Premium vs Regular Gas – The Truth To Saving Money

SUMMARY POINTS

> Don’t buy premium gas unless your car requires it
> Premium fuel doesn’t provide any benefits for cars that don’t need it
> Save even more money on gas by changing driving habits

There’s less than a quarter tank of fuel left in the tank. It’s almost empty. You’re gonna have to swing by the gas station again to fill up soon.

It’s another unavoidable life expense that we all have to pay for and it sucks.

As you pull into your usual gas station, you take a peek at the current prices and it’s not looking good - at all.

Why is it that gas prices always shoot up fast but are really slow to fall?

You know how important it is to have a reliable working car in your life. And, you do your best to stay on top of oil changes and routine maintenance. But, this almost weekly expense is really putting a serious dent in your meager savings.

It’s during these moments where you start to think if it’s okay to use regular unleaded gas instead of the higher quality stuff. It’d be a really easy way to save a few bucks.

But, then you wonder what engine damage might occur by using the lower grade regular gas. It might lead to a huge repair bill that you can’t afford. You’ve got enough monthly expenses to deal with already.

You do want to take care of your car, but just the basics.

It’s the usual three choices of regular, mid-grade and premium. You reach for the good stuff because you want to be good to your car and it’ll run better.

After about 5 minutes, your vehicle’s tank is full and your credit card bill just went up again.

As you drive off, you wonder, is it worth it?

Fuel Grades Explained In Simple Terms

You’ve often seen the three option selection offered at your various shopping jaunts, whether it’s online or out in the real world. It’s the classic “good, better and best” marketing tactic.

Go up and down the canned food aisle at your local grocery and you’ll see the generic no-brand tomato sauce (good), house-brand tomato sauce (better) and the name-brand tomato sauce (best).

It’s the same at every single gas station.

There are three grades of fuel to choose from - regular, mid-grade and premium. What dictates the grades is the amount of octane in the fuel.

We’re not going to get all chemical engineering on you - your eyes will just glaze over. But, here’s the explanation is simple English.

Octane is a standardized unit of measurement kinda like how we use pounds for weight and feet for distance. The octane rating measures how much the fuel can be squeezed or compressed in a vaporized form before it becomes unstable and ignites itself.

And, it’s this squeezability that determines its grade level.

Regular (87 Octane)

This is the minimum octane grade you’ll see at all the gas stations. About 80% - 90% of all gasoline sold in the US is the 87 octane variety. It’s no surprise since it’s the cheapest option available.

But, just because it’s the cheapest doesn’t mean that it’s the worst. In fact, all gasoline sold in the US must meet Federal EPA standards for quality. So, they all include cleaning additives and agents to make engines run better with less emissions.

Mid-Grade (89 Octane)

The mid-grade of the line-up is the oddball here. It’s not the “just right solution” either. This isn’t the Little Red Riding Hood “perfect fit” of gasoline.

Many folks are under the notion that if they can’t quite splurge and pay for a tank of premium then, a mid-grade fill-up would be a good compromise.

This middle grade of fuel is pretty useless. There aren’t any cars (in large volumes) that specifically call out for requiring mid-grade fuel.

This is purely a marketing thing - remember, the good, better, best thing?

Premium (93 Octane)

This is the top tier grade. It’s got the highest octane rating, which means that the fuel has been optimized to handle very high-pressure engines - the kind found on high-performance sports cars and premium luxury models.

This high octane rating means that it can handle really high pressures and be compressed a lot without becoming unstable and self-igniting.

Only about 10% - 15% of all cars on the road here in the US requires premium fuel. But, that figure may increase as more vehicles are being manufactured with high-pressure engines to get better fuel economy.

These are cars with small turbo-charged engines. The turbos push more air into a smaller engine, thus increasing the pressure. And that higher pressure, requires higher octane.

When Premium Actually Made A Difference

In the old days, before cars got all whiz-bang with electronic controls and software, “dumb” engines couldn’t figure out what kind of fuel was in the tank. It just ran with whatever gas you poured.

Using the wrong kind of gas could make the engine run poorly and possibly even damage internal parts. If you used regular gas in a car that required premium, the engine would make weird pinging or knocking sounds - that’s when the lower octane gas would self-ignite when it wasn’t supposed to.

Next, right around the mid-1970’s the US EPA phased out leaded gasoline due to environmental and health concerns. This spurred the growth of “unleaded” gasoline in different octane grades throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.

This was when premium fuel really made a big difference.

The big oil companies tended to only put the cleaners and additives in the top tier grade. Buying premium gas back then meant that you got fuel that performed better and cleaned the engine. The other lower grades didn’t get those extra bonuses.

By the early-to-mid 2000’s, the US EPA really starting clamping down on emissions from gasoline and this is what spurred the oil companies to essentially put cleaners and additives in all their grades, not just the top tier premium.

But, because there was 20+ years of public awareness that premium had all the good stuff and your car ran the best with it, the general consumer perception of premium still holds today - even though all grades have cleaning additives.

Just look at the gas pump next time you’re at the station. You’ll see that the oil company puts cleaners in all grades because they “care about you, your car and the environment.” They’re just spinning the US EPA requirements that they all have to meet.

Busting The Myths Of Premium Fuel

Because of the legacy perceptions of premium gas having the best formulation, many people still buy the top tier grade fuel, even though their car doesn’t need it.

It’s partly the desire to “treat their car” with good stuff and partly the fear of using “low grade” gas that will damage the engine and thus leave you with a costly repair bill.

It’s this fear of costly damage to your engine and to a lesser extent, polluting the environment, that the oil companies use to convince you to buy the premium formulations.

Here are the most common myths about using premium gas and the truth of the matter.

Myth #1: Better for your engine
Truth: Not unless your car requires it

Unless your car specifically requires premium fuel, using premium gas isn’t any better for your car. Period.

Don’t know what kind of gas your car requires?

Easy - just check your fuel filler door or gas cap. It should be written there. You can also check your owner’s manual too.

If it doesn’t say “REQUIRED” then you can use regular unleaded gas. It may say, “RECOMMENDED” and the same goes here too - regular gas is perfectly fine. We’ll talk more about this required vs. recommended thing later.

Stepping up to premium fuel when you’re car doesn’t need it is like watering your plants with Voss bottled water.

If you don’t believe us, here’s the US Federal Trade Commission’s statement on this:

“Unless it’s recommended by your owner’s manual, don’t spend the money on high octane gas. In most cases, there’s no benefit.”

You can read all the details here if you want to.

The bottom line - premium fuel won’t make your car run better or cleaner. But, the oil companies tell you the opposite.

It’s largely marketing bullshit that plays into our fears of not taking care of our cars or the environment. 

Myth #2: Better fuel economy
Truth: No improvement in mileage

Here are some simple physics about fuel economy. We’ll use an analogy to make things a bit easier to grasp too.

Fuel economy is simply how much gas is used up to travel a set distance, for vehicles in the US, it’s in miles and for others outside the US, it’s kilometers. The more gas that is used to go one mile the shittier the fuel economy and vice versa.

A big SUV requires a lot more gasoline to go one mile than a small hybrid car.

It’s simple physics. Heavier things require more energy to move and keep moving. Lighter things are just the opposite.

It’s like when your shopping cart is full of groceries, it takes a lot more of your effort to get it going. But when it’s empty, it’s easy.

So in order to have better efficiency, you either have to lighten the load a lot or become Arnold Schwarzenegger and have a lot more strength.

Well, with cars that don’t require premium fuel, using the higher grade fuel doesn’t produce more power. It’s the same. So, there are no gains in fuel economy.

And even if it did, the gains are so minuscule (we’re talking around 1% folks) that any meager improvements in mileage are totally negated by the much higher cost.

The best and biggest gains in fuel economy are through changing your driving style.

Myth #3: Better for the environment
Truth: No decrease in tailpipe emissions

Again, some simple physics here. Gasoline is an explosive fuel in liquid form. It’s sprayed into your engine along with air and then, that air-fuel mixture is then squeezed and then ignited to make a big boom that pushes the car forward.

After the air-fuel mixture is burned, the remaining by-products from the chemical explosion that took place, is sent out the tailpipe - the exhaust.

The only way for premium fuel to have fewer emissions is to have a substantially different core formula like using natural gas instead of gasoline. But since all grades of gasoline use the same core ingredients from crude oil, the emissions are pretty much the same with negligible variance.

Over the years, the US EPA has mandated big changes to gasoline formulations. One of the biggest changes was moving away from leaded gasoline to unleaded gasoline - that was back in the 70’s. This move helped a lot toward improving smog and tailpipe emissions.

Today, the EPA regulates all fuels in the US. And, they set quality requirements that all oil companies must meet to minimize tailpipe emissions, regardless of what octane grade you use.

Using premium fuel doesn’t reduce your tailpipe emissions, driving less does.

Myth #4: More cleaners & additives
Truth: Yes, but they provide very little benefit

While it’s true that many premium fuels will have extra detergents and additives above and beyond the required EPA quality minimums, they don’t provide significant benefits.

Yes, maybe over the span of 20+ years of using the same engine, you can see some substantial differences, but who owns a car for that long?

All grades of gasoline sold in the US have formulations that include detergents and other additives to ensure that your engine runs as clean as it can.

However, premium grades are often marketed as having “extra strength” cleaning capabilities. You’ve seen, heard or read these terms many times:

“Keeps your engine running smooth.”

“Removes harmful engine deposits.”

“Eliminates carbon build up.”

Guess what?

All modern fuels today do that.

Once you get to a certain level of clean, the gains for more cleanliness are minimal.

It’s like cleaning your cereal bowl several times in a row. The first time cleaning is 99.99% good enough. Yes, you can do a hot dishwasher steam clean followed by some UV light disinfection to kill off any bacteria, but really, the first wash is more than good.

Myth #5: Regular gas will void your warranty
Truth: Very unlikely to zero chance

Back when engines were “dumb” without sophisticated sensors, it was possible to damage your engine when using regular fuel when it required premium.

But, it wasn’t immediate damage. It took awhile for the damage to occur.

Today, all modern cars since the early 2000’s have all sorts of sensors to monitor how the engine is running.

Engineers at car manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that the engine can handle a wide range of situations. They plan for this stuff.

If you mistakenly pump in regular fuel instead of premium (when your car requires it), it’s not the end of the world.

The engine sensors will “see” that it’s not premium fuel and will make the necessary adjustments so that it can continue running on regular and will prevent any internal damage from happening.

So, if you have a new car that’s still under warranty today, rest assured that using regular fuel instead of premium by mistake isn’t going to void your warranty.

What it will do is reduce your engine’s horsepower by a few ponies - nothing that you’d be able to notice or feel in everyday driving.

Most Cars Run Perfectly Fine On Regular

The vast majority of cars on the road today are designed and engineered to run on regular unleaded gasoline. We’re talking 80%+ of vehicles out there.

Unless you’ve got a high-performance sports car or luxury premium brand, chances are really good that your car runs on regular gas.

Don’t get under the false notion that running your car on premium fuel is like giving it a special treat. For engines that don’t require it, using premium gas makes zero difference in making your car run better, smoother or more efficiently.

According to AAA, in the US alone, drivers spend more than $2 billion a year on high-octane gas for their cars that don’t require it. All because of that false notion of it being better quality than regular gas, which is simply not true.

This is quite literally burning excess money right out the tailpipe.

You’re not doing any bonus favors for your car or the environment. It’s only fattening the profit margins for the oil companies and decreasing your disposable income.

You’re better off saving that bit of cash and putting it toward an automatic car wash or an oil change instead.

Clearing The Air Between “Recommended” And “Required"

This is where the biggest confusion lies with a lot of us.

If the car manufacturer is “recommending” premium fuel, shouldn’t we follow their advice? After all, they did a lot of engineering development and research to make sure that we get a car that performs perfectly.

The answer is that manufacturers often “recommend” premium fuel for certain situations.

For example, if you wanted a few more horsepower for bragging rights, then by all means, go ahead and spend the extra cash.

Or, if you’re towing or hauling a trailer, having a bit of extra oomph is helpful.

In either case, it’s recommended but not mandatory or required. And honestly, 99% of us driving our cars for our daily commute wouldn’t feel any difference in power.

Can you feel the difference between 60 mph and 61 mph?

Yeah, neither can we.

Whenever the manufacturer “recommends” premium fuel, it had designed the engine to run on all grades of fuel from regular all the way up to premium.

All modern cars since the early 2000’s have engine sensors and systems designed to “taste” what kind of fuel you put into the tank and make all the adjustments in real-time so that it runs smoothly and at its most efficient levels.

So, using regular instead of premium for vehicles that “recommend” premium isn’t going to hurt the car at all. It’s a great way to save a bit of cash.

Watch this short 3-minute video clip from Consumer Reports. They are a widely trusted and unbiased resource for testing things like this. Here in this video, they’re speaking to the whole “recommended” thing.

VIDEO: Regular Gas vs. Premium Gas
YOUTUBE: Consumer Reports
LENGTH: 3:18

Summary points:
> Don’t use premium unless it’s “required”
> Cars that “recommend” premium can use regular
> Changing driving habits is the best way to save on gas

Now, let’s expand on the whole premium “required” thing.

Most of the time, these are your high-zoot sports cars or premium luxury makes with high-performance engines.

Remember our explanation about octane levels for engines that have high pressure?

Well, these high-pressure engines need to have high-octane fuel so that they can perform at higher performance levels. It’s mainly a power thing and in some rare cases a fuel economy thing.

With today’s modern engine tech, even if you didn’t use premium when it actually requires it, the car will run fine for the same reasons we mentioned above - the engine sensors make adjustments on-the-fly.

What will happen is that your engine will be down a few horsepower - not enough to be noticeable in normal commuting.

Does this mean that you can ignore “premium required” and just use regular?

Well, put it this way - it’s not going to destroy your engine in the short term.

Your engine may hiccup a bit and your fuel economy might dip slightly. But most likely, you probably won’t notice much at all.

Over the long haul though, it does increase the chances of internal engine damage. So, it’s best to stick with premium - even though it stings at the pump.

Stick With Regular & Save The Money

There are some unavoidable expenses in life - food, rent/mortgage, school loans, utilities and of course, gasoline for our weekday commuting and general around town errands and trips.

Wherever and whenever we can save a few bucks here and there, it starts to really add up and make a difference.

And choosing to use regular gas instead of premium is an easy way to do that.

If you really want to save a lot on gas costs, there are better ways that provide much bigger savings like…

- Changing your driving habits
- Keeping your tires inflated
- Using a cheap gas finder app
- Buddying up and carpooling

These are all instant ways to save money on gas that you can use starting today.

Whatever option you choose, if you stick with it, you’ll be coming out ahead. And, you can use those savings toward actual fun things in life instead of gas. 😉

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]