Paying extra for premium gas? You should probably stop

You love your car. You want to treat it well. You definitely don’t want to do anything that could ruin it. That’s why you’ve been filling up with premium gasoline all these years. But at a price above $7 a gallon, you start to wonder: Does my car really need the good stuff? Can I switch to a regular type? Or should I compromise and buy the upgrade?

Answer: Probably no, probably yes and almost certainly not.

Confused? Don’t worry, you’re in good company.

Years of research at American Automobile Assn’s Los Angeles fuel lab. pointed out that if your car requires a premium, you should stick with the premium and save money. But thanks to a combination of ingenious marketing and quirky consumer psychology, about 16.5 million US drivers have filled their cars with premiums when normally just fine, according to AAA.

Think you could be one of them? Doug Shupe, program director at the Southern California Auto Club and AAA, recommends looking at your owner’s manual. And pay attention to the language. “Unless your vehicle manufacturer says premiums are required – not recommended, but required – we see no advantage in using premium fuels,” says Shupe.

If it says “recommended,” you can skip the recommendation and pocket the 30 to 50 cents per gallon you’ll save. Shupe says spending more will yield no benefits in terms of horsepower, fuel economy or emissions.

Depending on how much you drive, switching can save several hundred dollars a year. With the average price of a typical gallon now over $6 in California, that’s money that could be used to buy food or rent.

What does “premium” even mean? That gasoline is impregnated with a hydrocarbon molecule called octane. In a high-compression engine, the high pressure can squeeze the fuel-air mixture so tightly and so hot that some of the fuel will burn before it’s needed. That results in uneven explosive force, which can unnecessarily vibrate engine components. The extra octane number helps the fuel burn more evenly.

In California, premium gas is labeled with an octane rating of 91, medium grade 89 and regular grade 87. All lead free.

The AAA octane test results are generally accepted. So why would an automaker recommend a premium when it’s not needed? One reason could be that many customers believe that premium, obligatory or not, will increase engine performance.

For a manufacturer looking to support the high sticker price of a luxury car with similar high-performance claims, the association may not be compromised. According to Jil McIntosh at Autotrader, some higher-end models like Audi and BMW have a sensor that can tell if premium or regular gas is available, and adjust the engine accordingly.

AAA Labs did not test the midsize fuel’s pluses or minuses. That may be because there aren’t many benefits to talk about, other than the gas industry’s profit margins. (The exception is older cars with engine noises, which can benefit from mid-air gas.)

The choice between is an artifact from the days when unleaded gasoline started appearing as an alternative to leaded gasoline. Gas stations need three pumps to sell regular leaded, regular unleaded, and unleaded. After leaded gas was phased out in the early 1990s, the medium was one way to take advantage of a third pump.

Midgrade accounts for a very small portion of retail gasoline sales. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 88% of gas sold in the United States is conventional, 11% is premium grade, and the remainder is mid-range.

If the midsize customer is trading from the normal, whether they need it or not, that pump offers a lower profit margin. When premium customers trade decreases, profit margins are reduced.

According to Shupe, one thing all gas buyers should be looking for if they’re looking for performance and longer engine life: an indication that a gas station is selling “Top Tier” fuel. There will usually be a label on the pump. Most major brands do; Many small brands do the same. Any gasoline – regular, medium, premium – can be a Top Tier.

This gasoline is formulated with additives that reduce carbon build-up and is tested by an independent team to verify the formulation. Tests show that such fuel improves performance and prolongs engine life. For example, brand names like Chevron’s Techron and Shell’s V-Power are Top Tier, although they are not always designated as such.

Those fuels are more expensive than gas at deep discount stations that don’t sell Top Tier gas, but AAA suggests that the extra few cents are worth it. Paying extra for premium gas? You should probably stop

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