Yes, a dirty air filter really will mess with the cars efficiency. The reason for this is in the design and purpose of the air filter itself. An air filter is normally a porous material like paper or a sponge. A car’s air filter is used to prevent dirt, oil, trash, and other debris from entering the engine through the intake manifold. The intake manifold brings air into the engine to combine it with gas and the spark which make an engine run. The engine needs a specific amount of air and gas in order to run properly and efficiently. It also needs to be a specific ratio of gas to air. When an air filter gets dirty, the amount of air that is getting to the engine changes to a smaller amount because the dirt and junk in the filter fills more of the pores in the filter. With less air, less gas is burned. The rest of the unused gas is then ejected from the engine through the exhaust and your fuel economy just plummeted.
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