Does octane level matter?

When it comes to choosing the right gasoline for your vehicle, one of the most common questions drivers have is whether using a higher octane fuel really makes a difference. Octane level refers to a fuel’s resistance to engine knock, which is the audible pinging or rattling noise caused by improper combustion in the engine. Using the manufacturer’s recommended octane rating is important to ensure optimal engine performance and prevent damage over time. But does going above and beyond the minimum requirement offer any additional benefits? Let’s take a closer look at how octane level affects modern vehicles.

What is Octane?

Octane is a measure of a fuel’s ability to resist engine knocking. Knocking occurs when fuel ignites prematurely in the engine, causing a pinging or rattling noise. Premature ignition is usually caused by the air/fuel mixture igniting too early due to high pressure and temperatures in the cylinders. Higher octane fuels have a higher resistance to this auto-ignition.

Each fuel is assigned an octane rating based on a scale where isooctane (2,2,4-trimethylpentane) has a rating of 100 and n-heptane has a rating of 0. So a fuel with an octane rating of 91 contains 91% isooctane and 9% n-heptane. The higher the percentage of isooctane, the more resistant the fuel is to knocking.

Octane Ratings Explained

There are several common octane ratings used at gas stations in the United States:

  • 87 (Regular) – Has the lowest octane rating and is the minimum required for most regular unleaded passenger vehicles.
  • 89-90 (Midgrade) – Has a moderate octane level, between regular and premium.
  • 91-93 (Premium) – Has the highest octane rating and is recommended for high-performance vehicles or engines requiring maximum knock resistance.

Occasionally, you may also see super or supreme options with octane levels above 93. Race fuels used for high-performance racing engines can have octane ratings over 100.

Why Octane Matters

Higher octane fuels have higher knock resistance so they can withstand more pressure and temperature without pre-igniting. Most modern car engines are designed to run on regular 87 octane gas because it provides adequate knock resistance under normal driving conditions.

However, certain situations create higher stress on the engine and increase the likelihood of knock occurring:

  • High engine temperatures
  • Turbocharged or supercharged engines
  • Vehicles with high compression ratios
  • Tow/haul use with heavy loads
  • Aggressive driving and acceleration

In these cases, the engine computer may decide to retard the ignition timing to prevent knock at the cost of lower performance. Using a higher octane gas allows the computer to run ideal ignition timing for maximum efficiency.

Recommended Octane Ratings

Vehicle manufacturer’s include a recommended “minimum” octane rating in the owner’s manual and fuel door placard. This is the number that should be used for optimal performance and engine health.

For most regular vehicles, 87 octane gas (minimum AKI rating of 87) is sufficient. However, some models recommend or require premium gasoline:

  • Luxury vehicles like BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Infiniti, Lexus often recommend 89+ octane.
  • Sport compacts like the Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evo call for 91+ octane.
  • High performance cars like Corvettes may need 93+ octane.

Using a lower octane than the recommended rating risks decreased performance and engine damage over time due to sustained knocking and excessive ignition retard.

Effects of Using Lower Octane Fuel

The effects of using a lower octane fuel than recommended in your owner’s manual include:

  • Engine knocking/pinging – Audible metallic knocking or pinging noise under acceleration.
  • Ignition timing retardation – Engine computer reduces ignition timing to prevent knock which reduces power output.
  • Reduced fuel economy – Ignition timing retardation results in incomplete combustion and wasted fuel.
  • Engine damage – Sustained knocking can damage engine components like pistons over time.

One important note is that engines are equipped with knock sensors to detect and prevent damaging levels of knocking. However, consistently using a lower octane fuel than recommended will result in reduced performance and fuel economy even when heavy knocking is not present.

Effects of Higher Octane Fuel in Non-Turbocharged Engines

Using a higher octane fuel than the manufacturer’s recommended minimum offers no benefit for most regular non-turbocharged engines. Since they are not prone to knocking with the recommended octane level, the extra knock resistance is essentially wasted.

Research has shown no measurable increase in horsepower, torque, or fuel economy when using higher octane fuels in non-turbocharged engines designed for regular 87 octane. It only results in higher fuel costs with no performance benefit.

Using Premium Fuel in Turbo/Supercharged Engines

The exception to this rule is turbocharged or supercharged engines. The forced induction from the turbo or supercharger causes higher cylinder pressures that increase the likelihood of knock. So the engine computer is more prone to retard ignition timing.

Fuels with higher octane ratings give the computer more leeway to use optimal ignition timing under boost for maximizing performance. Many turbo cars call for premium 91+ octane fuel for this reason. Drivers who run regular gas in turbo engines often notice performance improvements when switching to premium.

Mythbusting Octane Misconceptions

There are also several common octane myths worth busting:

  • Myth: Premium gas is always “better” for your car.
  • Fact: No evidence it benefits non-turbocharged engines designed for regular.
  • Myth: Higher octane gives more horsepower and torque.
  • Fact: Only allows turbocharged engines to optimize timing and power output.
  • Myth: You should switch octane levels frequently.
  • Fact: Pick the recommended octane and stick with it consistently.
  • Myth: Just one or two tanks of lower octane is fine.
  • Fact: Prolonged use of lower octane can cause long-term damage.

Octane Level Testing

Because octane rating is so important for performance and protecting engines from damage, fuel retailers are required to test and certify their gasoline. Testing methods include:

  • ASTM D2699 – Research octane number (RON)
  • ASTM D2700 – Motor octane number (MON)
  • ASTM D4814 – Anti-Knock Index (AKI) – Average of RON and MON

Refineries also add detergent additives and other proprietary ingredients to improve stability, corrosion resistance, and performance. However, the key specification is ensuring their products meet the labeled octane rating through testing.

State Octane Requirements

Most U.S. states adhere to federal minimum octane level standards:

  • Regular Unleaded – 87 AKI octane minimum
  • Midgrade Unleaded – 89 AKI octane minimum
  • Premium Unleaded – 91 AKI octane minimum

However, a few states have higher minimum octane requirements by law:

State Regular Octane Midgrade Octane Premium Octane
Colorado 85 87 91
Arizona 87 90 93

So drivers in those states can expect slightly higher octane levels even when purchasing “regular” gasoline.

Using Octane Booster Additives

Rather than purchasing premium gasoline, some drivers add octane booster additives to regular gas in an attempt to increase knock resistance. These contain concentrated isooctane (2-ethylhexyl nitrate) to raise the octane rating.

However, most experts caution against using aftermarket octane boosters regularly for several reasons:

  • Minimal octane increase – Only raises octane by a few points
  • Inconsistent results – Hard to measure/control the actual increase
  • Risk of damage – Potential issues with fuel system/engine
  • Cost – More expensive than just purchasing premium gas

The better solution is to use the manufacturer recommended premium gasoline if your engine requires it.

Ethanol’s Impact on Octane

Most gasoline today contains blended ethanol, usually 10% (E10). Ethanol intrinsically has a very high octane rating of about 113. So adding 10% ethanol to gasoline boosts the octane rating by about 2-3 points. This allows refineries to produce 87 octane gas using a lower base blendstock.

However, ethanol also has lower energy density than gasoline, so fuel economy decreases slightly as ethanol content increases. E15 and E85 flex-fuel blends contain even more ethanol to achieve higher octane levels.

Key Takeaways on Octane Ratings

Here are some of the key conclusions when it comes to understanding if octane level matters for your car:

  • Always use manufacturer recommended octane rating for best performance.
  • Premium gasoline only benefits turbocharged or high-compression engines prone to knock.
  • No benefit to using higher octane than recommended in regular engines.
  • Lower octane can cause knock, timing retard, power loss, and damage over time.
  • Testing ensures gasoline meets minimum octane standards.

By sticking with the factory required octane level, you can optimize engine operation without overspending on unnecessary premium fuel. Knock sensors will protect your engine from any severe damage, but sustained use of lower octane gas than recommended will reduce performance over time.


Octane rating is an important factor in gasoline selection, but only certain turbocharged or high-performance engines truly benefit from using premium octane levels higher than the recommended 87. Always check your owner’s manual for the proper fuel grade. For regular engines, higher octanes provide no added performance or fuel economy benefits. But dropping below the recommended octane risks decreased power, efficiency, and gradual component damage over time. So choose the top grade fuel your particular car requires, but don’t waste money on unnecessary premium fill-ups unless specified by the manufacturer.

Leave a Comment