Roy Crowley of West Palm Beach, Fla., like many motorists, tends to buy gasoline at name-brand stations, figuring it's worth a few extra cents per gallon to get a higher-quality product. But is it really?
"The price difference between one brand and another can be substantial," Crowley said. "Is there really a difference?"
The answer: It depends on whom you ask.
If you ask someone who sells Shell gas, for example, that person would point to the brand's expensive advertising campaign that touts the fact that "Shell V-Power premium gasoline boasts the highest concentration of the patented Shell Nitrogen Enriched cleaning system, with five times the amount of cleaning agents required by federal government standards."
What does that mean and does that make it the best?
The readers of Popular Mechanics just voted Shell as the best gas for the second year in the row, so somebody is paying attention to all that nitrogen-enriched advertising.
But the answers are more complicated than a magazine poll can answer. The impression of many motorists is that certain brands of gasoline are refined at their own refineries -- that Shell gas is Shell gas from the minute it is derived from crude oil. But this is seldom the case.
In fact, gasoline is gasoline as it flows through the pipeline to a terminal, where it is picked up by various tanker trucks. That is where Shell, for instance, becomes Shell -- when the additive package is mixed into the gasoline. Other brands have their own exclusive, top-secret additive packages, most of which contain the brand's proprietary formula for detergents.
But off-brand gasoline, sold by small or independent dealers, gets an additive package too, likely a generic one developed by the company that owns the terminal.
Think of Kool-Aid -- it all starts with the same water, until different packages are poured into the water to make a special flavor.
And in the case of gasoline, standard grades -- from regular to premium to high octane -- must all meet federal guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
There's little doubt, though, that the cheapest gas is seldom sold by the major oil companies.
That said, there is an amalgamation of gasoline brands beneath the "Top Tier" banner (www.toptiergas.com). Six auto manufacturers -- BMW, General Motors, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen and Audi -- tout Top Tier gas suppliers. Their contention is, as Top Tier says, the "current EPA minimum detergent requirements do not go far enough to ensure optimal engine performance. Currently, many gasoline retailers provide fuels with lower-quality additive packages that can build up deposits on fuel injectors and on intake valves."
So the Top Tier brands, of which Shell is one, pledge that they will exceed the EPA minimums. Top Tier claims that "many gasoline retailers provide fuels with lower-quality additive packages that can build up deposits on fuel injectors and on intake valves. Others can build up deposits in combustion chambers and may lead to intake valve sticking. These lower levels of additives can have negative impacts on engine performance and vehicle responsiveness."
So what are the Top Tier retailers? Many are regional chains; some are national. Among them: 76, Phillips 66, Chevron, QuikTrip, Conoco, Shell, Exxon, Texaco and Mobil.
But is Top Tier gas worth the extra money? I asked the manager of a major fuel pipeline terminal in Florida that handles most brands of gasoline -- he asked to remain nameless so as to not offend any of his clients -- what brand he uses.
"Whatever is the cheapest," he said.