I Can Feel It: Drivers Spent $2.1 Billion on Unnecessary Octane Last Year, Says AAA

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
i can feel it drivers spent 2 1 billion on unnecessary octane last year says aaa

Like something from the Nixon era, the U.S. Southeast is currently in the grips of a gasoline shortage, all thanks to the shutdown of the Houston-to-New York Colonial Pipeline. North Carolina and Virginia have declared a state of emergency as gas pumps dry up.

Even TTAC’s Bozi Tatarevic can’t find premium unleaded to save his life. His WRX’s tank runneth dry.

The sudden gas crisis provides a perfect backdrop for a study by the American Automobile Association showing that 16.5 million Americans gassed up their vehicle last year with octane they didn’t need.

According to the report, 70 percent of U.S. drivers own a vehicle that feeds on regular 87 octane fuel. Only 16 percent own a vehicle that requires high-octane gas, while 14 percent require a mid-range fuel. It’s a fairly low-octane world out there.

Despite this, over the past 12 months U.S. drivers needlessly spent an extra $2.1 billion on premium fuel their vehicles didn’t need, the study shows.

To prove how easily duped we are — or ignorant of our vehicles’ needs, at least — AAA performed a test in conjunction with the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center. The test saw four, six and eight-cylinder vehicles designed to run on regular fuel tested for horsepower, emissions and mileage while running on 87- and 93-octane gas.

“AAA’s tests reveal that there is no benefit to using premium gasoline in a vehicle that requires regular fuel,” said Megan McKernan, the center’s manager. “Premium gasoline is specifically formulated to be compatible with specific types of engine designs and most vehicles cannot take advantage of the higher octane rating.”

But wait, you say — some new models rated for regular gas gain an advertised power boost when running on premium. True. In that case, the choice is up to you. Spend significantly more for that seven extra horsepower? If there’s cash at hand, why not? If there isn’t, why did you buy the thing?

While some people simply don’t realize that their expensive vehicle takes regular, other drivers have legitimate reasons for buying a tank of premium every now and then, or moving up to mid-range.

AAA performed their tests on three vehicles — a Mazda 3 four-cylinder, Dodge Charger V6 and Toyota Tundra V8. All three were 2016 models. Age is the reason some drivers seek a higher octane, and lack of age explains the lack of noticeable difference in mileage and power in the study’s test vehicles.

After a few years, and maybe a few more, an engine that sees plenty of day-to-day duty will get dirty — especially if you’re not that guy who plans to spend the weekend “with his car.” Many vehicles will develop engine ping as deposits build up. A driver could choose to add engine additives every few months to clear out the build-up, or just take care of the vehicle’s problem at the pump.

Kelley Blue Book, which eats, sleeps and breathes used cars, already advises buyers on this phenomenon. In its advice section, it lays it out:

If your car does not ping on regular, then there is no reason to seek a higher-octane gasoline. The anti-knock level of the regular in this case is adequate for the engine.

But as a car gets older, depending on how the car has been driven and cared for, it may need a higher-octane gasoline anytime between four and six years. That’s because carbon deposits inside the cylinders raise the combustion ratio, which in turn raises the engine’s octane rating. You may notice that your car operated fine on regular fuel when it was new, but pings on regular as it gets older.

So, the higher-octane fuel is not something to pamper a new car with but rather help keep an older car running properly.

As my colleague Bozi searched North Carolina for premium last night, I got annoyed by my Chevy Cruze’s lack of grunt. After a hot summer filled with too much in-town driving (at too low an rpm — it’s an Eco, after all), the poor little 1.4-liter’s innards probably had more gum than the underside of a classroom desk. No, it’s not a new model.

Cursing Canadian taxation and tariffs at the pumps, I gave it what it wanted — 94-octane gas. Only the finest for this off-lease special. Suddenly, I came to a shocking realization: there could actually be 138 horses lurking under the hood. Suddenly, food tasted better and my hair felt fuller … and darker.

While filling up with high-society gas is pointless for most newer, 87-octane rated vehicles (and a good percentage of AAA’s figures probably fit this description), there’s some benefits to be had if you’re slumming around in something old.

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4 of 121 comments
  • Mtmmo Mtmmo on Sep 21, 2016

    "Like something from the Nixon era..." Something only a young ill informed Canadian could write. US gas shortages took place in 1978/79. Nixon resigned in 1975. Jimmy Carter sends his love.

    • Dave M. Dave M. on Sep 22, 2016

      Wrong. First gas shortage tool place after the Yom Kippur war - fall '73 - winter '74. The second took place in May of '79. Nixon era for the first was correct. Oh, and Nixon resigned August 1974.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Sep 22, 2016

    This one has been done to death in Camaro/Caddy forums. I think it depends on two things...the driver and the engine computer. Concerning the GM HFV6, it specs Regular in the manual. An engineer was caught out saying the max rated power was on High test. There is conjecture that the Regular spec is marketing. People who have hooked up monitors have found incidence of spark retard to be much higher with Regular than High test...so this engine, at least, is adjusting in real time....so...and some claim the computer in my model, at least has one map for high test and just pulls back if knock...the later engines supposedly have two maps, one high test and one low. You can run it all day forever on 87, nothing bad will happen. It will run a bit better on High test. You will never notice if you aren't a hard driver. You will notice if you are. The MDX says premium, as does the BMW. Both cars run "meh" on regular, but you only notice under hard acceleration. Again, if you drove gently all the time, you'd be wasting $ on the 91 in these cars too. I've run the Caddy with both, the FE is about the same, and it just runs better on high test...which may also be related to the fact this is a DI engine with high compression.

    • NMGOM NMGOM on Sep 22, 2016

      speedlaw - - - "You can run it all day forever on 87, nothing bad will happen." Take two of those cars with identical engines. Run one with cheap regular gas and the other Shell V-Power, both for 11.7 years, the average car-ownership lifetime in America. Then see how they are doing after that to determine if "nothing bad will happen", --- to say nothing of starting and performance issues with regular gas along the way. ==========================

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