CENTRAL VALLEY -- Motorists are on the prowl for cheap gasoline. Well, they're looking for relatively cheap gas.
With AAA putting the area's average price of unleaded regular at about $4 a gallon over the weekend up nearly 60 cents from just a month ago there's plenty of motivation to seek some relief.
But where to start? Experts consistently begin with a two-word answer: Shop around.
"Most of the gas that people are buying is very, very, very similar, no matter where you go," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for national gas price tracker GasBuddy.com.
DeHaan said the 87 octane regular gas for which you pay $4.15 a gallon at one station is likely identical to the regular posted at $3.95 down the street.
Major oil companies tout their special blends designed to enhance everything from performance to fuel mileage.
Doug Brauner, the "Car Czar" TV-radio host who's also a certified mechanic, isn't buying it and says you shouldn't, either.
"If you're paying 20 cents more for regular, you're basically just spending more money for the exact same product you can get for less at another station," Brauner said. "Look, there are a finite number of refineries in California. And California fuel is unique, with very specific standards. So the idea of being brand-
loyal and paying more is considered to be crazy by most mechanics."
In the Modesto area, GasBuddy's www.modestogasprices.com website features a daily listing of stations selling the cheapest gas. A number of other websites offer similar lists.
GasBuddy's cheap gas list is topped by the Minit Mart on Standiford, as well as Costco and Arco. Their prices are typically 20 cents to 25 cents less than the area average.
That's not surprising, DeHaan said.
"Wholesale clubs use gasoline to draw people in." he said. "Selling gasoline is not their main business, so overhead is low."
And, he said, Arco's policy of not accepting credit cards and their transaction fees helps it keep overhead down, too.
Sometimes, finding a gas discount is as easy as standing in one spot and turning your head. That was evident Thursday night at the busy intersection of Greenback Lane and Auburn Boulevard in the Citrus Heights area of Sacramento, where all four corners have gas pumps. Here was the price breakdown for regular: Northwest corner: Shell station, $4.13 a gallon. Northeast corner: Chevron station, $4.19 a gallon. Southeast corner: 7-Eleven station, $3.95 a gallon. Southwest corner: Arco station, $3.89 a gallon.
So, isn't that proof that the major oil company stations are artificially pumping up gas prices? Not necessarily, Brauner said, noting that big oil companies have higher costs to cover, including the millions they spend to market their products, the same as makers of breakfast cereal.
Adjust driving habits to save fuel
And DeHaan explained that even the most frugal gas station operator can get caught in a fiscal trap.
"Over the past week in California," DeHaan said, wholesale (gas) prices went down about 10 to 13 cents in a period of just a few days. That puts (downward) pressure on the pump price.
"But if you bought gas for your station before the price went down, you're stuck with what you paid last week. The thing is, a gasoline station can really get hosed on what they pay for the price of gasoline."
Besides looking for stations with the lowest-priced gas, experts advise motorists to adjust driving habits to save fuel.
AAA recommends keeping tires inflated at pressures spelled out by vehicle manufacturers, performing routine maintenance, and making sure belts and hoses are in good shape. Just doing that and driving evenly and smoothly can save up to 10 percent on your fuel bill.
And there are things you shouldn't be doing.
Do not, for example, fill your tank with premium 91 octane gas when the owner's manual says it will run just fine on 87 octane regular. The old-school assumption that your car will perform better on high-
octane gas than on the more pedestrian 87 regular is a big mistake, Brauner says.
"Not only are you wasting your money, you're negatively affecting the environment due to hydrocarbon discharge, or unburned fuel. Unless (premium) is required, you are getting zero benefit."