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The illusion of premium: Is it worth the money you spend?

Image: Shane Priest

Image: Shane Priest

Wednesday, February 12, 2014, 9:13 AM

Your car is your prized possession and you want nothing but the best for it. So if it says “premium” on the label it must be better, right?  So you pay a little extra for the premium gas and synthetic oil. It makes the car run better, doesn’t it? Maybe, maybe not. You could actually be throwing money away. 

Premium gas can cost 10 cents a litre (or more) than regular fuel. At the pump, it’s marked with higher “octane” numbers than regular gasoline. Usually 91 or more, but what does that even mean?  

Car engines work in four cycles. It draws air and fuel into the piston, compresses it, ignites it, and exhausts. The more compression around the fuel/air mixture, the bigger bang you get, producing more power. If you compress it enough, it can actually ignite without a spark. That’s how diesels work, but in a gasoline engine, it can do a lot of expensive damage. Mechanics call it either “detonation” or “engine knocking”. You’ll hear it as a clicking sound, especially if you’re accelerating.

Octane is added to gasoline to prevent fuel from igniting prematurely. The higher the octane rating, the more you can compress the mixture before engine knocking becomes a problem.  

If you’re driving a luxury or sports car with a high performance engine, chances are you will need premium gas. For those of us putting around in our econo-boxes, high octane fuel has no advantage over regular. You won’t even notice a difference in how your engine runs. The simple rule is to always use the fuel that your car’s owner manual recommends. 

Synthetic oil is a little different. It’s a special blend of manmade lubricants designed to perform better in modern engines. Cars today are built with more precision than in the past. Since this oil is made in a lab, manufacturers have better control over its chemical makeup. It’s slicker and flows better than regular oil.  

In cold weather, conventional oil can get thicker, while synthetic stays fairly consistent. This makes starting your car in the winter easier. It reduces wear and tear under higher temperatures, possibly extending engine life. It also lasts quite a bit longer. You can go 12,000km or more between oil changes, versus about 6,000km for regular oil. 

The biggest downside is cost. You can expect to pay about twice as much as you would for synthetic oil. Though since it last twice as long, you’re not paying that much more. If you don’t mind the higher up-front cost, it’s definitely worth considering. However, there’s nothing wrong with using conventional oil as long as you get it changed regularly.   

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