Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It's a gas gas gas!

Well, I finally hit the big time. I've gotten some recognition for my blog in the form of Chevron's PR agency. They invited me to a special blogger tour of Chevron's tech facility in Richmond, CA, outside Oakland. I'm guessing their PR staff had seen my extremely well-balanced and superbly written post regarding the backlash against the oil companies. What Chevron wanted to get the word out about, though, was Techron, its relatively well-known fuel additive which purports to keep your engine spic and span. In particular, they spent most of their time talking about Techron Concentrate Plus, which can be added to a tank of cheaper stuff every oil change to clean things up if your engine's feeling dirty, but I was more interested in Techron's application to their gasoline.

You may have noticed recently that Shell has been running a campaign designed to raise awareness of the detergent power of its fuel, as well. In fact, I've been buying mostly Shell gasoline for my cars for the past few years. For my readers I suppose this begs the question, how much can the quality of gasoline differ? After all, most people treat gasoline as a commodity, with station location as the primary factor in where they fill up. Well, the answer is both simple and complicated. Read on...

Most drivers think of gas on three levels: regular, mid-grade and premium. This simply refers to the fuel's octane, which is essentially its resistance to detonation. Why would anyone want a fuel that's tougher to ignite? Well, on higher performance engines, the compression ratios tend to go up, meaning fuel is more likely to ignite before it's supposed to, and to not burn evenly. This can create problems in both performance and emissions. Especially because of the potential for emissions issues, all modern engines are able to sense these issues (knock or ping) and adjust their operation accordingly. But this robs a high-performance engine of its full capability, so it's still recommended you pop for the highest octane specified for your car. 

One big question that people wonder about: Can high octane gas help a car spec'd to run on regular? Answer: not really, don't waste your money. Unless...

Here's where things get a bit more complicated, and where I actually did learn some things from the Chevron event. Techron has been around for around 35 years, and many dyed-in-the-wool car guys swear by it. They gave us a whole presentation about their continuing advancements, waxing euphoric about PEAs (as opposed to those lame PBAs, which are so yesterday), and other technical stuff that my readers would neither understand nor care about. The crux of it all is that Techron prevents gunk from building up on your valves, injectors and combustion chamber, which can keep your engine from performing at its peak. Think of it as Lipitor for your car. 

Okay, so is Chevron gas really the best around? Well, they certainly think so, but from a more neutral perspective, there is something to be said in Chevron's favor. For a little background, I'll explain why I always fill up with Shell. A few years ago I read about a standard for gasoline called Top Tier. Before this, I'd thought it laughable that gas companies wasted money on advertising, since all gas was pretty much the same. But I found out that there's actually a pretty wide range of detergency among fuels, and the brands that conform to Top Tier standards actually follow a much stricter set of guidelines. 

A few years ago, a coalition of automakers (including VW) decided that the EPA standards for gasoline detergency were not high enough, causing emissions and reliability issues. They banded together and worked with a few oil companies (including Chevron) to establish a stricter standard. 

When I heard about this, I decided that I'd only fill my tank with the good stuff. Scanning the list of brands that met the standard, though, there were few companies on it that offered easy access in my area. Interestingly enough, the biggest companies out there, ExxonMobil and BP Amoco, are missing from this list. The one that was most promising was Shell. Rather than memorize the list, I just figured if I could find a Shell station, I'd be alright. After doing this for a while, I figured I might as well get a Shell card and get 5% back every time I fill up. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how brand loyalty is built. 

Fast forward to Chevron event, and I clearly went into it with a skeptic's eye. Aren't all the Top Tier gasolines good stuff? And what about Shell's V-Power brand. When Shell talks about its gas which can clean up your engine, they're talking about V-Power. And when I asked the guys at Chevron how much better than Shell their stuff is, they didn't really have a satisfactory answer for me. They'd really been comparing their fuels with others meeting the minimum EPA standards and other Top Tier fuels. But in reality Shell V-Power is on a third level with Chevron fuel--the real "top tier". In the public's eye, at least, they said that Amoco Ultimate is up there as well. 

But here's the real advantage in Chevron fuel. Every one of their fuels is up to the same lofty standards. With Shell and Amoco, it's only their high octane stuff that's branded with the V-Power and Ultimate names. So back to the original question: Can high octane gas help a car spec'd to run on regular? As I said, the answer is usually no. But if you're buying Shell or Amoco (or BP of course), your engine can get a nice Spring cleaning if you pop for premium. 

I always buy premium, because I'm a car nut and I baby my baby. And Chevron didn't really have me convinced that Techron would deliver that much benefit to me (at least not enough to search all over town for a damn Chevron station). But they did make a pretty convincing case that most people could stand to benefit from regular use of Chevron. That, and the fact that they bribed me with a free trip to the San Francisco Bay Area and some free Techron Concentrate Plus, in the spirit of full disclosure. 

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