NEW YORK – You see just about everything in Times Square, from costumed characters to the famous ball that drops on New Year’s Eve. You won’t normally see a gas station though.

Yet there one was (sort of) in early June, when Shell set up a massive display to promote its new V-Power Nitro+ gasoline. This premium-grade fuel replaces the previous V-Power and is now available at all Shell stations across Canada.

(Disclosure: Travel and accommodation at the event were provided to the writer by Shell Canada.)

While Nitro+ has the same 91-octane rating as the fuel it replaces, and the company says it cleans up engine gunk just as well, it now has additives that reduce wear and corrosion. A Shell rep says that all fuel grades contain some of the new proprietary additive package, but the 91-octane fuel has the highest, and this grade also contains no ethanol. The new fuel is also endorsed by BMW for use in its M performance vehicles.

HeapMedia263910

“Eighty per cent of people who buy premium think that all premium (fuel) is the same,” says Elen Phillips, vice-president of Shell Americas sales and marketing. “We don’t believe that, and we’ve done tests on it with industry standards to show its better performance. For people who want to keep their cars longer, this is the product they should be using.”

Many drivers bypass the premium pump because it’s the priciest, and in some cases, that’s okay. But for a vehicle that’s labelled as “Premium Fuel Only,” and for some labelled “Premium Recommended,” using a lower-octane grade might not actually save you anything, and here’s why.

Octane isn’t an additive, but a molecule whose concentration is determined by how the fuel is refined. Its purpose is to reduce pre-ignition or engine knock, which occurs when the fuel spontaneously explodes in the combustion chamber before the spark plug fires. It’s far more likely to occur in higher-compression engines, which is why vehicles with these engines will usually require it.

On an older car, engine knock can potentially cause serious engine damage. Newer vehicles are equipped with knock sensors, which detect knock and immediately adjust the timing so that combustion occurs only when the gas vapour is ignited by the spark plug. This saves the engine from damage, but can cause it to run sluggishly and use more fuel, potentially wiping out whatever you initially saved with the cheaper grade.

If the vehicle has a “premium recommended” label, it will run fine on regular gas, but you will get more power on premium fuel. In many cases it’s just a slight bump in horsepower, so try both to see which you prefer.

Joe Russo, a fuel scientist for Shell, says that the company kept the octane rating the same “because cars don’t require more than 91 or 92,” he says. “If the car is manufactured to handle 91, having 95 won’t establish anything better.”

HeapMedia263909

The big thing is the additive package, he says, starting with the gunk reduction. Engine gunk is a greasy, oily substance that builds up on valves and injectors, the result of carbon that’s produced during combustion. When enough builds up, it can distort the air flow and cause inefficient combustion, and if there’s enough of it, it can mess with your fuel consumption, increase the engine’s emissions, and cause hard starting. Russo says that the first tank of this top-line fuel will remove 60 per cent of gunk, and continued use will keep the engine clean.

The second benefit is corrosion protection. “You’ll always have some moisture in fuel, which can attack the fuel pump, the fuel line, and the injectors,” Russo says. “We have materials in there that will separate the water from the fuel, usually on a micro scale. This protects the surfaces from those water molecules to stop the corrosion process.” Finally, the additive package contains a wear inhibitor that coats metal surfaces to protect moving parts.

Canada’s federal General Standards Board requires a minimum amount of detergent in all gasoline, but beyond that, gasoline companies individually develop proprietary additive packages for their fuel. This is the case with Shell’s new fuel, and there’s a patent pending on the formula. Shell doesn’t necessarily refine the gasoline you’re buying from its pumps—like all companies, it will buy finished fuel from other refineries when necessary—and it blends in the additives either at the refinery, or at the fuel depot.

Your vehicle’s octane rating will be in your owner’s manual. Those that require premium fuel usually have this information on the inside of the fuel door. While you shouldn’t use regular-grade (87 octane) in a vehicle that requires premium, you won’t do any harm by putting premium in an engine that doesn’t need it. Shell is promoting its V-Power Nitro+ for all engines because of the additive package to reduce gunk, wear and corrosion, and for some people that’s a key reason to use it, but it will depend on your preference at the pump.

That said, some regular-grade engines will run better on mid-grade or premium fuel, especially as they get older. If your vehicle seems like it’s not performing as well as it used to, or if you hear a knocking or pinging sound from the engine when you accelerate, try moving up a fuel grade to see if it makes a difference.