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  • Writer's pictureAsh Habib

Premium Gas, Premium Experience?

Even The Simpsons have touched on this...

There are certain fallacies, that seem to have a staying power for one reason or another. Usually if you ask an industry insider about them, they sigh, because they've heard someone say it a thousand times over in their industry.

In personal finance, the fallacy that working overtime doesn't make sense, as you will end up taking home less money due to being bumped up into a higher tax bracket, is an example that, people in this day and age frequently quote despite it not being based in any logic and can be dismissed in 30 seconds or less of conversation. A little over a year ago, I actually had a coworker at the time try to convince me of that.

Now, when it comes to cars, there are fallacies aplenty. But one of the longest lasting seems to be surrounding premium gas. Taking opposing viewpoints, there's people who claim that premium gas is snake oil, and is just designed to separate a fool from their money. On the other side, you have people that believe adding premium gas to any car will automatically add horsepower, yield better fuel efficiency, and make their engine wear down less.

So, in terms of the gasoline that we put in our vehicles. does premium gas really equate to a premium experience?

To get into the matter, lets explain what separates the different types of gasoline you see at the pumps.

Question: What are the numbers on the pump?

Answer: The number on the pump; 87, 89, 91 (Sometimes 93 or 94) are what's called the octane rating.

Question: What is octane?

Answer: Octane is a chemical component in gasoline. It's used as a benchmark for when gasoline combusts.

Question: What does the octane rating mean?

Answer: The octane rating is a way of quantifying gasoline's resistance to combustion. Essentially, premium gasoline with a rating of 91 is harder to ignite than regular gasoline with a rating of 87.

Question: Why would premium gasoline be harder to ignite, what's the point of that?

Answer: Premium gasoline is designed for specific vehicles, typically high performance, but it's requirement has been increasingly required in more mainstream vehicles.

High performance vehicles are built with increased loads in mind. They are often turbo or supercharged, and have higher internal compression than regular engines. Part of the ignition process with any fuel involves compression of some sort.

With higher than normal compression, lower octane gasoline can actually ignite before it reaches the cylinders of your engine. This is called detonation or knock, and causes your engine to lose power, fuel efficiency, and adds increased wear to internal components. With modern cars, they have computers and sensors to detect when this happens, and they respond by not running in an optimal setup, one setup for survive instead of thrive, causing the effects previously mentioned.

Question: So, if premium gas resists detonation better, why don't I just run that in my car that only says it needs regular?

Answer: You're free to run premium gas in this instance, but you won't be getting any advantage for doing so, as your car isn't designed for it. You'd essentially be paying a 10-18 cent/liter penalty for no net result.

Question: I heard that premium gas will give my car more power, is this true?

Answer: So, there isn't a blank statement that covers all vehicles for this, however, there are three main scenarios you will fall under:

1) Your engine says premium required - In this scenario, you won't gain power from using premium, however using lower octane fuels will result in a loss of power from what your engine is designed to produce. You'll also likely see a drop in fuel economy.

2) Your engine says regular recommended - In this scenario, using premium fuel again won't net any power gain. It's not going to hurt anything other than your bank balance, so just stick to a quality regular gasoline.

3) Your engine says premium recommended/optional - In this scenario, it's actually going to depend on how your car was advertised. Vehicles like this are designed to work or both regular and premium fuels. Premium gasoline will give you the full performance benefits that your engine can deliver.

These days, most manufacturers will advertise power ratings on premium fuel, but that's not always the case. Using my personal vehicle as an example (2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe Turbo), Hyundai advertised it as having 210hp from 2010-2012, but that was on regular fuel. On premium, the engine is rated at 223hp! By the time the updated the vehicle for the 2013 model year, Hyundai switched in their advertising, as the new version was advertised at 275hp, but this time, that was on premium. Using regular fuel dropped that down to 260hp.

So, through all of this, we've determined that premium gasoline isn't snake oil, it's just a specific product for a specific use. Make sure to consult your owners manual to see if this applies to you.

Before we close out this week's article, there was one more thing I wanted to mention about gasoline and that's gasoline quality and additives. Previously, companies were forced to compete with each other in a sort of arms race for who could provide the best fuel, with the most additives to clean engine deposits and such.

In 1995, the US introduced a standard for a minimum amount of additives required for gasoline. In most cases, regulations are good to make sure that there's a benchmark that companies are reaching. In this case, the regulation levels were much lower than most companies were including. This new standard gave them a license to actually reduce the quality of their fuels, with some brands losing as much as 50% of the additives they previously had.

In 2004, 10 top brands actually established a higher fuel standard after it had been recognized that the federal standards weren't optimal for performance, and they were seeing an uptick in issues related to the 1995 changed fuel standards. This became known as Top Tier gasoline. Using Top Tier certified gasoline, no matter the grade is one of those things you can do for your vehicle to keep it in great shape for years to come!

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