the car is moving more slowly – on congested roads or pulling away from traffic lights, for example – the battery will kick in using recycled energy to run the vehicle, so cutting down on fuel consumption.

The two biggest-selling hybrid cars on the market today are the Toyota Prius (pictured left), which costs £17,782 on the road, and the Honda Civic Hybrid (facing page) at £17,105.

But just how efficient are hybrids? Figures from the government-backed Vehicle Certification Agency show that the Prius runs at 65.7 miles per gallon, while the Honda does 61.4mpg.

Compare these figures to those for the best-selling Volkswagen Golf and there is a big difference: the Golf runs at just 40.9mpg.

In addition, the low-carbon emissions of the hybrids qualify them for exemption from the London congestion charge.

Purely in terms of fuel economy, the choice seems straightforward, but Sheila Rainger from the RAC Foundation says hybrids aren't for everyone. "If you are someone who only ever does medium-to-long journeys, you would never benefit because the recycled energy in the electric battery would rarely get to be used," she explains.

They come into their own, though, for urban driving. "Hybrids are better for short journeys, or a mixture of short and long journeys, because you will use up less petrol and reduce your CO2 emissions," Ms Rainger concludes.

However, if the idea of paying a premium for such advanced technology doesn't appeal – and you can buy a new Golf from around £12,000 – you could look at a cheaper option: converting your current vehicle from running on standard unleaded petrol to liquid petroleum gas (LPG).

John Walker, who runs the West Yorkshire-based LPG Inspection Services, says the benefits of this hydrocarbon fuel are enormous. "LPG emits roughly 10 per cent less CO2 than petrol and you can save about 40 per cent in fuel costs using it instead of petrol," he explains. "At the moment, LPG averages about 53p per litre. Compare that to petrol, which is about 110p per litre, and it makes a huge difference."

The reason for the price discrepancy between LPG and standard petrol is that the Government gives a huge tax break on the fuel.

Joe Kvedys, who runs the Wembley-based installing garage LPG House, says he carries out around 15 LPG conversions a week and demand is going up.

"More and more petrol stations have been opened with LPG pumps in the past year and we seem to be getting busier each month," he comments.

It costs around £1,300 to convert a standard car to LPG. Up until 2005 there were government grants available to help with the expense of conversion, but these fell foul of European Union state-aid rules and no longer exist.

Nevertheless, if the UK follows the path of other countries, LPG use may spread. "More than one million cars in Italy are using LPG," says Mr Kvedys, "and in Vienna all the city buses and taxis run on it.

"The French also get substantial deductions in their excise duty for using LPG, and in Japan 90 per cent of taxis drive on LPG."

And although it's still a fossil fuel, widespread use of LPG will have less of an effect on the environment than if drivers don't switch from standard petrol, according to Mr Walker.

"If everybody in the UK converted from petrol, our combined carbon footprint would drop by 10 per cent," he claims.

However, dark clouds are hovering over the fuel. The tax break on LPG is up for review in the 2009 Budget and some believe that it will be ditched. At a stroke, this could wipe out the financial advantage of having an LPG vehicle.

"My opinion is that government strategy, which is increasingly focusing on environmental output and less specifically on technology, means liquid petroleum gas is likely to lose its current tax advantages," says Stewart Whyte, director and membership secretary of the Association of Fleet Car Operators.

What's more, Mr Whyte disputes Mr Kvedys' assertion that LPG pumps are widely available. "I could name 20 fleets which have LPG-enabled vehicles but have never had a drop of LPG in them. In the fleet community it has lost credibility as a mainstream alternative fuel," he says.

For LPG, then, it may be a case of wait and see until the next Budget. But when it comes to reducing fuel use by changing some of our driving habits, the light is green now.

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