I can do without premium fuel, and so can you

Consumer Reports News: April 23, 2012 03:38 PM

Too many motorists who routinely take a proverbial slap in the face at the gas pumps, turn the other cheek for further punishment. These are drivers who power their ride with premium fuel. And why not? With a name like "premium," it has to be better than plain-old "regular," right?

Not really. The different gasoline designations refer to resistance of fuel to knocking or pinging, a potentially damaging condition in which gasoline burns uncontrollably in the engine's combustion chambers.

But the reality is, most cars don't need premium. If your owner's manual specifies regular fuel, don't be tempted to treat it once in a while to premium. It is unnecessary. If you must treat the car, instead invest in routine maintenance, quality tires with low rolling resistance, and an occasional hand wash.

If premium is "recommended," rather than "required," that means that premium gasoline will deliver the engine's peak performance, making good on the full advertised horsepower claim. But unless you're racing, the difference in performance from one fuel to another is negligible.

For instance, the 2013 Ford Escape with the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine produces 240 horsepower at 5500 rpm on premium fuel. That number drops slightly to 231 horsepower on regular fuel. Admittedly, it is a bummer to lose any power, but when was the last time you routinely drove an SUV with the tachometer pegged at 5500 rpm? Even if you did, was it for more than a few seconds?

Remember, this "premium" recommendation is not coming from your mother, but rather an automaker looking for marketing-friendly bragging rights.

Sports cars and luxury vehicles are the most likely models to "require" premium, meaning their high-performance engines demand the high octane. Even at the current 25-cent added cost per gallon for premium over regular, for the typical driver, the added annual penalty may be no more than $200. In the scheme of things, paying the extra money to fuel an exciting, prestige-brand car seems a reasonable consent for an exquisite motoring experience. But beware, there are cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Smart ForTwo that espouse efficiency as core virtues, yet undermine some potential savings by requiring premium.

With rising gas prices, refueling feels like death from a thousand cuts, so what's one more? In this economy, all consumers are looking to stanch their wallet hemorrhaging, and being smart about premium fuel is one way individuals can make a measured difference. For my money, it is to be avoided at all costs, and any model that requires premium is struck off my shopping list. And I recommend, no rather require, that you think twice about it, too.

This personal take was originally published at WashingtonPost.com.

See our fuel economy special section for gas-saving tips and lists of the most fuel-efficient vehicles.

Jeff Bartlett

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