Which fuel drives your dollar further?

You’re parked on the filling station forecourt: it's fuel watch central. You want some cheap fuel. There are four different flavours of petrol - and four different petrol prices. It’s the ultimate grudge purchase: if you don’t buy petrol, your car becomes furniture - at best, a modern art masterpiece. You’re face to face with the fundamental first-world dilemma: Which petrol is really cheapest? Which fuel drives your dollar further? Let’s find out.
fuel watch ethanol petrol prices fuel prices


Our way of life revolves around petrol prices. We are all fuel watchers, to some degree.

Fuel consumption is one of modern life’s most fundamental exchanges: Money in exchange for miles - cash for kilometres, for the metrically minded.

People obsess about petrol prices. Which is why I got a call from the news director at Channel 7 in Sydney the other day - Australia’s premier TV news network - he said: “Do you want to figure out petrol prices?” I said: “OK.”

The back-story on petrol prices

You, presumably, are a human being. Me too (more or less). In the modern world, we’re on top. And I like being on top. A lot. But we are not on top because of our big brains. Dolphins have big brains, and yet they end up in our tinned tuna. So that’s not it. And it’s not our thumbs - they certainly make it easier to spank the monkey, or choke the chicken, whatever - but if it was just about physical attributes, I think I’d rather be a lion, or a grizzly bear. Or a wolf. And they’re not on top, either.

BELOW: On top, or not

We’re on top because we burn. It's all about fuel consumption - access to cheap fuel. Global superiority is all thermodynamics. We burn considerably more energy from cheap fuel than we derive from our food. We are the only species on earth that does this. Collectively, every year, we burn a cubic kilometre of dead dinosaurs’ dongers. (Actually it’s just dead plants, cooked into crude oil over geologic time, unless you’re one of those creationist nuts.) Fuel consumption - access to cheap fuel - puts us on top.

Our access to energy from cheap petrol and diesel is a complete brain bender. It allows us luxuriate in Costa Del Sol, to litigate, we’ve got the Internet, serial murderers, Kim Jon Un, and the hydrogen bomb.

Just four reasons why it's fun to burn, below

It’s a lot of diversified fun to burn cheap fuel. Fun and fuel consumption are inextricably linked.

You enjoy unprecedented mobility as a direct consequence of fuel consumption: us taking ‘fire’ to the next level. It's all about access to cheap fuel. Seriously. Think about it.  You have, today, the kind of mobility that a Roman Emperor or an Egyptian Pharaoh could only dream about after snorting the best drugs.

Your bomby old Toyota Camry full of cheap petrol can take you up to 100 miles per hour without too much effort. You can travel halfway around the planet in a day. Fuel consumption is awesome.

It’s a lot of fun to burn cheap fuel. But I bet you don’t jump out of bed each morning, do a quick 'fuel watch' assessment, confirm your species' position (still on top) and riff a bit of air guitar because cheap fuel makes you more mobile than Tutankhamun could ever hope to be.

I bet instead you bitch about petrol prices … you ungrateful asshole.

The petrol prices test: who, what & how

Here’s what we did with fuel consumption and petrol prices, plus how we did it, and what it means.

First up: the car. New Hyundai Elantra. 2.0 multi-point injected petrol auto. Hyundai whipped up Pete - red-hot technician - and Pete whipped in a special fuel tank, and that allowed us to eliminate all kinds of fuel consumption uncertainty. We could do low-volume, controlled, repeatable petrol re-fills: dead easy. And, to boost our fuel consumption experimental controls, we used a controlled one-kilometre track at the Western Sydney International Dragway, and another secret weapon: Ian Luff - the Luff Man - Australia’s pre-eminent advanced driver trainer. He plonked himself in the Elantra and drove like a fuel consumption robot - a robot with Miss Daisy in the passenger’s seat.

Above (left to right): The new Hyundai Elantra, Hyundai's master technician Pete, installing the tank, and the Yoda of advanced driver training, Ian Luff (drivetosurvive.com)

fuel watch ethanol petrol prices fuel prices

Reporting about petrol prices and fuel consumption on TV is so glamorous. You go to all the best places. It’s just awesome. I can’t work out if the high point is getting high on the smell of garbage from the dump next door to the dragway. (And I love the smell of refuse in the morning. It smells like journalism…) Or perhaps the true glamour was collecting the petrol prices and the fuel samples themselves.

Anyway, you know you’re a star when you collect the fuel samples and deliver them to the corner penthouse of garbo central for a day of garbage-snorting, fuel consumption goodness.

So glamourous.

I turn up with five litres of e10 fuel, and 91, 95 and 98 petrol, and the respective representative petrol prices. Plus a calibrated scientific measuring cylinder that allowed us to deliver controlled volumes of each of the fuel samples with a measurement accuracy of about plus or minus five millilitres - which is way better than one per cent accuracy in these fuel consumption tests.

I take an average of the respective petrol prices and I work out how much petrol one Aussie dollar buys of each of the four fuels - a minimum of 740 ml of 98 octane premium and a maximum of 870 ml of e10.

Then we prime up the lines with the target fuel, run the car to get that fuel all the way into the engine, shut down, pump all the residual fuel out of the special tank, tip in the carefully measured control volume of the required test fuel, zero the trip meter, and then the Luff robot takes over, and drives until … dry tank; dead silence. We note the distance and go again … times four fuels. The definitive guide to fuel consumption and which fuel actually drives your dollar further.

The test results

The fuel consumption results lined up pretty well with the theory. Premium 98 delivered the best fuel consumption (in terms of the volume burned per distance driven), followed by premium 95, regular 91 and e10 fuel with the highest consumption - and that’s exactly what established combustion theory tells us to expect.

So: No nasty little surprises there. But this wasn’t a test of that thermodynamic theory - it was really all about the economic rationality underpinning fuel consumption.

It gets interesting when you factor in the price. Regular unleaded fuel - the 91 octane stuff - took us the furthest on $1.00 in fuel. Premium 98 octane operated at an 11 per cent fuel consumption disadvantage - at least in terms of how far every dollar takes you. Premium 95 octane was eight per cent behind the eight ball and e10 fuel lags by about four-and-a-half per cent.

I’ve previously done a full report on high octane fuels >> and whether it makes sense to use them.

But if all you care about is the cost of getting from A to B, it’s fair to say oil companies are grossly overstating the purported benefits of putting premium petrol in average vehicles. Sure - there's a slight improvement in fuel consumption, but it's way more than eclipsed by the fuel price itself. They just want you to buy premium petrol because it pumps up their profits, while delivering almost no tangible benefit to you.

Do you really need premium petrol?

Of course, some cars, typically European cars or high-performance cars, requires 95 or 98 premium fuel. If you own one of those, then you must use that - otherwise you can damage your engine. Just look inside the fuel flap or the owner’s manual, and it’ll tell you ‘premium unleaded only’ or ’98 only’.

Below: Need for speed (and premium unleaded)

But the vast majority of Australian cars aren't BMW M3s, Mercedes-Benz E63 AMGs or Porsche 911 GT3s - so they don’t need premium petrol, and using premium in them is clearly a waste of money. Cheap fuel: the 91-octane regular stuff - is the best deal. Our petrol prices / fuel consumption test proves it.

So: going too high with octane rating: waste of money. Going too low (in a car that actually requires premium): that’s really bad - it can damage your engine.

Everything right & wrong with e10 fuel

fuel watch ethanol petrol prices fuel prices

E10 fuel - notionally 10 per cent ethanol blended with 90 per cent 91-octane regular unleaded petrol - is perhaps the most interesting aspect to this story. Some people say e10 fuel is inferior, or that e10 fuel will damage your car. There's one thing to remember about these kinds of statements surrounding ethanol-blended fuels:

They're crap.

The vast majority of cars manufactured after the 1980s are completely compatible with e10 fuel - and e10 is anything but inferior as a fuel. Ethanol rocks, as a fuel. Most cars actually perform better on e10 fuel, because it’s a cheap high-octane fuel. In fact, if they blended it the full 10 per cent ethanol with petrol you’d get a 95 octane performance out of the resulting fuel, and that would make e10 fuel the premium 'cheap fuel' bargain of the decade.

This is something oil companies do not want to do - presenting you with a viably cheaper alternative to 95 premium - so they say e10 fuel is actually ‘up to 10 per cent ethanol’ in the fine print, and give it an official octane rating of 94.

Petrol price manipulating assholes.

E10 fuel (or, at least, the ethanol component in it) is also locally manufactured - and ethanol keeps our farmers in business. Ethanol keeps agribusiness turning over, transport, logistics, and there are manufacturing jobs at the ethanol production plant. So that’s a win. Plus, ethanol is  renewable, and it therefore dilutes our growing national dependency on foreign oil - which we should all be concerned about.

Australia imports more than 90 per cent of liquid fuels - petrol and diesel - often from despotic or otherwise geopolitically crackpot countries and regions, and that means our way of life is leveraged against a very fragile fuel supply chain. And adding a bit of local security (energy security) is a great thing. Trust me on this. Personally, I’d be a lot happier if the Middle East had two-thirds of the world’s known reserves of grapefruit, instead of two-thirds of the oil … but you don’t always get the world you want, sadly.

The only thing wrong with e10 fuel is the price. It’s clearly too high. You can speculate about why. That’s easy enough.

Oil companies don’t really want to sell ethanol - it’s hardly their core business - and there’s no question if you made them king for a day, they’d shut down ethanol production for everything except beer, wine and spirits. But it would also be nice for there to be more competition among ethanol manufacturers. That would help drive the price of e10 fuel down.

We certainly need more transparency on ethanol pricing, and proof of two things:

  1. That the price is a fair representation of the cost of ethanol production, and not just riding off the back of petrol's wholesale 'terminal gate' pricing.
  2. That oil companies are passing on the price of ethanol into the price of e10 fuel without being systematically uncompetitive on petrol prices.

Currently we’re flying blind on both counts.

fuel watch ethanol petrol prices fuel prices

When to use e10 fuel

Our investigation on 7 News proved that fuel consumption increases just over 4 per cent on e10 fuel - so unless e10 sells at a 4.5 per cent discount relative to 91, you’ll be doing yourself an economic disservice by buying it. Petrol prices are important to consider, in terms of relative consumption. That means, in ballpark terms, on current average 91 regular unleaded petrol pricing of about $1.03 a litre, e10 fuel needs to be retailing for something like 99 cents a litre or less to make it a compelling commercial choice for average Aussie drivers.

Our regulators need to get into gear and make that happen, because e10 fuel is otherwise a really good idea.

fuel watch ethanol petrol prices fuel prices

The great Aussie 'petrol prices' conspiracy

There are, of course, some nutbag conspiracy theorists who live on Planet Rip Off - where petrol at any price is just the world government repressing the masses … along with fluoride in the water, the lizard people, immunisation, Roswell, and the faked moon landing.

If you are one of those interesting individuals, I’d like to talk directly to you now.

If you think petrol prices are too expensive, and you live, say, five kilometres from the local supermarket, as I see it, you have, basically, two options:

  1. Don’t be part of the evil petrol price conspiracy. Dust off your trusty wheelbarrow, walk to the shops, load up the produce and … run back (so the ice cream doesn’t melt, and so the chicken doesn’t rain Tarantino-esque, salmonella-driven hellfire on your sorry, conspiracy-theoretical ass). All-up, it’s gunna take you about two hours to do that.
  2. Jump in your combustion-powered two-tonne envy-of-Tutankhamun chariot - and drive to and from the shops, in air conditioned comfort. That’s gonna take you about five minutes each way, and cost you about $1.00 in cheap petrol - which seems beyond just reasonable to me. Because it’s fun to burn cheap petrol - I think we covered that.

As always, if you’re in the market for a new car, the lizard people and I can sort one for you cheap - we’ve got a red-hot dealer in Area 51 - it’s part of our evil plan to entrap the world - taking control of car companies by dominating demand. That’s the plan. You can always contact me here >> to make that happen ASAP. Leave a comment below so the aliens will know who to abduct and probe - they’re very good at that. And trust me, ladies: you haven’t really been probed until you’ve been probed by an extra-terrestrial. That’s what I heard.

While you’re waiting for that particular close encounter, look out for that critical 4.5-cent differential between e10 fuel and 91 regular unleaded petrol. Remember that the relative petrol prices are critical to which fuel you should buy.