Yet another study, this one by AAA, reveals that Premium fuel is usually a waste of money.
Americans spend as much as $2.1 billion on premium fuel per year according to AAA and a new study says that premium fuel has little or no real-world benefits. BestRide did a deep dive on this subject last year explaining how and why we even have premium fuel and other grades aside from the most affordable, regular unleaded fuel. This new AAA study adds to the evidence that in mainstream passenger vehicles, using premium fuel has no practical value for drivers.
AAA tested a variety of vehicles using both regular and premium fuels including ones like the Mazda Miata, that recommend premium, but don’t require it. The AAA study aimed to determine how vehicles performed with and without the optional, higher cost premium. The new AAA study found no significant improvements in power or fuel economy when premium was used in place of regular. Why does this matter now more than ever? Because as time passes, the delta between the price of regular and premium is widening. Once just ten percent more costly in price on average, premium fuels in the U.S. now have an average cost that is about 25% higher than regular unleaded. What do drivers get for that extra money? Pretty much nothing.
Fuel Efficiency – Premium vs. Regular
In AAA testing of six different vehicles, five of the six had some measurable improvement in miles per gallon. One actually declined by 1%. If premium fuel was the same price as regular, clearly it would be worth using, but since it costs 25% more, seeking a slight gain of 1 to 5% in fuel efficiency is just bad economics. Note the allure here for automakers, however. It must be very tempting to rate vehicles using premium to eek out a slight improvement in fuel economy for overall Corporate Average Fuel Economy ratings and for advertisements.
Our top of the page image is a chart showing three of the country’s most popular family vehicles. The Malibu, Accord, and Sonata are all in the same vehicle category and all three have the same style engines. Each earns the same Combined MPG rating. However, the Malibu comes with a recommendation from GM that premium fuel be used. Down in the fine print, we have highlighted the annual fuel cost to operate the Malibu on premium versus the two very similar cars which use regular. Each year, the Malibu owner will pay $300 more for fuel. Over ten years, the Malibu will cost its owner $3,000 more, about ten percent of the cost of the vehicle. This is the real world cost of premium fuel to consumers in today’s fuel prices as calculated by the EPA.
Power Ratings – Premium vs. Regular
If premium fuel offered some significant power advantages it could be argued that it is worth the cost, but the AAA study also measured power with and without premium. The results showed an average power benefit of premium of just 1.4%. In a car like the Malibu, Accord, or Sonata, that equates to about 3 horsepower more than the approximately 250 HP they already have. In a real-world scenario, that difference is unnoticeable.
Don’t take our word for it, Consumer Reports did back to back performance testing of two mainstream cars that recommended premium. The resulting report is titled “Don’t Bother.” The vehicles sounded and felt the same, and 0-60 MPH times were identical with both fuels.
Premium vs. Regular – Detergents
Standing at the pump, we are bombarded with advertisements warning us that only the premium grades will protect our engines. There are even images showing gunked up engines that ran on “other fuels” versus nice clean and shiny parts exposed only to that brand’s premium. The problem is, all motor fuels used in America meet the minimum detergent levels required to keep your engine operating properly. And your automaker’s service department is also going to add high doses of fuel system cleaning solutions periodically to help keep the parts inside operating as they should. The Top Tier fuels, those brands we all know by name, even go so far as to promise that all of their grades meet their self-imposed high standards.
The Rare Exceptions
In ultra-high performance vehicles like supercharged Corvettes and twin-turbo track beasts from Europe, small percentage increases in power can and do add up to a performance edge owners and racers will want. When given the chance to create an engine that REQUIRES premium fuel, automakers can maximize the tuning to make the most of the fuel. If you own one of these rare vehicles, you already know that using premium is the smart move. However, if you have a more mainstream vehicle and are using premium, it may be time to step back and ask yourself what you could do with an extra three hundred bucks at Christmas time each year.