CARS.COM — Premium gas is undeniably expensive. Gas stations typically charge significantly more for premium fuel, and filling up with it can take a serious toll on your wallet. With the price of gas on the rise, it’s tempting to only fill up with regular. Some vehicle manufacturers recommended using premium gasoline in their cars, though, and many drivers wonder whether doing so is necessary or if it’s just a way for oil companies to make extra money off the stuff that costs more per gallon.
Does using premium fuel really matter? Could failing to use premium gasoline void your warranty or damage your engine? The answers may surprise you. Keep reading to discover the truth before you next trip to get gas.
What If the Manufacturer Requires It?
When a vehicle manufacturer requires using premium fuel, it is because that particular vehicle’s fuel system is designed to work best with higher octane gas. Using regular gas in an engine that requires premium could void your warranty. That is most likely to happen if using regular causes severe engine knock or pinging (premature ignition of the fuel, also known as detonation) that damages the pistons or other engine parts. Using the wrong gasoline may cause other problems, like decreased fuel economy and engine performance.
For example, here is what GM says about the subject in an owner’s manual for a vehicle that requires premium:
“Use premium unleaded gasoline with a posted octane rating of 91 or higher. If the octane rating is less than 91, you could damage the engine and may void your vehicle warranty. If heavy knocking is heard when using gasoline rated at 91 octane or higher, the engine needs service.”
Note that this applies only to engines that require premium gas. Some manufacturers recommend premium gas but say that regular or mid-grade gas can be used instead. They usually warn that using lower-octane gas could reduce performance and fuel economy. When that happens noticeably, or if engine knock occurs, they advise to start using premium.
Differences Between Premium and Regular Gas
Premium gas is similar to regular unleaded fuel. Both are made from crude oil and are highly combustible. One of the most notable differences, though, is that premium has a higher-octane rating. Most premium fuel has a rating of 90 octane or higher. Octane is important when it comes to powering vehicles while preventing knocking. When gasoline and air ignite before they should, it causes an explosion known as pre-ignition, which causes a knocking sound. Octane refers to how well the fuel can resist pre-ignition. With an octane of 90 or higher, premium gasoline is less prone to pre-ignition or knocking. Premium fuel also contains detergents and additives that help engines run cleaner. The additives and detergents result in less pollution as well.
The Bottom Line
The computers that manage modern engines are able to adjust the ignition system to accommodate lower-octane gasoline — to a point. With regular gas, fuel economy and acceleration will likely deteriorate at least slightly. Because regular has lower octane, it is more prone to detonation. Burning regular in an engine designed for premium on a long-term basis or under heavy loads can cause engine knock, and that in turn can damage the pistons, valves or spark plugs. Due to the presence of knock sensors and the car’s ability to retard the spark timing, you might not hear knocking, but that doesn’t mean premium is unnecessary.
Regular can be used at least occasionally without repercussions in most vehicles designed for premium, but it’s a bad idea to make a habit of it. Bottom line: Check the owner’s manual. If the vehicle manufacturer says the engine requires premium, believe it. Don’t try to save a few cents per gallon by buying regular gasoline. Doing so could lead to much larger expenses in the future.
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