Straight from the BMW spokesperson, we get the final verdict regarding using 89 or 87 octane gas in our 91 preferred cars.

Running On Regular: Do Premium Vehicles Really Need Premium Gasoline?

From Stan Baldwin online

Long before gasoline rocketed through $4 a gallon many people were dismayed to see a significant percentage of their income disappearing into the tank of their car. Today, a wobbly economic outlook, increases in the cost of most other forms of energy, as well as the cost of life’s staples, have prompted folks to look for every possible way to cut back on spending. “Can I save money by running my car on Regular?” “Will it hurt the engine?” my friends ask. More than one person driving a car the manufacturer has spec’d for Premium has told me “I use Regular and my car runs fine.” Are there consequences of “down grading” your fuel? It is definitely a timely question, so we sent e-mail inquiries off to a half dozen manufacturers asking about their technology and their policy on the matter.

While waiting for their reply let’s review some internal combustion engine characteristics. Fuel does not truly explode in a cylinder, at least it isn’t supposed to. It burns smoothly, albeit very rapidly, across the cylinder. The octane rating is a measure of the propensity a given fuel has to burning, rather than exploding. Gasoline “exploding” in the cylinder is frequently called “detonation” or more colloquially, “knocking” or “pinging”. These explosions, because they happen as the piston is rising during the compression stroke and try to shove the piston back down the bore, can do damage over time. In the case of severely stressed motors, such as in race cars, a few seconds of serious detonation can destroy the engine. Two of the mechanical considerations affecting how smoothly a fuel burns are compression and cylinder head configuration. Two variable considerations of great importance are the temperature in the cylinder and the ignition timing. Every manufacturer designs and builds their engines to operate most efficiently for the application intended with a gasoline of a particular octane rating.

Not all that long ago, before the advent of engine management systems, the result of tanking up a high compression vehicle with standard grade fuel was immediately obvious. Providing the stereo wasn’t cranked up past 100 decibels, the pinging or knocking from the engine compartment let you know something was not right. Driving up a hill, towing a load or simply accelerating quickly produced an unnerving rattle from under the hood. It sounded very much like your carbureted V-8 had morphed into a diesel. Until the age of microprocessors enabled the creation of engine management systems, the consequence of a steady diet of low octane fuel could be fatal for a high performance engine.

General Motors, Honda, Toyota and BMW responded to our inquiry. Honda’s public relations representative declined to comment on the issue. Toyota noted that essentially all their current models are designed to run on 87 octane. I asked about using 85 octane, available in some markets, and Bill Kwong of Toyota corporate PR told me they would run fine, with maybe only a slight 2-3 percent decline in horsepower and fuel mileage. But 85 octane is usually only offered in markets at altitude (i.e. Denver, Colorado) where the reduced oxygen doesn’t allow an engine to reach full designed power in any event. If you drive a modern Toyota, the octane rating of your fuel isn’t much of an issue. But what about a brand aimed squarely at the performance market? What about BMW?

Thomas Plucinsky, BMW Product and Technology Communications Manager told us all BMW engines are designed to run on 91 octane. All performance testing, including EPA emissions and fuel mileage, is done with 91 octane. However, though BMW is all about performance, their motors will run on 89 or 87 octane without damage. The knock sensors pull the ignition timing back and eliminate detonation. There will be a loss of power and a decrease in fuel mileage, but the size of the horsepower loss and the increase in fuel consumption depends upon many factors, such as ambient temperature, exact formulation of the fuel and driving technique, so BMW does not offer any estimates for operation on lower grade fuels. One not so obvious concern, Mr. Plucinsky noted, is the type and quality of additives the gasoline companies include in the fuel. Premium gasolines may have better additive packages which are more effective keeping fuel systems (particularly injectors) clean and working efficiently, than those in regular grade fuels or off-brand products. Using lower octane or off-brand fuel could be degrading the fuel system over time, setting you up for a repair bill down the line.

Dave Muscaro, Director of Engine Development/Calibration for GM power trains explained GM has “three flavors” of fuel specification for their offerings: Regular (87 octane) Recommended, Premium (91) Recommended, and Premium Required. Again, we are more concerned with the last two categories where regular could be substituted for the specified Premium. All the engines have a knock sensing ability that retards the spark when detonation occurs. For the premium recommended vehicles the spark advance will be pulled back enough to eliminate the detected knocking. The typical driver will not notice a performance decrease, except under load, and mileage will decline slightly. The engines intended for performance, such as the LS7 or the supercharged small block V-8, are Premium Required powertrains. The customers clearly were not primarily concerned with economy when they chose a performance vehicle and GM optimizes the engine management system to deliver the highest possible power output at all times. To this end the detonation control system does not retard the spark to the point required to prevent all knocking. It would seem a determined deranged drag racer could run Regular in his Corvette and, over time, he might manage to melt a piston or two.

If burning 87 octane in your car, when 91 octane is specified, will not harm the engine, and the performance degradation is not noticeable in typical driving, how much money can you save? The Energy Information Administration, U.S. Government Department of Energy, offers some figures for US gasoline retail prices (these are averages, all areas, all formulations). A year ago Regular was going for $2.982 a gallon and Premium was commanding $3.196 a gallon. The 21.4 cent difference delivered a 6.7 percent saving over Premium. This June 23, 2008, Regular extracted $4.079 from your wallet while Premium sucked up $4.312 for every gallon. The differential (23.3 cents) has grown slightly since 2007 but buying Regular is now only 5.4 percent cheaper than Premium. Since 5 percent is roughly the typical percentage of mileage decrease to be expected with the 87 octane fuel in a 91 octane engine, is there any savings at all?

Bottom Line: Most modern engines are fuel injected and controlled by sophisticated engine management systems which can rapidly and accurately compensate for lower octane fuel by retarding the ignition. Running these cars on 87 octane will not hurt them. However, the immediate savings at the pump may be wiped out by the subsequent drop in fuel mileage and performance, not to mention the possibility of damage over time.