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Is premium gasoline really better for luxury vehicles?

Is high-octane gas worth the price? See car engine pictures.
©­iStockphoto.com/asiseeit

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With gas prices fluctuating and the economy in an unpredictable state, drivers are constantly looking for ways to save money at the pump. The most obvious way to get a little savings is to opt for regular unleaded gasoline and instantly save around 20 cents per gallon over the premium stuff. In most states premium gasoline is defined as gas having an octane rating of 91 or 92 -- regular typically has an octane rating of 87. But will using a lower-grade gasoline actually hurt your car's engine? This is an especially important question if you own a luxury car, because the manufacturers of most luxury vehicles recommend premium gas.

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The answer to this question is somewhat complicated, but we'll start with the easy part. The first thing you should do is check your owner's manual. It's entirely possible that the manufacturer of the car doesn't even recommend premium gas. According to USA Today, some luxury cars from Ford and GM, such as the 2009 Lincoln MKS and the Cadillac STS, have been specifically manufactured to use regular unleaded fuel. If your car happens to be one of these examples, not only will you get no advantage from using premium fuel, but it may actually be harmful to the car's engine in the long run.

Here's another helpful hint: If your car does take premium, look to see whether the manufacturer "recommends" premium fuel or if it "requires" it. If it's only a recommendation (as it will be in most cases), you can safely use regular unleaded fuel; however, you may take a small hit on performance. We'll discuss the topic of performance in a little more detail later within this article. If premium unleaded fuel is a requirement, of course, you have to pay the extra money for premium fuel every time you fill up. This is because the car's engine is precisely tuned for that grade of gas.

­High-octane gas isn't necessarily better than regular grade. It isn't somehow more pure and it doesn't go through a superior refining process. It doesn't even keep your engine cleaner, as some people seem to believe. Premium fuel is just gas that contains a mixture of hydrocarbons that are slightly less combustible than those found in lower octane gas. This might seem odd, since cars use internal combustion engines that rely on the combustibility of gasoline to make them go. So, why would you pay extra money for gas that doesn't ignite quite as well as less expensive gas?

The answer has to do with the way in which expensive high-performance engines, the kind that you often find in most luxury cars, are manufactured. Find out why that matters on the next page.

Engines that have a high compression ratio, like this race car engine, can benefit from high-octane fuel.
Engines that have a high compression ratio, like this race car engine, can benefit from high-octane fuel.
©­­iStockphoto.com/Petr Nad

Most internal combustion automobile en­gines, whether they're four, six or eight cylinders, operate on a four-stroke cycle known as the Otto cycle. The four strokes are: intake, compression, combustion and exhaust. To put it in the simplest of terms, each of the vehicle's pistons moves up and down within a cylinder. As the piston moves to the bottom of the cylinder, a mixture of fuel and air flows in. The piston then moves upward, toward the top of the cylinder, compressing the air and fuel mixture as it does so. Just as the piston reaches the top of the cylinder, that cylinder's spark plug ignites. The spark creates a small, controlled explosion that forces the piston to the bottom of the cylinder. In the final stroke of the cycle, the piston moves upward to push the exhaust gas out of the cylinder. Once the exhaust gas has been pushed out, the entire cycle begins again. For a much more in-depth look at how an internal combustion engine operates, you may want to read How Car Engines Work.

As long as this process works as described above, the engine runs smoothly. But occasionally the pressure of the piston itself will cause the air and gas mixture to ignite prematurely during the compression cycle, creating a smaller, less powerful explosion. This is called preignition and it's the cause of engine knock, the erratic rattling or pinging sound you may occasionally hear underneath your car's hood. A little bit of engine knock isn't necessarily bad for your engine, but it's not desirable, either. It means that your engine isn't running as efficiently as it could be, and left unchecked, it could eventually cause damage. Engine knock reduces your car's performance, too, so you definitely want to avoid it. How, you may ask? Well, low-octane gas is more likely to ignite under the pressure of the piston alone, so it's also more likely to produce engine knock.

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Does this mean you should always use high-octane gas? Not necessarily. It really depends on the compression ratio of your engine. This is the ratio of the volume within the cylinder when the piston is at its lowest point to the volume within the cylinder when the piston is at its highest point. The higher the compression ratio, the more compressed the air and fuel mixture becomes and the more likely it is to ignite before it's supposed to due to pressure alone. Cars with a low compression ratio don't need premium gas because there's little danger of the air and fuel mixture igniting improperly. But high-performance engines, which have a high compression ratio, are more prone to preignition and can truly benefit from premium fuel. This would include the engines in most luxury cars.

Even so, premium gas isn't always necessary for these engines. We'll find out why on the next page.

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Luxury and performance car drivers should read their owner's manual to determine if premium unleaded fuel is "required" or simply "recommended" by the manufacturer.
Luxury and performance car drivers should read their owner's manual to determine if premium unleaded fuel is "required" or simply "recommended" by the manufacturer.
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

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Modern engines use a device called a knock sensor to detect the rattling and vibration within a cylinder that signals preignition. These sensors send a signal to the vehicle's Engine Control Unit (ECU), sometimes called an Engine Control Module (ECM), which then adjusts the engine's timing -- when the spark plugs fire -- to reduce or prevent the knock. Because these sensors are so effective, cars with knock sensors rarely experience engine knock, even when running on regular unleaded gasoline. However, because the timing is slightly adjusted when low-octane fuel is present, the car's performance and fuel efficiency is diminished slightly, too.

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Is the loss in performance dramatic enough to notice? For most people, the answer is probably no. According to one estimate, a car running on regular unleaded instead of premium will take about a half a second longer to accelerate from zero to 60 mph (97 kilometers per hour). Unless you're drag racing, it's unlikely that this will matter. Still, it's conceivable that you might find yourself in a situation where that half second just might matter -- merging safely with highway traffic, for instance. So, it's really up to you to decide if this is important.

Some experts claim that the loss in fuel efficiency when using regular gas in a luxury or high-performance car will be so great that it will actually cancel out the savings you get from buying cheaper low-octane gas. This point is debatable, but you should keep it in mind.

Another reason that people use premium unleaded fuel is that they believe it will keep their car's engine cleaner. This is because some fuel companies advertise that they add special detergents to their higher grades of gas. However, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations require that all grades of gas have detergent in them. Yes, the premium grades often have more detergent, but the lower octane fuels can keep your engine clean, too. If you have reason to believe that an unusual amount of buildup has collected in your engine, simply buy a detergent additive at your local auto store and add it to the tank yourself.

So, unless your owner's manual says that your luxury car "requires" premium gas, it isn't going to hurt your car if you don't use it. And regular gas isn't going to have a significant impact on your engine's performance, either. Basically, it's up to you to decide whether the small impact that it does have is worth the extra cost of premium fuel.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Carty, Sharon Silke. "Luxury cars switch from premium to regular-gas diet." USA Today. August 7, 2008. (March 31, 2009) http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2008-08-06-premium-gas-regular_N.htm
  • Fabin, James. "The Misguided Fear of Premium Gas." MyRide.com. (March 27, 2009) http://www.myride.com/lifestyle/the_misguided_fear_of_premium_gas-4120-page1.html
  • Harley, Michael. "More cars than ever require premium fuel." Autoblog. April 17, 2008. (March 27, 2009) http://www.autoblog.com/2008/04/17/more-cars-than-ever-require-premium-fuel/
  • Woodyard, Chris. "More cars use pricier premium gas." USA Today. April 17, 2008. (March 27, 2009) http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2008-04-13-premium-gas_N.htm

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