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Don't get fueled again

Experts say gas pumps can be three-armed bandits for consumers

October 19, 2000
Web posted at: 12:39 PM EDT (1639 GMT)

In this story:

Turn off your motor

Moving violations

It's your ping

Take a tip


NEW YORK (CNNfn) -- When it's time to fill your gas tank, you don't want to get hosed.

The cost of gasoline has climbed dramatically in the last year. On average, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline costs about $1.54, according to the AAA, up from $1.27 a year ago.

Regular is not your only choice, of course. You have midgrade, going for about $1.64, and premium, selling for about $1.70 per gallon. Octane -- the measure of how quickly fuel burns -- is the deciding factor and the higher the octane, the more you pay. Regular gas has an octane rating of about 87, midgrade about 89 and premium usually 92 or 93.

The price between regular and premium fuel differs on average by about 16 cents per gallon and may vary as much as 50 cents, depending upon where you live.

So you look at those three hoses in front of you and you think, hey, the higher the price, the more octane, the better for my car, right?

Well, actually ... no.

Turn off your motor

Experts, including those at the Federal Trade Commission and AAA, say most automobiles produced in the 1990s operate efficiently on low-octane gasoline. Your owner's manual -- yeah, it's there someplace in the glove compartment -- will tell the proper octane level for your car and that's the one to use.

Dave Van Sickle, AAA's director of the automotive and consumer information, said about 20 percent of the gasoline that is sold is premium, but only 5 percent of the automobiles on the roads actually need it. "Very few people need premium fuel," he said "In fact, if they're putting it in their cars, they're simply wasting their money," Van Sickle observed.

Generally, high-octane gasoline is no better than regular octane in preventing engine deposits from forming, in removing them or in cleaning your car's engine. Van Sickle said federal law requires all gasoline to have the additives needed to keep your car's engine clean.

"Many people feel if regular is good, then premium must be better," said Rik Paul, automotive editor for Consumer Reports, "and that's not the case. Due to advertising, a lot of people think premium fuel is better fuel, when in actuality it simply has a higher octane rating."

Moving violations

Yes, you ask, but what about all those commercials that depict a certain brand of gasoline as the best thing since the internal combustion engine? Well, the Federal Trade Commission has taken action against oil companies who have made misleading statements about the quality of their gasoline.

During the last 10 years, the agency has tangled with the likes of Sunoco (SUN: Research, Estimates), Amoco Oil Co. and Exxon, now Exxon Mobil (XOM: Research, Estimates), over claims involving the ability of the companies' products to do such things as providing superior engine power, clean engines and reduce auto maintenance costs.

The companies agreed not to make such statements unless they had evidence backing up their claims. Exxon also agreed to create an educational ad campaign saying regular octane was the right octane level for most cars.

"If carbon deposits is a concern, go to an auto parts store and buy a fuel system cleaner," Paul said. "Pour it in, and it will help clean engine deposits. It's cheaper over the long end."

It's your ping

If your car knocks or pings even if you are using the recommended octane, experts say you can try switching to the next highest grade. If nothing changes after one or two fill-ups, you may need a tune up.

Van Sickle said malfunctioning exhaust gas recirculation systems, overheating and improper timing should be investigated before trying to cover up a problem with more expensive fuel. Changing brands, however, might make a difference, Van Sickle said. Many testing programs have shown the actual octane rating of the fuel coming out of the pump varies from the rating shown on the pump.

If you change brands and get rid of the pings, you've solved a problem without spending any more money.

Keep in mind that premium and regular is not consistent across the country. Check the yellow sticker on the gas pump instead of relying on the names.

Who needs high-performance fuel? Sport cars and certain luxury models need midgrade or premium gasoline to prevent knocks. Automotive expert Lauren Fix said failure to do so can harm the vehicle's engine.

"The car's going to run less powerful and give you that sluggish feeling," she said. "It's not good for the car."

Take a tip

The U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency put out a guide each year to help consumers chose fuel-efficient vehicles.

The Fuel Economy Guide helps consumers compare gas mileage, fuel cost and greenhouse gas emissions for new and used vehicles. It also includes fuel economy information going back as far as 1985.

Here are a few things you can do to save money at the pump:

  • Keep your tires inflated to proper levels. Properly inflated tires provide less road resistance and can improve fuel efficiency.
  • Maintenance -- keep your engine in shape, making sure to change the spark plugs and filters according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Drive smart. That means obey the posted speed limits. Driving at high speeds, especially on long trips, uses more gas. For example, if you drive at 65 mph, rather than 55 mph, you increase fuel compensation by 20 percent.
  • Overdrive gears improve your car's fuel economy during highway driving because your engine's speed decreases.
  • Cruise control on highway trips can help you maintain a constant speed and, in most cases, will reduce your fuel consumption.
  • Anticipate traffic situations. Nearly half of the energy needed to power your car in city driving goes to acceleration. Unnecessary braking wastes that energy.
  • Don't tailgate. You can avoid unnecessary braking and acceleration and improve fuel economy by 5 percent to 10 percent.
  • Avoid unnecessary idling. You don't have to warm up most of today's cars. No matter how efficient your car is, unnecessary idling wastes fuel, costs you money and pollutes the air.

Driving costs ride uphill
September 7, 2000
Advocates say oil and fair prices do not mix
October 16, 2000

American Automobile Association
Federal Trade Commission
U.S. Department of Energy
Environmental Protection Agency
Fuel Economy Guide
American Petroleum Institute

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