When ConsumerAffairs reports on the price of gasoline, we always focus on the price of regular gas as the baseline, since the assumption is that's the fuel grade most consumers buy.
But increasingly, more consumers are filling up with more expensive premium gas, not because they want to but because the engine in their car requires it.
Patrick DeHaan, senior analyst at GasBuddy, has produced a chart that shows the rising percentage of new vehicles on the road that require premium. His chart shows it is now just under half of all new cars sold.
These cars are equipped with high-performance engines – turbo and super-charged. The reason these engines are going into so many new cars, says DeHaan, is the government's CAFE standard, which has raised the average miles per gallon a vehicle fleet must get.
“It's kind of an easy fix in that more octane can net you more power,” DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs. "Manufacturers have been pushed to do this.”
DeHaan believes rising CAFE standards have been a good government move because it forced carmakers to work harder at being fuel efficient. Consumers have benefited. Carmakers hadn't invested a whole lot in R&D over the last 50 years, he says.
“We're in these cars that have been modernized but what's under the hood hadn't changed a whole lot, DeHaan said. “We have cylinders and pistons and now, with CAFE standards, you're forcing manufacturers to the drawing board and they're doing more with less.”
These turbocharged engines are much smaller and use less fuel. But they produce the same, or more power than larger engines that consume more fuel. That, says DeHaan, is why we're seeing more of them. The consumer doesn't notice the difference, except at the gas pump.
Motorists driving a high performance car might not have to fill up as often, but when they do it is more expensive. Premium fuel costs more than regular.
“You've seen a drastic differential between the cost of regular and premium fuel, especially in some areas of the country,” DeHaan said.
Not so much in California, where the difference is only about 25 cents a gallon. But the price gap is widening in the Midwest.
“In Chicago it's commonplace now to find premium a dollar a gallon more than regular,” DeHaan said. “You're already seeing some stations where premium is $3.99 a gallon. And if gas prices in Chicago go up 25 to 50 cents a gallon like they do every spring, that's going to put a lot of stations in downtown Chicago where premium is going to sell for over $4 a gallon, even approaching $5.”
According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, the national average price for regular is around $2.28 a gallon. But the average price of premium is $2.79, 51 cents more. That's 28 cents a gallon more than the average price of diesel.
The bottom line, says DeHaan, is that consumers shopping for a new car have to pay attention to the engine under the hood. If it is a high-performance engine requiring premium, the cost of keeping it running could be a lot more than you think.