Pain At The Pump: ‘Regular’ Cars That Run On Premium Fuel – Forbes

Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2017

You might be surprised to learn that the tiny Smart ForTwo requires costly premium-grade gasoline to realize its full performance potential…of 89 horsepower. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Today’s precisely engineered cars with their higher-compression turbocharged and direct fuel-injected engines are increasingly recommending the use of costlier premium-grade fuel to achieve their maximum performance potential. And while one might expect high-powered luxury models and sports cars to require the added octane, we found a surprising number of otherwise ordinary cars and crossovers that now rely on premium.

As of this writing the national average for regular-grade gas is $2.66 according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, while premium is going for $3.16. For the mathematically impaired, that’s 50 cents more per gallon; at that, we’ve seen premium-grade fuel costing as much as a dollar per gallon more than regular at some stations in the Chicago area. In California, where residents suffer the steepest fuel prices in the nation,  premium is selling for an average $3.40 per gallon. That’s only nominally less than the national average for regular-grade back in 2012 when it hit an all-time high of $3.60 and motorists were snapping up the high-mileage small and midsize cars they’re now dumping in favor of trucks and SUVs.

So much for cheap gas, right?

Regular-grade gas is typically rated at 87 “octane,” which is a measure of how much compression fuel can withstand before igniting. Premium, on the other hand, is rated at 91-octane (there’s also a nebulous and largely superfluous mid-grade choice at 89-octane that’s priced somewhere between the two). Higher octane fuel can be compressed to a higher ratio without detonating erratically, which usually manifests itself as “knocking” or “pinging.”

If you’re looking to save money at the pump, be sure to choose a vehicle that’s built specifically to run on regular-grade 87-octane petrol. The fuel requirement for a given model is printed on a label that’s affixed to the inside of the fuel filler door and is noted in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. While today’s engines include a so-called knock sensor that can automatically alter the timing of the spark plugs to safely accommodate lower octane fuel than is otherwise recommended, your car’s performance and its fuel economy will be adversely affected to some degree if you’re running it on regular when premium-grade is otherwise advised.

How much more will you spend running a car that recommends premium gas? Let’s look at two comparable models, the midsize Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion sedans. Both can be fitted with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, with the Chevy generating 250 horsepower and the Ford responsible for 231 horses. They’re rated similarly by the EPA at 26 and 25 mpg, respectively, in combined city/highway driving. But the Malibu recommends premium fuel, while the Fusion is built to run on regular. Based on the above national averages, the Chevrolet will cost an average owner $1,000 more for premium fuel over the course of a five-year ownership period than the Ford, according to the EPA’s fuel cost calculator. If you happen to live where premium costs a buck more per gallon than regular, that markup would swell to $2,500 over five years.

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