Do you really need to buy premium gasoline?

Need Premium Gas?
Old folks may say that they don’t build cars like they used to, but the fact is, by any measure except perhaps styling, today’s cars are far better than anything that came before. A modern car delivers reliability, performance, and fuel economy that prior generations could only dream about. The only cars better than the ones we have today are the ones we’ll have next year, and the year after that.

Just in the last 10 years, fuel economy, torque, and horsepower have all risen dramatically. But those improvements don’t come without costs. Far more modern cars require or recommend premium gasoline than ever before. While you might expect that with a high-end sports car, many cars at the economy end of the spectrum now recommend premium.

If you don’t know what kind of fuel your car is supposed to use, it’s easy to check.  Just look inside the fuel filler door – the fuel requirements should be printed right there.

So what’s the deal? To understand the issue clearly, we turned to the fuel experts in the U.S. Federal government. The U.S. Energy Information Administration is an independent, policy-neutral, statistical and analytical agency created within the Department of Energy. As such, they’ve got no axe to grind for the oil or auto industries; they just deliver the facts.

What’s so premium about premium?

When you pull up to any standard gas pump in America, you typically have a choice between regular, mid-grade, and premium fuel. Each is labeled by its octane rating – typically 87, 89, and 91, possibly up to 93 in some states. Predictably, the higher the fuel grade, the higher the price. There’s usually a spread of about 20 cents per gallon between regular and premium.

Octane ratings indicate the performance capability of the fuel. Higher octane ratings mean that the fuel can be compressed to a higher ratio without detonating. That’s why high-compression engines need the more expensive premium fuel.

But apart from that rating and the price, is premium fuel really any different from regular? Mason Hamilton, Petroleum Markets Analyst at the EIA, offers some insight into how gasoline is made.

“Think of gasoline as a cocktail,” Hamilton told Digital Trends. “You need to blend certain ingredients to get a good-tasting cocktail. Regular gasoline is like a simple drink, but premium takes a more complicated blend to get the higher octane in there. They put in alkylates and reformates, which are like putting very expensive Italian or French Vermouth in the cocktail. So it takes a bit more pocket change to buy a gallon of that gasoline.”

Why does my car need premium?

Since 2013, the percentage of premium gasoline in total retail gasoline sales has been on the rise. In August and September of 2015, premium accounted for 11.3 percent of all gasoline sold to the public. That’s the highest share in more than a decade.

There are a number of reasons for premium’s increasing market share, starting with low fuel prices. When gas was more expensive, many people chose regular whenever possible. But the bigger reason for the long-term rise in premium sales has to do with the cars we’re buying.

Gas-Pumps-Octanes-0001

The U.S. government specifies Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, requiring automakers to hit a range of 40.3–41.0 MPG starting in 2017. By 2022, average fuel economy standards will rise to 48.7–49.7 MPG. Let that sink in and you’ll see why automakers are spending billions to develop electric cars.

But to meet today’s CAFE standards, automakers are implementing a wide range of technical solutions to improve fuel economy. Obviously, hybrids, electrics, and diesel are part of the solution, but most of us will see a shift to smaller engines and smaller, lighter, more efficient cars in general. But at the same time, we love our horsepower and acceleration. What’s an automaker to do?

If the automaker says your car will run on regular, there’s no point at all in buying premium.

You’ve doubtless noticed a general trend of engine downsizing coupled with turbocharging. Every major automaker now wants to sell you a 1.4- or 1.6-liter turbocharged engine. The good news is that those engines deliver the necessary fuel economy while meeting or exceeding the horsepower and torque of older, larger engines.

“Corporate Average Fuel Economy is requiring automakers to get more performance out of their automobiles,” says David Stone, Automotive Engineer at EIA. “There’s a lot that’s changing to drive us towards higher compression engines. For example, direct injection also allows us to run higher compression, and higher octane helps allow that to happen.”

What happens if I use regular?

Many drivers whose cars specify premium fuel have filled up with regular at one time or another. Are you rolling the dice with your engine if you cheap out on your fuel?

The first thing is to understand the difference between a car that requires premium fuel and one that recommends premium.

Man-Pumping-Gas-0001

“In the past, a car may have required premium, but now many just recommend it,” Stone tells Digital Trends. “With some older cars, if it called for premium gas and you put in regular, it could damage the engine. Most cars today are smart enough that it won’t hurt them [to run on regular] but it will degrade performance and you might get reduced fuel economy.”

More important, if the automaker says your car will run on regular, there’s no point at all in buying premium. It doesn’t matter what altitude you’re at, how hot it is, or how fast you plan to drive.

“Feeding better gas than what is recommended for your car is a placebo effect,” Stone says.

Can I be sure I’m really getting premium?

So, assuming you know what fuel grade your car should be using, how can you be sure that you’re getting what you’re paying for?  What is there to prevent a gas station from pumping regular into your tank and charging you for premium?

By 2022, economy standards will rise to 48.7–49.7 MPG. You see why automakers are spending billions to develop electric cars.

“You have to remember that you’re not the first person to have paid for that gallon of gasoline,” Hamilton advises. “When that gallon of gasoline was created at the refinery, the refinery made it to a specific specification. That refinery sold it as premium, and handed over the papers to the buyer to prove that the gasoline meets the spec. The distribution terminal will do another check. Then there’s another series of checks when it gets loaded into the truck. By the time it ends up at a retail gas station, it’s been checked and checked and checked. There’s very little incentive for a gas station to sell counterfeit gas.”

On top of the quality assurances provided by the gasoline vendor, virtually every State government has an office of weights and measures that certifies that you’re getting a full gallon of gas, and that the gas meets the state’s standards for composition and quality.  There’s usually a sticker somewhere on the pump that tells you when it was last inspected and certified.

Buying top tier fuel

Many automakers, including Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Fiat-Chrysler, and all GM brands recommend “Top Tier” fuel. This fuel is certified to exceed EPA specifications, particularly in the amount of detergent added to help keep engine parts from accumulating deposits of impurities. It is always safe to put Top Tier fuel in any car, regardless of whether the manufacturer recommends it.

Over thirty U.S. brands, including Arco, Beacon, BP, Cenex, Chevron, Conoco, Costco, Esso, Exxon, Kwik-Trip, Mobil, Phillips 66, Shell, Sunoco, Texaco, Union 76, Valero, and others all adhere to the Top Tier standard. If you’re not sure about a brand, just ask at the station.

The bottom line on fuel

When it comes to the fuel in your car, there’s not really a lot of difference between major brands. Gasoline is one of the most regulated products available for sale to the public, and as long as you stick to the requirements and recommendations that the automaker provides for your car, you’ll be fine.

Even if you have to buy cheaper gas to make it to payday, most modern cars can handle it. And if the idea of paying more for premium bothers you, that’s a factor you can easily check before you buy any car. Just pop open the fuel door.

Home Theater

Spotify Premium cribs from Pandora with new Endless Artist Radio feature

As Pandora continues to catch up to Spotify in terms of the features it offers, Spotify is returning the favor, adding Endless Artist Radio for Premium subscribers as well as other features such as newly streamlined navigation.
Computing

Samsung Chromebook Plus V2 vs. Google Pixelbook

Samsung's Chromebook Plus V2 attempts to answer the question: can you spend around half as much as on the premium Google Pixelbook and be happy that you saved some serious cash?
Music

How much is Spotify Premium, and how can you get it at a discount?

Having access to millions of songs comes at a price -- albeit, a pretty small one. Before you figure out how much is Spotify Premium going to cost you, you will want to see if you qualify for a discounted (or even free) subscription.
Home Theater

From game consoles to 4K UHD spinners, these are the best Blu-ray players

Streaming may be popular, but the disc isn't dead yet! To get the very best picture and sound quality from your system, you need to be watching Blu-ray or 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Here are the best Blu-ray players you can buy right now.
Cars

Just 10 people will get to put this limited-edition Audi R8 in their garages

The 2018 Audi R8 V10 Plus Competition makes use of Audi's motor sports experience to turn up the performance dial. Decreased weight and increased aerodynamic downforce make this R8 a track monster.
Cars

Porsche’s all-electric Taycan sedan will cost less than a Panamera

Porsche's Mission E concept won't change much as it transitions to a production model named Taycan that's scheduled to arrive in 2019. That means the sedan will keep the sleek design and its 800-volt charging system.
Cars

Volvo plans to face the future without sacrificing its identity

Volvo is embarking on an ambitious push to fill its lineup with electric and hybrid cars, as well as an infotainment partnership with Google. Volvo Americas CEO Anders Gustafsson explains how the Swedish automaker plans to pull that off.
Cars

Bored with stock? The best tuner cars are begging to be modified

Modification has been around almost as long as the automobile itself. Here are 25 of the best tuner cars you can find, ranging from American muscle standouts to Japanese drift cars.
Cars

Tesla keeps promise with more affordable Model 3 with midrange battery pack

Tesla is keeping its promise of making the Model 3 gradually more affordable. The company released a new variant of the car with a mid-range, 260-mile battery option that's priced under the $50,000 mark.
Cars

The snake escapes: Ford’s 700-hp Mustang GT500 slithers online ahead of schedule

The Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 will return in 2019 with over 700 horsepower, Ford confirmed at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show. The GT500 will be the most powerful Ford production car ever.
Cars

Volkswagen’s next-generation lights will keep you safer, look good doing it

Volkswagen's new smart LED headlights, called IQ.Light, don't just light up the road in front of you to keep you, other drivers, and pedestrians safe. They also look dang good while doing it.
Cars

Adventurous and electric, Porsche’s second electric car will fill a new niche

Porsche surprised us at the Geneva Auto Show with an electric station wagon named Mission E Cross Turismo. Though it's a concept car, it could become a production model after the Mission E sedan arrives in showrooms.
Cars

Mustang-like and electrified. What did Ford just show a preview of?

Ford briefly flashed an enigmatic new model in a minute-long commercial starring Bryan Cranston. Its front end borrows styling cues from the 2019 Mustang, but it doesn't have a grille and its emblem is back-lit.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: A.I.-powered cat toys, wallets, food containers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!