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Premium gas for your regular car: Is it really worth the cost?

Published November 27, 2012

Unless you’re driving in the Indy, running a high-performance vehicle or just don’t care about the high cost of filling up, regular gasoline is better for your car and the environment.

Or is it?

Not only is it cheaper but regular gas produces lower emissions in engines rated for fuel with an octane level of 87, yet many argue premium burns cleaner and gives you more horsepower in any engine.

The octane rating is the measure of an engine fuel’s performance with the higher number indicating the level of compression the fuel can withstand before detonating.

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Whether it goes by the name premium, super, ultra, high-test, gold or supreme, high octane gas is recommended and may even be required in some supercharged engines.

One of downtown Toronto’s few remaining gas stations, the Corktown Econo at Front and Sherbourne Sts., sits on what seems to be the only St. Lawrence neighbourhood corner lot that hasn’t given way to a towering condo project.

This week regular is selling for 123.9 cents and premium is at 139.4 cents, which would make about a $10 difference when filling the average car’s gas tank.

“I’d say about 20 per cent of the gas we sell is premium, if that,” said co-owner Jim Stonley.

As it turns out that’s the same as the national average according to the Canadian Fuels Association, which represents the industry that supplies 95 per cent of the country’s transportation fuels. Their records show total premium sales from coast to coast are less than 20 per cent by volume.


“If you’re driving a leased car or a rental why would you want to spend that (the premium price) to fill it up?” Stonley pondered.

“I have an old antique car and once in a while I’ll put in ultra-premium because a lot of older guys say it runs cleaner, but who knows,” he added.

While the average premium gasoline sold has an octane level of 91, Sunoco is favoured by many high-performance car owners because it is rated at 94, yet there are some who believe Shell’s V-Power (91) is just as good.

Today’s gasoline commercials boast the superiority of their detergent additive and nitrogen-enriched fuels that clean dirty engine parts of harmful “gunk” deposits and improve engine performance and life.

It’s a modern spin on claims made by scores of fuel brands over the past century.

In the 1930s and 40s gas didn’t just run your engine but “vitalized” it with “zip” and “pep” along the road to “more horsepower”. “All-Canadian” Supertest was pumping “Wonder” gasoline, while Shell was selling “the fuel of the future today.”

Texaco boasted in 1953 its fuel “packs more punch” and gave your ride “lively winter performance” because it was “supercharged” for more “Get up and go.”

A fill up in the 1960s with Esso “put a tiger in your tank”, Gulf’s No-Nox gave Betsy “extra kick”, Mobil boldly declared “all gasolines are not created equal” and Sunoco offered “driving peace of mind” when you “custom blended” grades with the turn of a dial on its pumps.

By the mid-70s the energy crisis stemming from the Arab oil embargo on the west tamed North American gasoline advertising, as cars lined up for fuel at gas stations and people began to embrace smaller, less gas guzzling vehicles. Gas ads began focusing on “happy motoring”, “saving the planet” and “better performance.”

A recent CBC Marketplace segment called Pump Fiction reported many Canadian drivers pay more for premium thinking it’s better for their cars and the environment. A technical expert found the opposite was true. His analysis showed high octane gas didn’t burn efficiently and it produced more hydrocarbons, which contribute to the production of greenhouse gases.

Using a 2013 Chevrolet Cruze rated for regular gas, the auto expert simulated identical drives with Shell’s regular and premium V-Power.

Some say it wasn’t enough testing and a broader range of experiments using several different vehicles of varying vintage, in various weather conditions and with a variety of drivers would have produced different results.

“Premium burns cleaner, but I don’t think one or two tanks would do it. It would have to be over a longer time,” said Dennis Mott, a Centennial College instructor who teaches apprenticeship students engine repair and maintenance.

“If you’re commuting in a small car you’re probably not going to maximize the combustion of high test fuel, but if you’re driving with a heavy load or car pooling, driving up a lot of hills and around corners and constantly accelerating you would probably benefit from it (using a higher octane grade of gas).

“The average Honda four-cylinder car with a single passenger commuting to work would never see the advantage,” he added.

Mott believes you “get what you pay for” when you buy cheap fuel, especially if the octane level is below 87, which can be the case some times and owners of cars rated for regular gas will notice their engines “knocking” or “pinging”, as Mott’s father recently did on a drive from Windsor to Toronto.

He suggested his dad fill up with a midgrade for the trip back, which he did, and the engine knock stopped. Mott runs premium gas in both his supercharged Pontiac Grand Prix and the family mini van.

“I’ve taken enough engines apart and I can tell you that when you run supreme in a vehicle on a regular basis the internal components of the engine will definitely be cleaner, but is there a net gain for you? Would the gunk have caused drivability issues in the long run? Sure it would, but would I own the vehicle by the time it gets to that?”

And just as motorists who put premium gas in their cars rated for regular, there are folks that swear their cars run just fine on regular gas even though the vehicle manufacturer “recommends” a higher octane level fuel.

“The vast majority of our vehicles do not require premium fuel. There are a few vehicles we recommend premium for (but not required) and then a couple of high performance vehicles that do require it,” said George Saratlic, product communications manager with GM of Canada.

“All the information the customer needs regarding octane is in the owner’s manual. Each engine is designed for a specific octane requirement based on the performance of the engine. In all cases, GM recommends the use of top tier detergent gasoline.

“In Canada, Shell, Petro Canada, Esso and Chevron are all top tier suppliers. Top tier provides the GM recommended level of deposit control additives in all octane blends, while other gasoline brands may not,” he said.

In the past most cars were subject to engine knock — small gasoline explosions that made the car run rough. Burning higher octane gas solved the problem caused by the poorly-timed gas ignitions, but modern engines have electronic knock sensors that make timing adjustments to prevent knocking.

“If you ran anything other than the higher grade of octane in cars that require premium, you would have major problems with your engine and real quick, not months or years. If the owner’s manual says you have to run it there’s no exception,” Mott said.

Regular or premium? The choice is yours and so are the consequences.

 

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