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Downsizing Your Car Without Downsizing Your Life

A Nissan Leaf electric vehicle is displayed at a showroom. (credit: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

A Nissan Leaf electric vehicle is displayed at a showroom. (credit: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

So you did the honorable thing.

You traded in that gas-guzzler for a smaller, more fuel-efficient ride.

But now, while you’re saving dollars at the pump, you’ve lost something else: the space to carry the bikes, the skis, the toys. How do you make a smaller car work for you?

Here are some tips from experts and car owners who’ve made the change.

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RECONSIDER WHAT’S ESSENTIAL

Most small cars have plenty of storage space, said Mark Scott, spokesman for AutoTrader.com. The problem is that drivers of larger cars and SUVs tend to use the vehicle as a mobile storage garage, he said.

Scott Gutterman, 42, who went from a Jeep Grand Cherokee to a Honda Accord, found that he didn’t need to keep lawn chairs, towels, antifreeze and a walker for his inlaws in his car.

“It’s not a place for storage anymore,” he said. “Now we have to keep it clean.”

William Stern, who went from a Ford Expedition to a Smart Fortwo, agreed. “You’ll be surprised at how much goes into the garbage,” he said.

Scott recommends dedicating a space in the garage or house for things you use frequently, such as coolers and sports equipment. Pack only what you need for the day, then put it back in storage when you’re done, he said.

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DOWNSIZE YOUR STUFF

Jen DeAngelis-Thomas, who has a 2-year-old, bought a smaller stroller when she went from a Ford Sport Trac to a Ford Focus. The new one doesn’t take up the entire trunk, and she only carries it if she knows she is going to use it.

That way, if she stops for groceries, she has room for them.

For long road trips, she carries small toys for her son, as opposed to his wagon and ride-on toys. She also uses smaller suitcases and makes room inside them using vacuum seal storage bags.

“I pack and repack and make things fit,” said DeAngelis-Thomas, 27. “Stuff like diapers, if we go on vacation, we don’t bring a lot. We buy them there. It’s one less thing to pack.”

If you buy large items, be sure to budget for delivery, Scott suggested. A new chair or grill may not fit into a smaller car, and many stores charge a delivery fee.

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CONSIDER BUYING A RACK

If you need to carry skis, kayaks, surfboards or other large sporting equipment, consider installing a roof rack. It also can hold a cargo box, bag or basket. Add bike mounts, and you can even carry two bicycles on the roof of your car. (www.yakima.com)

Many bicycles have a removable front wheel so the bike can fit in the trunk, said Eric Younan, an avid cyclist. But if that’s too cumbersome, a bike rack that attaches to the rear of the car with straps and scratch-free hooks is a good alternative, he said. It’s cheaper than a roof rack and can easily be taken on and off.

Another option for transporting sports gear is installing a hitch and attaching a small trailer like a Dooit, said Stephen Regenold, who reviews outdoors equipment online at TheGearJunkie.com. The Dooit bills itself as allowing drivers to tote their toys and still economize on fuel.

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ORGANIZE

As with a closet, there are lots of storage products out there to help maximize the space in a smaller car, said Dana Korey of the company Away with Clutter, who traded in her BMW SUV for a Toyota Prius.

Solo road warriors can purchase a mobile desk like the Auto Exec Travel Desk that holds a cellphone, laptop and PDA, with a separate writing desk and a compartment for office supplies.

There are car organizers that attach to the back of the seat or sit on a seat to hold toys, snacks, games, CDs and DVDs.

And for the trunk, there are expandable storage containers for groceries, sports gear, flashlights and maps.

“A lot of people just shove stuff in haphazardly,” said Korey. “If you actually put some thought into it, you are going to optimize your space so much, and you’re going to have access to what you want when you want it.”

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CHOOSE YOUR SMALLER CAR WISELY

If you’re just now shopping for a smaller car, take the car seat with you to the dealership to make sure it fits, said Korey.

Check whether the car can pull a trailer, if that’s something you are going to need, said Jon Alain Guzik, editor-in-chief of DriverSide.com.

Compare the trunk dimensions and back-seat dimensions of vehicles on the Internet, said Robyn Eckard of Kelley Blue Book.

“You can see side-by-side how much room a vehicle might have and if maybe you can squeeze a booster seat in-between two car seats and still get a golf bag in the hatch,” she said.

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RENT A LARGER CAR WHEN YOU REALLY NEED IT

If you’re going camping, moving or chaperoning a school trip, rent a larger vehicle temporarily, said Scott.

“For $20 or $30 per day, you’ll get the utility without the long-term commitment to a gas guzzler,” he said.