Whenever gasoline prices go up, there's a tendency to shop for cheaper brands and buy lower octane, to ease the pain. The NY Times last week published an article intended to help guide consumers in this quest. Most of it was pretty sensible, but I differ with them in a couple of areas, and this seems like a good topic for today, heading into a nice summer weekend.
First, octane. Octane is a measure of how slowly a gasoline burns. If it burns too fast in the cylinder, the engine pre-detonates, or "knocks". The Times recommended buying the lowest octane gas on which your car doesn't knock, and that's the tried and true rule. They also acknowledged that some cars can sense and compensate for lower octane, allowing a car designed for premium to run on regular. But I ask you, if you've spent upwards of $40,000 on a high-performance car, is it really worth saving $100/year (do the math) and missing some of the oomph you paid for?
Now, if that doesn't apply to you, then not only you but the rest of us are all better off if you buy lower octane. It turns out that the molecules that raise octane require more refining, consume more oil, and have a greater potential to harm the environment. If you're as old as I am, you might remember a TV ad for "Super Shell with Platformate." Well, all gasoline contains Platformate, and that's the stuff we're talking about here: aromatic hydrocarbons.
As to additives, I admit that this has gotten quite confusing and that even the cheapest gas contains a minimum level of detergent, set by the EPA. But particularly if your car has multi-port fuel injection, you can still benefit from paying for brand-name gas with a better additive package. As to the little cans and bottles of additive, which the Times seems to like, think about this. At the rate the best gasolines are additized, you are getting the equivalent of a bottle of top-grade additives with each 10 gallon fillup, at a price that I'll bet is less than what you'd pay for most of the do-it-yourself varieties, which may or may not be as good.
Finally, when you pull your car into that cheap off-brand station, you might want to consider who would stand behind them, if you were to get a tank of bad gas--a rare occurrence these days, but not an impossibility. Personally, I think you'd stand a better chance of getting a Shell, Chevron, Exxon or the like to pay for the repair of your expensive engine than you would with "Ed's Gas." (No offense, Ed.)