Is It Smart to Put Premium in Your Little Fortwo?

May 28, 2008
Smart fortwo

Smart fortwo

Among the cars I am test-driving this week is a BMW M3 Coupe. It is, as you might expect, a joy to drive. But it is painful to refill, averaging barely 17 mpg and demanding nothing less than the choicest of premium gas.

OK, when you’re spending $53,800 on a high-performance two-door, I guess you can expect – and afford – to pay for high-octane. But I got a surprise this morning when I opened up my print edition of the Detroit Free Press and found a telling report by old friend Mark Phelan. Seems an unexpected number of today’s cars require premium fuel, many of them not in the same category of performance that might justify that requirement for the M3.

Who would expect Smart to recommend high-test for its little fortwo? The smallest car in the country requiring the highest octane? Yep. But so do the Mini Cooper and new Mini Cooper Clubman, at least if you follow factory recommendations.

Among mid-size sedans, the list of premium sippers includes the Volkswagen Passat, Nissan Maxima, and Nissan Altima V8.

BMWs, no surprise, often require the most expensive fuels. That may be fine on models like the big 750iL and the high-performance M-editions, but the little X3 Sport-Activity Vehicle? Acura also requires high-test for its compact RDX crossover. And I was disappointed to realize the Mazda CX-7 also should be fueled with premium, as are the Nissan Murano and Toyota FJ Cruiser. Considering the latter ute’s positioning as an affordable toy, young buyers may be in for a big surprise at the pump.

You may notice that there’s not a single American model in the above list, and indeed, the Big Three have made a valiant effort in recent years to switch to regular whenever possible. There are a few exceptions, such as the Cadillac CTSv and Ford’s Shelby Cobra, but even the hot Mustang Bullitt can run on regular.

Among import premium brands, however, like Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and Audi, premium is the fuel of preference for most, though not all, models.

Premium fuel is often the only way to deliver the maximum performance out of today’s engines. Indeed, the average new powertrain delivers significantly more horsepower and torque per liter of displacement than comparable engines of generations past.

But there is some good news for those who take the time to carefully read their owner’s manual. While the products we’ve listed – and others – may be designed to run best on premium, many can operate on regular or mid-grade fuels, as well, thanks to their sophisticated computer control systems. You will almost certainly experience a decline in performance, however. Before you switch, make sure to check that manual, however. Running regular in an engine that can only handle premium could cause serious damage and void your warranty.

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