With gas prices hitting new highs and expected to continue climbing, many consumers are starting to wonder if they really need to put premium-grade gasoline in their car.
The answer in most cases is no, according to AAA and other experts.
If you car requires premium fuel, you should by all means continue using it. But if it just recommends premium, you can probably go for the cheaper grade and save 30 to 50 cents a gallon, AAA advises.
"If you’re one of the 16.5 million U.S. drivers who has used premium fuel despite the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation, press that 87 octane button and save yourself some money," AAA said in a research report. AAA’s analysis found that there is no benefit to using premium fuel in vehicles designed to run on regular gas or that recommend, but do not require, premium gasoline.
"Mid-grade" fuel offers no benefit, except a higher profit margin for the gas station.
AAA tested regular and premium gasoline in vehicles designed to operate on regular-grade fuel. The laboratory testing found no significant improvement in horsepower, fuel economy or emissions, suggesting the practice of using premium gasoline when it’s not required for the vehicle offers no advantage.
Some premium car brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW require high octane (91 or better) to meet their performance and mileage standards. But most other newer cars have onboard computers that adjust engine operation to match the available octane and will run fine on regular 87-octane gas.
Cleaner fuel is more important than higher octane
Using a higher-octane fuel than your car is designed for doesn't hurt the car but it takes a bite out of your budget. With gas prices at monumental heights, that extra 40 cents or so adds up in a hurry.
A better option is to use fuel that meets Top Tier standards, AAA said. Top Tier is gasoline that contains detergents that help keep your fuel system clean and flowing freely. Top Tier fuels are generally sold at brand-name stations like Chevron and Shell. Discount stations selling generic gas may not include the detergent, which is one reason they're able to offer lower prices.
Some stations will display a Top Tier logo on their pumps but not all do. However, any major brand station that says its gas contains detergent is probably selling Top Tier fuel. You can find a complete list of licensed Top Tier brands here.
Don't take this to mean you can disregard the manufacturer's recommendations about octane. Check your owner’s manual, advises Doug Shupe, program manager at the Automobile Club of Southern California and the AAA in a Los Angeles Times report. And pay close attention to the language when you do.
“Unless your vehicle manufacturer says premium is required — not recommended, but required — we’ve found no advantage to using premium fuel,” Shupe said.
Most drivers choose by location or price
AAA's advice largely falls on deaf ears, however. Its study found that Americans are six times more likely to choose a gas station based on gasoline price rather than quality, even though by selecting a quality gasoline, drivers can minimize engine deposits, increase vehicle performance and improve fuel economy.
The auto club research found that nearly half (47 percent) of U.S. drivers don’t regularly buy gasoline that contains an enhanced detergent additive.
As for choosing a gas station, the study found:
► Three-quarters of U.S. drivers decide where to fuel up based on station location (75 percent) or price (73 percent).
► Nearly one-third (29 percent) of U.S. drivers choose based on a rewards program.
► Only 12 percent of U.S. drivers select a station based on whether its gasoline contains an enhanced detergent package.
Cars are expensive to buy and maintenance is costly, so it's important to use the right fuel. If gas prices are getting you down, it's better to cut back on driving than to use the wrong grade of gas.