Filling up the family SUV is not cheap anywhere, but prices do vary sometimes substantially from one side of a street to the other. There have long been websites where consumers post the lastest prices at gas stations in their neighborhoods, and now there is a comprehensive, well-designed website that is put together much more professionally — and is far more complete.

The gas price section of MSN Autos (www.autos.msn.com/gasstations/everyday) is not perfect, but it is an excellent guide.

Enter a zip code, and the site presents a roadmap showing the location of most gas stations in the area. Each is marked by a number. Scroll down and a chart names each gas station and reveals how much it is charging. Each grade of gas is given for only some stations, but regular unleaded is given for all of them.

The data on MSN Autos is three to five days short of real time, but in our test drive around the Princeton area the prices on the pumps were very close to those reported by MSN Autos.

The Shell station at 74 Princeton-Hightstown Road, for example, was charging $2.819 on April 25, whereas the website gave its price as of April 22 as $2.829. MSN Auto was right on the money with Princeton Getty, which is located on the circle at Route 1 and Washington Road. It was charging $2.839, the exact price listed on the website. But the website was two cents off for its neighbor, Pits Gulf, listing its price as $2.859, when it was charging $2.839.

Most pump prices were within a cent or two of those reported by MSN Autos, with the biggest disparity being the price at the gas station at the Princeton Shopping Center. Listed as $3.069 as of April 20, the latest date for which the website had data for it, the price of unleaded regular at its pumps on April 25 was actually $3.109. Obviously not ready for rising gas prices, the station was using a hand-numbered sheet of paper for the “3.”

On April 25, data collected between April 20 and April 22 reported a 40 cent spread between the least expensive and most expensive gas in the 08540 Zip code. The Princeton Shopping Center had the highest price, while Route 206 BP in Hillsborough, at $2.699, had the lowest price.

MSN Autos gets its data from downstream petroleum news and pricing company OPIS (www.opisnet.com). It collects price data from reports of credit card transactions as well as from direct feeds from some gas station chains.

Perhaps the biggest negative on MSN Autos is that not every station is reported. The two downtown Princeton filling stations, for example, are not listed, and neither is Larini’s, which is located on Alexander Road. An annoying feature is that it is not possible to type in a town, only a zip code. It is easy enough to look up Zip codes on the Internet, but it’s one more step. (Check http://zip4.usps.com for zip code information.)

The above price examples point to another drawback. Hillsborough, home of the least expensive gas, is not in the 08540 Zip code, and neither are many of the other gas stations on the 08540 list, which ranges from North Brunswick to Hamilton.

One last gripe concerns the maps on each MSN Auto page. They do zoom in and out, but in doing so only cover more — or less — territory. Zooming in closer does not reveal street names, and it would be helpful to have them in pinpointing the location of a gas station. An address like 2633 Route 130 or 3513 Route 1 South is not very helpful for anyone setting out on a low-price gas hunt. This is especially so because it is often impossible to read the address of a station from the road. Providing the names of cross streets on the maps would be a big help.

Complaints aside, though, MSN Autos’ gas price site is well worth a bookmark.

Less comprehensive, but also well worth a bookmark is New Jersey Gas Prices (www.newjerseygasprices.com), a Gas Buddy (www.gasbuddy.com) site. It lists fewer gas stations than does MSN Autos, but its data is fresher. Some of its Tuesday, April 25 data, for example, was only minutes old, and most was not more than four to eight hours old. Prices are reported by passing motorists, and on that day were accurate — at least for the gas stations in and around Princeton.

Anyone can register at the site and can contribute price updates. Each price report earns points for contributors, who are entered into raffles for “valuable prizes,” which recently included $250 gas cards. The more price reports a driver submits, the snazzier is the car symbol he gets next to his screen name, and the greater the chance that he will win a prize.

The site lists the current 15 highest and 15 lowest prices in the state. The highest price on April 25, reported just 10 minutes previously, was $3.19 at the Mobil station at Squirrelwood Road in West Paterson. The lowest price was $2.69 at a Valero station on Main Street in Clifton. One excellent feature of the site is a little “find” arrow next to each price. Click on it and a street map and driving directions pop up, making it easy to find the cheap gas.

The site also contains interactive charts showing the ups and downs of gas prices over time. On April 25 the red line pointed nearly straight up, showing average NJ gas prices rising steadily from $2.30 to $2.80 during the previous month. Visitors to the site can pick time periods ranging from one month to three years. (The three year chart shows a high of $3.23 last September, and a low of $1.33 in June, 2003.) It is also possible to chart up to three locations at a time.

Put in “USA average,” “New Jersey,” and — for comfort — “Hawaii,” and see how New Jersey fluctuates just a little above or a little below the USA average, while Hawaii (now approaching $3.50) has wild swings, but is always much higher than either.

In addition to states, the site charts big cities — both in the United States and in Canada.

For the gas-price obsessed there are dozens of current news stories on everything from the always fun to read angst-at-the-pumps stories to hard news reports on gas futures and governmental responses to rising prices.

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, prices seem to be high enough to usurp housing prices as a hot water cooler topic. This is a sure sign that both of these websites should be getting a workout as full tanks once again mean empty wallets.

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