Not All Gas is Created Equal, These are the Worst Brands

By: Sam Watanuki | Last updated: Jan 18, 2024

2023 marked a notable year for the U.S. auto industry, with a significant rebound to 15.5 million new vehicle sales, a 12.4% increase from the previous year. This surge reflects not only a recovering economy but also evolving consumer preferences and technological advancements in the automotive sector.

Despite the growth in electric vehicle sales, reaching 1 million, the majority of Americans still favor gasoline-powered vehicles. This preference underscores the ongoing relevance of gasoline quality in the current market, a topic that often gets overshadowed by the buzz around electric vehicles.

Misconceptions About Gasoline

These facts from The Wall Street Journal paint a rosy picture. But the world of gasoline is full of misconceptions, particularly regarding octane ratings. Many consumers equate higher octane levels with better fuel quality, which is a common misunderstanding.

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Octane rating is essentially a measure of how well the fuel can prevent engine knocking, not a direct indicator of its overall quality. This misconception leads many to choose premium gasoline unnecessarily, overlooking other crucial aspects of fuel quality.


What Is Octane Rating?

Octane rating, a term every car owner comes across, is crucial in determining the right fuel for your vehicle. It’s a measure of a gasoline’s ability to resist engine knocking or pinging during combustion.

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The ratings — typically 87 (regular), 89 (mid-grade), and 93 (premium) — should be matched with your vehicle’s requirements. Most cars are designed to run efficiently on regular 87-octane gasoline, making it unnecessary to opt for higher-octane fuels unless your car specifically demands it.

Importance of Fuel Additives

Fuel additives play a vital role in maintaining the health of your vehicle’s engine. These additives, mixed into the gasoline, keep fuel injectors and other engine components clean, ensuring efficient combustion and preventing deposit buildup.

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This results in more engine power, better fuel economy, and lower emissions. The right balance and quality of these additives are what distinguish superior gasoline from ordinary ones.

The TOP TIER Gasoline Standard

In 2004, leading automakers including Audi, BMW, GM, Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen, established the “TOP TIER” gasoline standard. This standard advocates for higher levels of fuel additives than the U.S. government’s minimum requirements.

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TOP TIER gasoline is formulated to ensure cleaner engines, enhanced efficiency, and optimal performance. It is specifically designed to meet the needs of modern engines, which are more technologically advanced and require better-quality fuel.

Examining TOP TIER Gasoline: Fact or Marketing Fiction?

In an era where marketing claims often overshadow product realities, the question arises: does TOP TIER gasoline genuinely benefit vehicles, or is it merely a marketing strategy? 

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This topic has garnered attention and skepticism, prompting a closer look into whether TOP TIER gasoline holds up to its claims and stands apart from standard fuels.


AAA's Comprehensive Study on Gasoline Quality

The American Automobile Association (AAA) conducted an extensive study to compare TOP TIER versus non-TOP TIER gasoline. Their research aimed to provide concrete evidence on the efficacy of these fuels. 

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In their tests, AAA evaluated engines using TOP TIER gasoline against those running on non-TOP TIER alternatives, aiming to reveal any significant differences in performance and engine cleanliness.


Findings on Engine Cleanliness and Performance

AAA’s findings were revealing. They stated, “non-TOP TIER gasolines caused 19 times more engine deposits than TOP TIER brands after just 4,000 miles of simulated driving.” 

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This significant difference in the buildup of engine deposits highlights the potential impact of fuel choice on engine health and longevity.


Long-Term Effects of Fuel Choice on Engines

Considering the average American’s driving habits, these findings suggest that the choice of gasoline can have a substantial impact over time. 

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The study indicates that using non-TOP TIER gasoline could lead to a significant accumulation of deposits over the vehicle’s lifetime, affecting its performance and efficiency.


AAA's Recommendations for Vehicle Maintenance

Based on their study, AAA recommends the use of TOP TIER gasoline for better vehicle maintenance. 

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The use of such gasoline could prevent the buildup of carbon deposits known to reduce fuel economy and negatively impact vehicle performance, particularly in newer vehicles.


The Impact of Detergent Additives in Gasoline

AAA’s research brought to light the importance of detergent additives in gasoline.

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As stated by John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, “AAA was surprised to learn the extent to which detergent additives impact gasoline quality…TOP TIER gasolines kept engines remarkably cleaner than other fuels we tested.”


EPA Standards and the TOP TIER Program

In response to the increasing concern over engine cleanliness, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a minimum detergent requirement for all gasoline in the United States in 1996. 

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However, some automakers believe this standard falls short of ensuring optimal vehicle performance. The TOP TIER program was established to meet these higher demands.


Automaker's Perspective on Fuel Quality

Automakers have expressed a preference for TOP TIER gasoline. 

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Nielsen from AAA emphasized, “When it comes to selecting a gasoline, automakers got it right – TOP TIER gasoline performs best.” 


Consumer Preferences in Fuel Selection

Despite the apparent benefits of TOP TIER gasoline, AAA’s survey shows that most U.S. drivers prioritize convenience and price over fuel quality. 

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Nielsen noted, “Americans are six times more likely to choose a gas station based on the price of gasoline rather than the quality of the fuel.”


Insights into American Gasoline Buying Habits

The survey revealed that location and price are the primary factors for 75% and 73% of U.S. drivers, respectively, when choosing a gas station. 

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Only a small fraction (12%) consider the quality of gasoline, indicating a general undervaluing of fuel quality among American consumers.


Demographic Differences in Fuel Quality Choices

The survey also uncovered demographic differences in fuel choices. Men and baby boomers are more inclined to purchase gasoline with enhanced detergent additives compared to women and millennials. 

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This suggests varying levels of awareness or concern about fuel quality across different groups.


Non-Compliant Gasoline Brands

Several well-known gasoline brands in the U.S. do not meet the TOP TIER standard. These include Amoco, BP, Circle K, Love’s, Murphy USA, Pilot Flying J, Safeway, Sam’s Club, and Speedway.

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Using gasoline from these brands may not harm your vehicle immediately, but over time, it could lead to reduced engine efficiency and increased maintenance costs due to lower-quality additives and potential buildups.


The Truth About Independent Gas Stations

Independent gas stations, often unbranded, source their fuel from various suppliers. While some might offer TOP TIER fuel, most do not. This inconsistency means that the quality of gasoline at these stations can vary significantly.

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Consumers should be cautious and informed when road trip-refueling at independent stations, as the long-term impacts of lower-quality fuel can be bad for their vehicles.


A few of the TOP TIER Brands

For those seeking high-quality gasoline, numerous brands meet the TOP TIER standard. Some of these include Chevron, Costco Wholesale, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, among others (via Consumer Reports).

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Refueling your vehicle at these stations ensures that you are getting gasoline with optimal levels of additives, designed to keep your engine running cleaner and more efficiently.


The Cost of Quality

While higher-quality gasoline might come at a premium, considering the average cost of new cars in the U.S., which is well above $48,000, it’s a worthwhile investment.

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Using top-tier gasoline can significantly extend the life of your vehicle, improve fuel efficiency, and reduce maintenance costs in the long run. This choice is especially crucial at a time when consumers are holding onto their cars longer.


Environmental Considerations

Choosing higher-quality gasoline is not only beneficial for your vehicle but also for the environment. TOP TIER gasoline contributes to lower emissions, cleaner engines, and more efficient fuel consumption.

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As the world grapples with environmental issues, opting for such gasoline is a small but significant step individuals can take toward a cleaner, more sustainable future.


Electric Vehicles vs. Gasoline Cars

Electric vehicles have certainly made headlines with their milestone of 1 million sales. However, they constitute just a small percentage of the total vehicles in the U.S.

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The dominance of gasoline cars is attributed to various factors, including their affordability, widespread fuel availability, and consumer habits. This prevailing preference for gasoline vehicles brings to the forefront the importance of understanding gasoline quality and its impact on vehicle performance and maintenance.


Challenges in Embracing Electric Vehicles

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A significant barrier to electric vehicle (EV) adoption is the convenience of refueling. Ashley Nunes, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School notes to the BBC, “It’s going to take you hours to charge [an EV] to the maximum rate. And that’s the kind of time that everyday Americans simply don’t have,” highlighting the stark contrast with the quick refueling of gasoline cars. 


Future Trends in Fuel

Looking toward the future, the fuel industry is bound to evolve, especially with the gradual shift toward electric vehicles. However, until electric vehicles become the main form of transportation, understanding and choosing the right gasoline remains crucial.

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As technology advances, we may see new formulations and standards in gasoline, further enhancing vehicle performance and environmental friendliness. The journey of gasoline from a mere commodity to a sophisticated, engineered product reflects the ever-changing nature of automotive technology and consumer preferences.