June 16, 2021

What’s the big deal about premium fuel?

As a consumer, do you know what fuel grade your car was designed to burn? In the United States today, nearly 70% of drivers own a vehicle that requires regular gasoline, while only 16% require premium fuel. Remaining vehicles are split among mid-grade gasoline or an alternative energy source, commonly electric.

Retail gasoline stations in the U.S. most commonly sell three main grades:
• Regular (the lowest-octane fuel: generally, 87)
• Mid grade (the middle-range octane fuel: generally, 89–90)
• Premium (the highest-octane fuel: generally, 91–94)

The higher the grade, the more resistant to igniting, but this is only helpful when the engine is designed for high compression ratios (commonly referred to as high performance). If not, high-octane fuel may not make a big difference in your engine. But this landscape is changing rapidly.

What’s the big deal about premium fuel?

Engines designed smarter

Back when engine knocking was a common consumer concern, the argument to upgrade made sense. But modern engine control systems compensate for different octane levels by adjusting ignition timing. This means more engines can accept lower fuel grades and still meet performance expectations.

With this in mind, why do some drivers still occasionally buy the more expensive premium gasoline to run through their engines? Across a rolling 12 months, 16.5 million U.S. drivers unnecessarily used premium-grade gasoline in their vehicle at least once. Not only that, but many of them claimed to do so at least once per month. This resulted in 270 million instances of unnecessary fuel upgrades in one year that didn’t even impact performance (Edmonds, 2020).

Fuels designed cleaner

This behavior is likely the result of aging misconceptions about fuel quality. Decades ago, fuel quality could vary greatly from refinery to refinery, and differ even further based on fuel marketer additive blends. In 1995, the EPA introduced the Minimum Gasoline Detergent Standard, which set a specific bar for cleaning additive levels to meet certain emissions standards.

This legislation prompted extensive research to enhance additives to improve engine performance and reduce wear-and-tear. Shortly thereafter, a global committee of automakers presented an even higher choice for consumers: “Top Tier” Detergent Gasoline. The standard was widely adopted and can now be found across North America and some other parts of the world, through nearly every major oil provider.

What’s the big deal about premium fuel?

The rise of high-octane fuels

High-octane fuels are generally assumed to have a higher energy content, which would improve power and fuel economy. But this is only true when used in engines with high compression ratios or turbochargers. While most cars today are optimized for regular gas, stricter emissions standards placed on automotive manufacturers have created a sharp rise in cars with efficient turbocharger engines. The curve is noticeable, and premium fuels will become more commonly required.

According to a 2019 study by the EPA, “in the year 2000, turbochargers were only found in cars and accounted for around 1% of the cars produced. Over time, manufacturers have added turbochargers to other segments and by 2019, 34% percent of all new light-duty vehicles produced were equipped with a turbocharger.”

What’s the big deal about premium fuel?

In summary, select a fuel grade based off facts and the needs of your vehicle. Consult your original equipment manufacturer (OEM) handbook and follow all guidance to properly maintain your vehicle while meeting all performance expectations. Dover Fueling Solutions is proud to play a part in safely getting you from point A to point B, efficiently.

Useful Links

Edmonds, Ellen. “AAA: Not All Gasoline Created Equal.” AAA Newsroom, Newsroom, 25 Nov. 2020, newsroom.aaa.com/2016/07/aaa-not-gasoline-created-equal.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “2019 EPA Automotive Trends Report.” EPA-420-R-20-006, March 2020.