Dear Tom and Ray:
We bought a brand-new Mini Cooper S. Nobody told us what grade of gas to run it on. Stupidly, we did not look in the manual. We ran it on 87 regular for a little more than a year. When we brought it in for service recently, the dealer told us to run it on 91. Did we ruin the car? The dealer told us we most likely have valve carbon build up. There was no knocking or stalling. I am freaking out that we put a hole in a piston! It is my wife's car, and she loves it. Please help! Thanks for your advice. — Howard
Tom: Howard, have you ever considered switching to decaf?
Ray: You can stop freaking out. You didn't put a hole in a piston. If you had, you would have noticed immediately that the car sounds and shakes like one of my brother's cars.
Tom: Your car's engine-management system actually adjusts for the grade of gasoline you put in it.
Ray: In the old days, if your car needed 91 and you used 87, you would have caused the engine to "knock" on hard acceleration, on hills or in high heat. That knocking was the sound of pre-ignition, or gasoline igniting when it wasn't supposed to. That could cause damage to the engine over time. Even in the short run, it could harm things by making your engine run hot.
Tom: But since engines are now managed by computers, yours has what's called a "knock sensor." Guess what that does? It senses knock! And if it detects a grade of fuel that's lower than what's recommended, it adjusts the car's ignition timing to make up for it and avoid damage.
Ray: So, why wouldn't you just use 87 all the time, and save a lot of money on gas? Well, in cars that "recommend" premium fuel, like yours, you can. And I would. Manufacturers say you may notice a small drop in fuel economy and a slight decrease in power, but it's not enough for most people to notice.
Tom: On the other hand, some cars say they "require" (rather than "recommend") premium fuel. In those cases, you're stuck. So our advice is to ask for a look at the owner's manual, and check a car's fuel recommendation before you buy it!
Ray: But doing what you did, Howard, caused no damage at all. Zip. Nada.
Tom: So, for your own mental health, I suggest that you forget this whole incident ever happened. If you have trouble letting it go, I suggest going to see your Mini dealer's in-house hypnotist. He's conveniently stationed next to the cashier at the service department's pick-up window.
(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)