Gas mileage is notoriously poor on all trucks, not just Chevy’s and not just the 5.3 Vortec. Every smart alec’s response to “how do I improve my trucks gas mileage?” is “buy a Prius”. But for a lot of us, we need a truck either for work or for hauling things around. A smaller and more fuel efficient car just isn’t an option.
The 5.3 Vortec ranges from 14-17mpg. However, there are a number of upgrades and modifications that can help add 3mpg. These mods are going to cost you around $1,200 but they will pay for themselves in just a few years with the added fuel savings.
5.3 Vortec Gas Mileage
Depending on the age of your engine, the factory mile per gallon specs ranged from 13-17mpg for city and 16-22mpg for highway driving. Obviously the newer engines are on the higher end of that range, and older are lower. Transmission also plays a part, with 6-speed autos performing better than 4-speeds.
Chevy 5.3 owners typically claim an average mpg in the range of 14-17mpg, depending on how much highway driving they do and how heavy on the gas they are. Certainly not great for people that do a ton of driving, but I guess it could be worse.
I’m not going to tell you “drive with a feather foot” or give you any useless overused advice. The general rule is that creating more horsepower equals lower gas mileage…but that’s not always the case. So, what mods can you use to increase the MPG on your 5.3 vortec?
Gas Mileage Mods for Chevy Vortec 5.3
- Cold air intake upgrade
- Cat-back exhaust
- Engine tune
- Wheels and tires
- Tire pressure
While the last two might not be “mods” per say, they are two of the best (and free) ways to not unintentionally decrease MPG. Please read the bottom few paragraphs after I cover these as I’ll walk through a cost analysis for you to determine if it’s really worth.
An intake, exhaust, and tune will easily run you over $1,000 and you might not drive enough for the cost-benefit to really make sense.
1. Cold Air Intake – 1mpg
A cold air intake primarily serves two purposes: increasing the amount of air that flows into the engine and flowing colder air into the engine. By doing so, more horsepower is created. But, at the same time, the engine becomes more efficient and it can actually improve gas mileage.
Colder air is more dense, meaning it is more combustible. Colder intake air temps (IAT) means the engine can run leaner air-to-fuel (ARF) ratios which results in less fuel being required for the equivalent amount of air. Without getting into the technicalities, think of your AFR initially being 1:1 but now only needing to be 1:0.75 due to the colder air.
An upgraded cold air intake is going to cost you $200-300 and might gain you 1mpg. Manufacturers will probably claim 2-5mpg, but you’d be lucky to get over 1.0mpg in reality. The downside is, cold air intakes sound awesome, so it’s going to make you want to press the gas more frequently.
2. Cat-Back Exhaust Upgrade – 0.5mpg
In similar fashion with the cold air intake, a cat-back exhaust system can actually increase mpg’s while still increasing horsepower. Cat-back exhaust systems increase engine efficiency by creating a less restrictive exhaust system.
Speaking in engine generalities, less restriction equates to more efficiency which equates to better gas mileage. Sounds great right? Let’s get an exhaust system because it sounds cool and it’ll help me save money on gas! In theory, sure, but it’ll be a really long payback period.
With an exhaust system, you will probably get a 0.5mpg improvement. And similar to the intake, the added sound will definitely make you hit the gas more frequently. Overall, yes it does improve mpg, but no, it’s not worth it as an mpg mod alone.
3. Engine Tune – 2mpg
Engine tunes alter the engines ECU to change various factors such as engine timing and AFR’s. Tunes are mostly used to unleash horsepower and create more engine power. However, most tunes will come with multiple “maps” and all tunes that I’m aware of have an “economy” tune for improved gas mileage.
On this list, this is probably the only mod I would say “okay, maybe I’d spend money on this” for the sole sake of gas mileage. With a good tune, you can probably squeeze out a 2mpg improvement. But you still need to drive a lot to justify it. If you want to make more power from time to time for fun, but also want improved gas mileage for those long and frequent trips, a tune is great.
Outside of mpg efficiency, a tune is also probably the best bang for the buck mod on any Chevy truck.
4. Upgraded Wheels and Tires
This is more of a mod not to do. Big wheels and tires are cool, it’s the classic truck thing to do along with a nice lift kit. Unfortunately, it could be one of the worst gas mileage mods you could make…because it actually reduces mpg.
Bigger wheels and tires are heavier than the stock ones. Maybe each wheel and tire is only 10lbs heavier, or 40lbs across the whole truck. Doesn’t sound like a lot. However, the effect of rotational weight on power and gas efficiency is extremely greater than static weight. Meaning adding 40lbs to your wheels is not the equivalent to putting your 40lb dog in the front seat.
Rotational weight is about 5-6x greater than static weight. Additionally bigger and heavier wheels have higher roll resistance which means it takes more power to get them to start moving and to keep them moving.
Avoid heavy wheels and tires if you care about mpg! Reducing rotational weight is actually probably the best mpg mod.
5. Tire Pressure
Maintain high tire pressure to see the best fuel efficiency. This isn’t necessarily going to improve gas mileage, but it will certainly help you not reduce gas mileage. The US Department of Energy claims that every 1psi of tire pressure drop below the factory pressure can result in a loss of 0.6% of fuel efficiency.
The thought process is that higher tire pressure create a smaller contact patch with the road which means less roll resistance. Just think about how hard it is to peddle a bike with a flat tire vs one with fully inflated tires.
Are MPG Mods Worth it on the Vortec 5.3?
In my opinion, the only two main things worth it are: not adding weight to your wheels and keeping your tires properly inflated. In most cases small increases to mpg are nice little perks for intakes, tunes, and exhaust systems. If you want to use the mpg stuff to make you feel better (or make your wife feel better) about spending a bunch of money on mods, then great.
Here is a bit of a cost breakdown/analysis on the cost of mods and mpg. I’d assume with a tune, intake, and exhaust you maybe average 3mpg better overall.
|$ / Gallon||$2.50||$2.50|
|Cost of Gas||$3,333||$2,778|
|Cost of Mods||$1,200|
|Payback Period||2.2 years|
Obviously, this assumes only 20,000 miles driven per year and I know a lot of you folks might put 50k+ miles on your trucks per year. However, the 3mpg increase assumption is probably generous. But all-in-all, a 2.2 year payback period is probably unfavorable.
Ultimately, I’d recommend going with a budget-friendly intake and tuner which will run you closer to about $500 and still get you close to the 3mpg gains. Exhaust systems just aren’t worth the cost.