More cars are calling for premium gas but do you have to use it?

  • Nearly half of new car model configurations in 2023 called for premium gas
  • The price gap between regular and premium has grown over the years
  • Using premium in a car that requires regular usually isn't worth it

The per-gallon price is displayed electronically at the pump of a Shell station Wednesday, July 5, 2023, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(NewsNation) — You’re not imagining it; nowadays, new cars are much more likely to call for premium gas than they used to.

Car manufacturers required or recommended premium fuel for 47% of new vehicle model configurations in 2023, up from 7% in 1985, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.

Part of the uptick is because luxury brands like BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz are offering more options than they used to. In 1985, for example, there were 22 Mercedes-Benz model configurations listed in the government’s fuel economy records — all of which took regular or diesel. Last year, there were 72 new gas-powered Mercedes-Benz options, all required premium.

But today even more accessible cars call for premium, which is also known as high-octane fuel.

All of the 2023 gas-powered MINI Cooper models recommended premium — so did the Volkswagen Arteon, Nissan Maxima and Subaru WRX.

Note: “# of new vehicle models” equates to the number of vehicle records in the Fueleconomy.Gov data files. In the data files, each make and model may have multiple configurations (engine, transmission, etc.) that are listed separately.

Government regulations aimed at reducing energy consumption have accelerated the shift toward premium, said Patrick De Haan, GasBuddy’s head of petroleum analysis.

Since 1978, automakers have been required to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards — fleet-wide fuel economy averages set by the government that have become stricter over the decades.

“Manufacturers decided that they could meet CAFE standards, increasing fuel efficiency, by increasing the octane required,” De Haan said.

In 2012, the Obama administration finalized new fuel-efficiency standards mandating that the U.S. auto fleet average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. From 2012 to 2018 the share of new light-duty vehicle models requiring premium nearly doubled from 16% to 29%. 

One of the ways manufacturers have hit their targets is with turbochargers, which allow automakers to get more performance out of a smaller engine.

Back in 2000 turbochargers were only found in cars and accounted for roughly 1% of the cars produced. By 2019, more than one-third of all cars, SUVs and pickups were equipped with a turbocharger, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Those turbocharged engines are more likely to require high-octane gas than a non-turbo engine.

The price gap between premium and regular has widened

As more new cars call for premium gas, the price gap between regular and high-octane has grown.

The average price difference between a gallon of regular and premium is up from roughly $0.20 in 1995 to $0.85 last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Today, a gallon of premium will set you back $4.16 per gallon, compared to $3.39 for regular, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).

“Premium gasoline is coming at a bigger premium than it used to and part of the reason is because of the amount of cars requiring premium,” said De Haan.

But the premium fuel peak may be in the rearview mirror. As manufacturers shift their focus to electric vehicles, the share of new models requiring premium dropped seven percentage points from 2018 to 2022.

Cars also get better gas mileage than they used to, which means drivers have to fill up less often.

In 1975, sedans had the highest average fuel economy of all new light-duty vehicles at 13.5 miles per gallon (mpg). By 2021, the average fuel economy for that class had risen to 31.7 mpg, per EPA data.

Do I have to use premium?

When it comes to fueling your car, there’s an important difference between what’s “required” versus “recommended.”

Not using premium when your car requires it can damage the engine, whereas if it’s merely recommended you might reduce performance but probably won’t damage your car.

“If your owner’s manual says your vehicle doesn’t require premium but says that your vehicle will run better on higher octane fuel, it’s really up to you,” the U.S. Department of Energy says, noting that the cost increase is typically higher than the fuel savings.

The vast majority of Americans still drive cars that require regular and filling up with premium doesn’t offer an added benefit.

Research from AAA in 2016 found that drivers wasted more than $2.1 billion using premium gas in vehicles designed to run on regular.

Always check your car’s owner’s manual to see which fuel your manufacturer recommends for your specific make and model. It may also be listed by the gas cap on your car.

You can identify premium gas by looking at the big black number on the yellow background at the pump. The premium fuel will be displayed with a number between 91 and 94, although it can go by several different names like “Super Premium,” “Ultra,” or “Ultimate.”

Your Money

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