Beyond price: Getting the most from gasoline grades and brands

When gasoline prices recently shot up, fewer customers at the Parkway Getty service station in Revere, Mass., were buying the expensive premium grade.

But according to station manager Joe Kazazian, an unlikely group continues to pump from the pricier tanks: owners of small, fuel-efficient cars.

"The ones we see buying the premium are not the ones that even need it," says Mr. Kazazian, who recommends higher-octane gas primarily for high-performance sports and luxury cars.

From the perspective of Kazazian, and others at the grass-roots of gasoline, customer miscues are nothing new. Many drivers, they say, use a peculiar combination of advice, intuition, and misinformation to choose their fuel.

The most-important question gas buyers should ask: Does anything other than price matter?

More often than not, the answer is "no." It's one reason customers turned to regular gas in droves when fuel prices rose last summer.

In fact, between July of 1999 to July of 2000, sales of premium-grade gasoline dropped 25 percent, according to the National Energy Information Center.

One strategy to cut gasoline costs, analysts say, is to avoid dogged loyalty to the most-popular brands. Many drivers, they say, seem devoted to one station out of habit more than reason. Yet experts say that gasoline quality varies little from brand to brand.

"The stations get their gasoline from the same [refineries]," says Mark Baxter, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University. "So I buy my gas where I can find it for value."

National brands may cost more than local ones partly because big franchises are often located in busy city and suburban areas with high rents, says Mr. Baxter. Independent stations can secure lower prices through competitive tactics. "A lot of [small] retail outlets are able to sell it cheaper," he says. "They buy it on the open market with a greater risk factor."

Some brands also tout additives that help boost octane levels. But most experts say the chemicals are very similar and their effect on performance is minimal.

The most prevalent gasoline myth: Higher octane means better performance.

A gasoline's octane rating essentially measures its ability to prevent engine knocking.

Cars with more powerful engines exert pressure on everything from head gaskets to pistons to spark plugs. They require higher octane to burn fuel more efficiently. But putting premium in a car that requires regular-grade (87 octane) fuel normally isn't worth the added cost, experts say.

Rayola Dougher, a senior policy analyst with the American Petroleum Institute, says the manual for her Toyota Camry suggests she use premium for higher performance. She says the difference is noticeable, but minimal. "I only use premium when I go on long trips and want to accelerate on highway ramps," she says.

Octane upgrades might be necessary over time, though. Mechanics say drivers should react quickly to pinging sounds in the engine, which result from the fuel burning inefficiently.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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