The Misguided Fear of Premium Gas
Avoiding premium gas may cost you in the long run
It's no news that gasoline prices have doubled in the last two years. Who remembers saying gas was expensive at $2.18 a gallon in January of 2007? Along with the seemingly ever-increasing cost to fill up, we're constantly hearing advice on how to save at the pump. All too often that advice includes a statement such as, "If your car uses premium gas, try switching to regular." Thoughts of using a lower-grade gas usually bring images of huge savings, so much that some people have a negative feeling toward cars that recommend or require premium gas. In today's world of $4-plus gas, premium gas can actually be a bargain -- and using it over regular may actually cost you less.
Using Premium Can Save Me Money?
Let's first address how using premium gas can actually cost less, and dispel the recommendation to use a lower octane. For those who drive cars designed for regular gas, you most likely will be throwing away your money by using premium -- stick with regular. For those with cars that require or recommend premium gas, you will be doing yourself a disservice by using regular. You need to use premium to achieve the rated power and the maximum miles per gallon. Over the years as gas prices have continued to climb, the cost difference between regular and premium has remained fairly constant, about 20 cents per gallon. Years ago, that extra 20 cents added up to another couple gallons per tank, but today, it adds up to less than a gallon. For example, filling up an SUV with 16.5 gallons of $4.57 regular will cost me $75.40, whereas using the required premium will cost me $78.70, a small $3.30 difference.
In my SUV, I almost always average 16.3 mpg on premium gas (I've got a bit of a lead foot). While researching this article, I tested a tank of regular gas and the results were shocking. I was not able to perceive any performance difference (which I thought I would, since my SUV requires premium), but according to my car's computer I averaged only 15.1 mpg. While this is far from a scientific study, it supports the information I found in my research that running a car designed for premium gas on regular gas would result in decreased fuel economy.
Now let's do the math: I spent $75.40 on regular and was only able to travel 249 miles vs. spending $78.70 and being able to travel 269 miles. To make up that 20-mile difference, I would need another 1 1/3 gallons of regular gas, costing me an additional $6.05. Putting it all together, I can go 269 miles on regular gas for $81.45 ($75.40+$6.05) or use premium and get 269 miles for $78.70! Not only would premium be better for my SUV (which requires premium), I would have more power and spend less to get where I am going. Paying less may save me a few dollars per fill-up, but I'm not going to get as far and will have to fill up more often, which at the end of the month will cost me more (this doesn't even take into account any future damage and repair bills caused by not using premium).
As mentioned, this only applies to cars that are designed for premium gas, cars that specifically say either "required" or "recommended" in the owner's manual. Put premium fuel in a car designed for regular will provide no benefits, except you'll burn through your money faster.
Fear Not the Premium Pump
We've demonstrated that the fear of premium gas is misguided in today's $4+ per gallon world. Now let's look at cars which many people may overlook due to their requirements for premium. I did an informal survey of friends and strangers over the last week as I prepared for this article. I asked them if they found two cars they liked and one required premium, how that impacted their purchase decision. The responses where all the same -- they wouldn't buy the car that required the "expensive" gas. I then followed up with "what if the car that required premium got 3 MPG more" and the responses were still the same -- no to the "expensive" gas. I then explained how the "expensive" gas wasn't that much more and how many cars have smaller tanks which usually only require about 12 gallons a fill-up (not driving it bone-dry) which would only cost $2.40 more per fill-up. It was eye opening to everyone I spoke to -- each had the misguided belief that premium cost so much more and no one ever thought about doing the math to determine how much it cost per mile.
Today there are more cars that require premium gas then there were last year. Many use superchargers, turbochargers or higher compression to get more power from a smaller engine, while still delivering higher fuel economy than a larger engine of equal power. As fuel economy continues to become more important to shoppers, we're going to see more cars that are designed for premium, even small cars. While many of today's small cars that benefit from premium are luxury brands (Acura TSX, Audi A3, BMW 1 Series, Infiniti EX, Saab 9-3), you'll already find affordable non-luxury vehicles that benefit from premium (Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser Turbo, MINI Cooper, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen GTI). Who would have ever thought that you would actually save money filling up your new Nissan Sentra with premium gas instead or regular?
The bottom line
If you have a car that's designed for premium gas (the owner's manual says it is recommended or required), there is a good chance you will spend more per month on fuel if you try to save money by using regular. Each fill-up may be a couple dollars less, but you'll be filling up more often. Many of today's cars can benefit from using premium gas, not just the luxury or high performance models, so check your owner's manual and see if you can increase your fuel economy by simply changing to premium. Most importantly, if you want to save money on gas then look at changing your driving habits, always the best way to make the largest impact on your mpg.
By James Fabin
Photo credit: Oliver Bentley, Manufacturers<