Can Top Tier Gas Improve Your Car's Performance?
Tame That Gas Guzzler
It would seem that there's a lot of questions regarding gas stations and the fuel they sell. Let me first try to explain a little bit of the background. Gasoline is made from crude oil. Crude oil extracted from different places around the earth has different characteristics in each place. The crude oil then needs to be refined from its "crude" form to something that we can use (i.e.. gasoline, motor oil, heating oil, lubricating oil, and many many more things). A refinery makes money by selling products made from crude oil. The less they waste or throw away, the more money they make.
With that in mind, consider this scenario: A major oil company (lets call it "Major Oil") has a refinery somewhere. They purchase crude oil from some region in the world. They have a process that can give them 99.5% efficiency (only 0.5% waste). So far, this is a good situation. In order to change or convert or "refine" the crude oil into user products, the oil has to go through a process. As the process goes on, some of the components used to crack or refine the oil wear down and do not result in such a high conversion rate. So, it would be safe to assume that when the materials are fresh (the cracking catalyst) that the conversions would be right where the company, "Major Oil", wanted them to be. However, as the catalyst gets used, it becomes less efficient. So, by the end of the day, the products are not "as clean" as what was produced in the beginning of the day.
Now, let us also assume that "Major Oil" also has a chain of fuel stations. Since it is their name on the product, they would want the best for them. So, they get first choice for the "good" stuff. The stuff left over at the end of the day is available for sale to anyone that wants it. This is where the "off brand" companies come in. Let's say there is a chain of gas stations called "Cheapo Gas". Mr. Cheapo does not have his own refinery and buys his product from other refineries around his region. Mr. Cheapo only cares about meeting minimum required standards so he can sell his product at rock bottom prices to his customers.
Now, when it comes specifically to automotive grade gasoline, the Federal Government has a strict set of minimum standards that fuel must meet. In order to enhance these standards, some companies add different additives to their fuel. Some of these additives may be cleaning agents or stabilization additives or the like. "Major Oil" puts in a lot of the good stuff that has been determined to be good for your car and his price is $3.85 per gallon of fuel (lets assume a mid grade of 89 octane, we will get into octane later).
However, "Cheapo Gas" just adds the minimum that the Government mandates he needs. His price is $3.75 per gallon. Now, both gallons of fuel came from the same refinery, but one costs more than the other. Which would you buy? Now, this all depends on you, your car, and how you approach things. If you feel that the minimum is sufficient, and your car doesn't seem to perform any different, then use the cheaper fuel. However, if you are the person that would rather spend a penny today to save a thousand tomorrow, then try the other stuff. Also, there are many more marketing factors that come into play regarding the price of fuel, but the original question stemmed from "is all fuel the same". The simple answer to that question is no.
Now, you may recall I mentioned a word before called Octane. Well, it is basically an anti-knock index. Broken down into more laymen's terms, it is how fast will the fuel ignite. Without getting into to technical details, your vehicles engine was designed to operate on a certain grade (octane rating) of fuel. This is the design of the cylinder heads, the exhaust system, the ignition system, and fuel delivery system. There are many factors that go into the equation. With modern day cars, most computers will be able to adjust the engine's operating parameters to match the optimal settings for the fuel you are using. On some cars, you may not notice a difference from one grade of gas to another. However, on some others, you will notice a performance change. For instance, if you car runs bad on 87, and good on 89, with no noticeable difference at 92 (all in octane ratings), then you should use 89 octane. However, if you do "feel" the difference at 92, then I would suggest using 92. You do not need to run anything higher than you car needs.
Now, let's get back to additives. What is all that about? Well, different fuel companies have developed or licensed the use of different additive packages. They each claim to have certain properties that would be good for your car. One may claim to have good detergents that keep your fuel system clean. Another may claim to reduce the amount of soot or carbon left over by the combustion process. Unfortunately, you as a consumer do not have a choice as to what additives you get other than picking different gas stations to buy your fuel. Even though "Major Oil" may have refined the fuel, he may sell his base stock to "Secondary Oil" or "the Next Biggest Guy Oil". Who, in turn, would add their own additive package.
I hope that this has cleared some of the questions up! If not, please feel free to email me back with your specific question.
Bob, The Auto Answer Man
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