April 19, 2012

With regular gasoline approaching $4 a gallon nationwide, drivers get a proverbial slap in the face every time they fill up. But some choose further punishment, powering their rides with premium fuel. And why not? With a name like “premium,” it has to be better than regular, right?

Not really. Higher-octane fuels are more resistant to “knocking” or “pinging,” a potentially damaging condition in which gasoline burns inefficiently. Gas with a too-low octane level can harm an engine. But most cars don’t need premium. Sure, top-shelf gasoline will get you peak engine performance, but the difference between fuels is negligible.

For instance, consider the 2013 Ford Escape, with a turbocharged, 2.0-liter engine that delivers a lively 240 horsepower on premium fuel. That number drops slightly to 231 horsepower on regular — about a 4 percent power loss — but the Escape is still more powerful than most of its competitors. Admittedly, it is a bummer to lose any power, but when was the last time you drove an SUV with the tachometer — the gauge that measures engine revolutions per minute — pegged at the red line, like in a race car?

Remember: Automakers that recommend premium gas are looking for bragging rights. Sports cars and luxury vehicles are the most likely models to “require” it. But so do cars such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Smart Fortwothat espouse efficiency as core virtues but ask buyers to pay more at the pump.

Right now, premium gas costs about 25 cents more per gallon than regular. For someone who drives 15,000 miles a year — about average — the added annual penalty may be about $200. For some, paying the extra money to fuel an exciting, prestige-brand car seems reasonable. For my money, any model that demands premium gas is struck from my shopping list.

If your owner’s manual says regular fuel is okay, don’t be tempted to “treat” your car once in a while to the good stuff. It is unnecessary. Instead, invest in routine maintenance, quality tires with low rolling resistance and the occasional hand wash.

Jeff S. Bartlett is Consumer Reports’ deputy online editor for automotive coverage.

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