How Much Money Are You Wasting on Gas Every Year?

Gas prices
Gas prices | Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Earlier this year, AAA was able to prove that cheap gas can have a starkly negative impact on engines over time, and that by putting Top Tier-rated fuel in their tank, car owners can clean out deposits and protect vital components within the fuel system. It was a time-consuming, detailed, and informative look at the risks involved with going to the no-name gas station instead of the recognizable brand in order to save a few pennies at the pump. Now, AAA has released a new slew of fuel-related findings, and this time around they are focusing on the premium stuff.

While going with something detergent-filled from Shell, BP, or Exxon is still advisable, opting for the most high performance fuel available is not always beneficial either. New research claims that U.S. drivers “wasted more than $2.1 billion dollars in the last year by using premium-grade gasoline in vehicles designed to run on regular fuel.” Apparently 16.5 million drivers were guilty of this infraction, and in order to prove that opting for premium truly was pointless, AAA conducted a series of tests that evaluated vehicle performance, fuel economy, and emissions. While higher quality, Top Tier fuels did return favorable results over the cheap stuff, AAA reports that it “found no benefit to using premium gasoline in a vehicle that only requires regular-grade fuel.”

Shell Nitro fuel
Shell Nitro fuel | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

“Drivers see the ‘premium’ name at the pump and may assume the fuel is better for their vehicle,” says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “AAA cautions drivers that premium gasoline is higher octane, not higher quality, and urges drivers to follow the owner’s manual recommendations for their vehicle’s fuel.”

Working alongside the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center, AAA first put 87-octane (regular) and then 93-octane (premium) gasoline in vehicles equipped with V8, V6, and four-cylinder engines that only required regular-grade fuel. Each vehicle was then put on a dyno in order to measure horsepower, fuel economy, and emissions, as AAA examined how both fuel types behaved under an array of driving conditions. Results showed no significant increase in any tested category, thus proving that premium gasoline does not offer an advantage over regular unleaded in cars that don’t call for it.

Gas station
Gas station | Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Looking to illuminate exactly how rampant this issue has become, AAA sent out a survey to see what type of gasoline the average vehicle on the road requires and to get a grasp of how frequently people “upgrade” to premium. Survey results show that around 70% of all U.S. drivers own a vehicle that runs on regular 87 octane, while 16% require premium fuel, 10% use mid-grade, and 4% rely upon alternative energy sources. Almost all of the people surveyed who admitted to unnecessarily using premium-grade gas, confessed to doing so at least once per month, meaning that in the last 12 months alone, U.S. drivers have pointlessly opted for premium more than 270 million times.

In order to calculate how much money was wasted annually by inappropriately opting for premium, AAA took its findings from the consumer survey it had conducted and compared it to data from the Federal Highway Administration. Researchers then calculated average per-gallon costs of premium and regular gasolines, and factored in the typical number of fill-ups annually.

“When it comes to gasoline, ‘premium’ does not mean ‘better’ if your vehicle doesn’t require it,” continued Nielsen. “Drivers looking to upgrade to a higher quality fuel for their vehicle should save their money and select a TOP TIER gasoline, not a higher-octane one.”

Nielsen’s statement references the aforementioned study conducted by AAA, where research found sizable fuel quality differences among gasoline retailers. By using a gasoline that meets Top Tier standards, engines are exposed to 19 times fewer engine deposits, experience a boost in performance, and see significant fuel economy savings. By merely following the manufacturer’s fuel grade recommendations and using Top Tier gas, AAA says that drivers can prolong the lives of their cars and save money by spending a few cents more per gallon on a trusted brand.

Nevertheless, this study did overlook one crucial component in the modern day internal combustion game, and that is the increasing number of turbocharged powertrains in cars today — some of which can run on both 87 and 93 octane fuels. While this is just one portion of the premium versus regular puzzle, the fact that Americans ignored what their fuel filler caps and driver handbooks advised them to do and wasted $2.1 billion in just a year’s time is staggering.

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