What's the difference between premium and regular gas?

October 8, 2004

Dear Cecil:

In this time of high gasoline prices, the Teeming Millions need your guidance (well, at least I do). What is the difference between premium and regular gas, and is this difference worth the extra money? I normally put premium gas into my car because I don't mind paying two or three extra dollars at the pump. Am I being scammed by the gas stations, or is the benefit to my car worth it?

Not to introduce a radical concept, Jeff, but have you tried reading your owner's manual? If it says to use premium, my advice is to use premium. If it says regular, use regular. The fact that your note indicates no acquaintance with such matters suggests that you may in fact be a scam victim, assuming by this you mean "someone who believes what he hears in commercials." I have a hard time working up much outrage over this deception, since discovering the facts requires so little effort. If you don't mind paying the extra money for no reason, don't expect the oil companies to suffer any pangs accepting it.

In most of the U.S., regular gas has an octane rating of 87, midgrade gas is 89, and premium is 91 or 92. (Octane ratings are lower in the mountain west due to the effects of thin air on internal combustion.) Contrary to widespread belief, the octane rating doesn't indicate how much power the fuel delivers; all grades of gasoline contain roughly the same amount of heat energy. Rather, a higher octane rating means the fuel is less likely to cause your engine to knock or ping. Knock, also known as detonation, occurs when part of the fuel-air mixture in one or more of your car's cylinders ignites spontaneously due to compression, independent of the combustion initiated by the spark plug. (The ideal gas law tells us that a gas heats up when compressed.) Instead of a controlled burn, you get what amounts to an explosion--not a good thing for your engine. To avoid this, high-octane gas is formulated to burn slower than regular, making it less likely to ignite without benefit of spark.

The majority of cars are designed to run on regular gas, and that's what the manuals tell the owners to use. Higher-performance cars often require midgrade or premium gas because their engines are designed for higher compression (higher compression = more power), and regular gas may cause knock. If your car needs high-octane gas, the manual will say so.

Using high-octane gas in a car designed for regular accomplishes little except more rapid combustion of your money. Some refuse to believe this, claiming, for example, that premium gives the family Toyota better mileage or more power. These people are in dreamland. Others say premium is purer or contains detergents that will cleanse your engine of uncouth deposits. Likewise misguided thinking--government regulations require detergents in all grades of gasoline. (BP Amoco, I notice, asserts that its premium gasoline contains more detergents than legally required; if you think that's worth 20 extra cents a gallon, be my guest.) Some automotive types claim that using premium in a car designed for regular will make the engine dirtier--something about deposits on the back side of the intake valves. I've also heard that slower-burning high-octane gas produces less power when used in ordinary cars. Believe what you like; the point is, don't assume "premium" means "better."

Occasionally you get some genius who takes the opposite tack--he spends an extra 10 or 20 grand buying a high-performance car, then decides he's going to save three bucks per tankful using regular instead of premium as specified. He figures as long as the engine doesn't knock he's OK. Wrong, carbon monoxide brain. Car engines nowadays contain knock sensors that detect detonation and automatically retard the spark to compensate. The delay means maximum gas expansion occurs when the piston is farther along in its downstroke and thus there's more room in the cylinder head. This reduces peak cylinder pressure, eliminating knock but also giving you less power and poorer mileage.

You may ask: Don't knock sensors make it hard to tell when an old car needs higher-octane gas? Years ago, when your beater started pinging on grades or under acceleration, that was the sign that carbon had built up in the cylinders, increasing compression, and it was time to switch to high-test. Now the knock sensors compensate, which seemingly might conceal the problem. Don't fret--today's fuel injection systems precisely meter the fuel-air mix, resulting in fewer unburned hydrocarbons and less carbon buildup. If you're still concerned, I'd say it makes more sense to spend $6 on a bottle of carbon clean-out juice than an extra $150 a year on high-priced gas.

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