What are good ways to save on maintenance/fuel and prolong the life of a car?
Apparently, if you keep your tires' air filled to the recommended level, your car will burn less gas.
I loved this article at WikiHow, which confirmed what I had heard about air in tires, and had others to suggest, such as removing unnecessary items from inside and on your car (such as bike racks, trailer balls) as they can add to your car's overall weight, causing more drag and using more gas.
Ride a bicycle or walk for short trips (< 5mi–10mi, depending on your level of comfort). Nothing saves as much on car expenses as simply driving less.
It is almost always cheaper to do regular maintenance then to fix problems because you didn't change the oil or check the transmission fluid.
Do your own oil change!
If you are a hands-on person, you could also avoid the cost of the semi-annual oil change, by doing it yourself. Edmunds.com has a great how-to to help you accomplish this. Be prepared for dirty fingernails! But savings, you will realize, as an oil change will run you anywhere from $20 - $200 (if you drive a European car and require a specialized filtre).
Keep up on routine maintenance. That's the best way to prolong the life of your car, and it'll save you money in the long run because you won't have to replace your car as often.
Accelerate gently. The harder you push the gas pedal, the more gas you use.
Coast to a stop rather than using your brakes. If you can avoid stopping by slowing down well before a red light so that by the time you actually get to the light it is green again, do so.
Avoid high-speed driving. At highway speeds, wind resistance plays a big part in how much gas your car uses. If you can plan your trips to take slower routes, do so. Don't be the guy driving 55 in the left lane on the highway, though.
Avoid stop-and-go traffic. Keeping to a constant speed is the most efficient. Plan your trips to avoid areas with lots of traffic, lots of curb-cuts and intersections, etc. Leave lots of space in front of you so you have time to anticipate other drivers intentions and slow down rather than having to slam on your brakes at the last second.
Avoid short trips. Cars work best when they can get all the way up to operating temperature, and stay there for a while. If you're just going two miles, ride your bike.
Live close to work and a grocery store, so you can walk or ride your bike rather than driving. Use your car for road trips and your quarterly trips to CostCo to restock the larder.
If you can get away with not owning a car, sell it. Ride your bike, use public transit, or walk. If you can share a car with a significant other and only one of you has a long car commute, there's no sense in you both owning a car.
Can you tell I'm having fun with this question? Here's another great list, from Finally Frugal, which includes the above items, but also these gems:
Manage the fuel consumption price: check the pattern of fuel prices if you can for your area. Some areas have weekly changes which are somewhat predictable and some sites will even predict the minimum price for the next day. Some other areas will have a discount fuel day.
Switch to diesel: fuel consumption by diesel engines are much better than standard combustion engines. Downside is not as many refueling stations.
Switch to a hybrid: fuel consumption is better than comparable combustion engines alone but the downside is that the technology is new and still maturing. Check out this site for more information.
Don't buy the first model year of a new model unless the fuel economy is much better in the latest model. Buying a car in later years just before the changeover will result in a slightly higher quality vehicle or in some cases dramatically higher quality.
Find the best forum for your make/model/year of car. Join the forum, check the FAQ, sticky threads and post questions when you have trouble. Do NOT rely passively on the dealer or even private mechanics as they do not drive the car every day. You are in the best position to identify problems but only if you have some help. Preventive maintenance is the best if you intend to keep the car for a really long time. Forums are a really good place to find the typical problems of a particular model and potentially head them off.
The obvious answer for savings costs with a car is not to have a car. Of course that must be balanced against other expenses (bicycle, taxi, public transport) to do things.
Generally speaking, if you need a car, ways to contain expense are to buy the least expensive vehicle with the most economical engine that meets your needs, keep it undercover (reduces damage or wear due to exposure), proactively maintain it (maintenance is cheaper in the long run than the costs of dealing with a breakdown and cost of repairs, and lack of maintenance accelerates depreciation), and shop around for a good mechanic who will maintain it at a fair price.
If you do a lot of milage, or do a lot of towing, or drive under load, consider a diesel. A diesel engine often costs more each service, sometimes has a shorter service interval, but it also gets greater milage. There may be a differential cost of fuel (diesel is often a bit more expensive per volume). For towing, a diesel is often more economical, due to low end power (greater torque at lower revs) which does result in better fuel economy. It is no accident that most large transport vehicles consume diesel. Do the sums based on your usage before you buy.
Accelerate as gently as possible to get to speed within traffic conditions (less fuel to get to a speed). Change up to higher gears as soon as possible as - at a given speed - economy will be better, as long as the engine has enough oomph to handle it (so don't try to start from stationary in a high gear). Don't drive faster than necessary, as drag increases with speed, and hurts economy. Similarly, reduce speed gradually, to reduce undue wear on breaks and reduce fuel consumption (sharp breaking with power assisted breaks does affect fuel economy).
Drive close to legal limits if conditions permit. This reduces chances of annoying other drivers (who if they get impatient may throw rocks at your car, or collide, or subject you to road rage - which contribute to damage and insurance costs). It also reduces chances of being pulled over by police and fined for obstructing other traffic.
Don't tailgate. This both consumes fuel in keeping up, and means needing to slow sharply. And increases chance of accident.
Don't idle more than necessary. Allow stop/start systems on your car to operate - particularly if you're in stop/start traffic. However, there is a break-even point where stopping and restarting consumes more fuel than idling, so get to know your vehicle. That depends on how much the engine needs cranking to restart - which is affected both by engine design and maintenance. Maintain it yourself if you have the skills, but account for the cost of parts and equipment, to be sure it is cost effective (modern cars are software driven, so equipment to diagnose and maintain can be expensive).
Combine trips (don't get into the car for every little thing - wait until you can do a few things during a single drive) and car pool.
If fuel prices vary (e.g some places have regular cycles) try to refuel near the bottom of a pricing cycle.
Take unnecessary weight out of the vehicle. Don't load it up with tools unless you need them frequently.
Replace your own brake pads
Disc brake pads are usually snap-in replacement parts. YouTube has tons of videos showing how to do it. Find one with a car similar to your own.
And it cannot be over-emphasized... Keep up on the routine maintenance. You can look up the schedule on your car manufacturer's website.
If you intend to buy a car, go with a used car from the 1990-2000 era
These cars are generally considered out of date and are less prone to be victims of car theft while being reasonably safe. Make sure you pick a model with a good reliability reputation, see what comes up at your local junk yard (the common old models have survived long enough to not end up there until now).
Worry less about gas prices and more about maintenance
Servicing your car takes some effort and some initial investments, but learning how to fix simple problems by yourself will save you a lot of money in the long run.
Start by learning how to locate some simple faults. Diagnosing issues is a very costly process if done professionally, but some you may be able to find by yourself.
Get an OBD2 adapter for your phone
All cars sold in USA from 1996 are required to have this connection below the steering rack. As a consequence most cars manufactured 1995 will have this connector world wide. If you connect your OBD2 adapter to this port your car will be able to tell you what's wrong through an app on your phone and you will be able to clear fault codes by yourself to make sure the problem really is solved.
Every car has an extensive service manual written by the manufacturer
This is what you mechanic should use when servicing your car. While a new print can be expensive you can find used manuals getting thrown out of service centers or at yard sales. These will include service notes and sometimes had-written notes to help you out.
Buy used parts from a junk yard
The majority of parts on scrapped cars are still in working condition and may not ever see significant wear and tear. If you put some time into removing the part yourself you will have a good idea of how difficult it is to replace the part on your car and outsource the work to a professional if needed.
Serious mechanics will install the parts you bring
This of course assumes you bring good parts. The main income should come from the work performed on your car, not the markup of spare parts. Generally speaking specialized mechanics working with one or few brands of cars are preferable as these will not only be familiar with your car but are also more likely to get original spare parts (not "pirate" parts made to be compatible at a cheaper price). This will make sure the part works as intended and not cause wear and tear of other parts. For example you'd much rather replace a broken fuse instead of cleaning up the aftermath of fried electronics.
If you're still worried about gas prices
"Take care of your car and it takes care of you" is the principle I'm working with. A car you're happy with will make you more calm behind the wheel and leads to higher quality of your driving decisions. Both you and your fellow commuters will benefit from this, even if they may never take the time to thank you.