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THE CAR DOCTOR

Don't sacrifice safety for fuel economy

Plus: New car for fianceé, H3 vs. Escape

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / January 12, 2009

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Q. Which technique makes more sense for fuel efficient driving: taking downhill inclines in neutral, or leaving the car in gear? I have noticed putting the shifter into neutral drops the revs to idle speed (about 750 r.p.m. on my Honda Accord) and allows the vehicle to travel farther.

Leaving the shifter in gear holds the revs at about 1500 and causes the car to decelerate in less distance. Seems like a good 50 percent fuel savings is achieved when I coast in neutral. Do you have any thoughts on the pluses and minuses of this practice?

A. The "hyper-milers" use the technique of coasting in neutral to maximize fuel economy. Some hyper-milers will combine techniques such as coasting, drafting and not stopping at stop signs. In some cars there may be some fuel saving by coasting, but many of today's cars, due to computer controls, will not react well when shifting into neutral while under way. There is also some additional (although slight) wear and tear to the shifter linkage and brakes. As a side note, in some states it is actually illegal to coast in neutral. I know I will hear from the hyper-milers, but please don't trade safety for fuel economy.

Q. I am looking to trade in my Audi A3 for something a little bigger and less expensive. I did not like the V-6 Toyota RAV4 or the Honda CR-V and the Volkswagen Tiguan was too pricey. I did like the new 2009 Ford Escape and Subaru Forester 2.5x. Have you tested either of these small SUV's?

I know Ford is on the ropes, but I feel they are trying to change their quality and image problems. I'm looking for a good four-wheel drive car that could be a family hauler since I will be getting married in June. What do you think of these two cars? Are there any others you would recommend?

A. Both the Forester and Escape are fine vehicles, but personally I would go with the Subaru. The Subaru has been completely redesigned for 2009, adding extra room and comfort. I also found the Subaru ride and handling to be a bit more "car-like" than the Escape. The Ford would be a better choice if you were looking for a vehicle with a six-cylinder engine or a hybrid option. More importantly, have you asked your fiancée what she thinks?

Q. I'm hoping you can help me with a major decision; I've gone crazy researching and comparing SUVs. There are two (very different) SUVs at the top of my list. The first is a 2006 Hummer H3 with 20,000 miles. My other choice is a 2008 Ford Escape XLT with 10,000 miles for $16,900. This will be my only vehicle and I drive less than 10,000 miles a year. I'm not rich.

I've been driving my current car for 14 years and it has 116,000 miles. I plan on driving the next vehicle for at least 8 to 10 years. The H3 is the more exciting choice, the Escape a more practical one. What can you tell me about the reliability and the "cost of owning" each vehicle?

A. Although the H3 is a tough looking vehicle it shares its underpinning with the more subdued Chevrolet/GMC mid-size SUVs. This will make the overall maintenance about average. Purchasing the newer Escape will allow you to take advantage of any factory warranties that are in effect, potentially reducing your ownership costs. In addition, the Escape will return better fuel economy than the H3. More importantly for someone who keeps a vehicle for as long as you do, buy something you like.

Q. I have a 2001 Mercedes C320, and lately while driving, especially when entering the highway and accelerating, the car shifts into neutral. When this happens I have to slow down until it shifts back to normal again. Could you give me an idea what is wrong?

A. Start with a check of the basics. The fluid level and condition need to be checked first. If the fluid is in good condition and the level is correct, then the transmission needs to be checked for possible computer trouble codes. There was also a recall concerning a leaking electrical switch that could be part of the problem.

John Paul is the public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England. He can be reached at jpaul@aaasne.com.