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Zoom-zoom-zoom or putt-putt: the premium gas conundrum

Two cars drive into a service station: a brand new Corvette with a 400-hp V8 engine that'll go 0-60 mph in a breathtaking 4.3 seconds; the other a new Mini Cooper convertible with a 4-cylinder, 115-hp engine that does 0-60 in a ho-hum 7.1 seconds.

The $3-plus per gallon question: Which one pulls up to the premium fuel tank?

Yeah, that's right, the manufacturer's recommendation for the four-banger British import is for premium gas, while the super-hot Corvette does just fine, thank you very much, on regular.

This little comparative exercise is occasioned by Consumer Reports' recent analysis of U.S.-made and imported cars, trucks, and SUVs.

Of the 350 vehicles put through CR's rigorous testing, fully one-fourth carry a manufacturer's recommendation to use premium gasoline. The bulk of those are foreign brands — Japanese, German, Swedish, British — and most are nowhere in the same league, performance-wise, as the mighty Corvette.

One might make a case that the small-engine, lighter Mini Cooper gets more miles from a gallon of premium (rated 25 mpg) than the big-engine, heavier Corvette (rated 19 mpg) gets from a gallon of regular, and that for the same number of miles the total gasoline expense will be less for the smaller car.

(There is, of course, the consideration that if you can drive a 'Vette, you ain't likely to care about the cost of gas — the exhilaration factor is worth it.)

Nonetheless, one wonders: If GM can wring blazing performance out of its 400-hp 'Vette burning regular gas, why does a smaller, less powerful Mazda Miata specify premium?

And if a hulking, weighty 403-hp V8 Cadillac Escalade SUV can run OK on regular gas, why should an equally bulky, heavy 216-hp V6 Land Rover SUV's specs call for premium?

Granted, for 1,000 gallons of fuel over a year's time, at 10 cents difference, the premium gas user would only be shelling out $100 more; at 15 cents difference, $150.

But multiply that $100 to $150 by the hundreds of thousands of Mini Cooper, Acura, Miata, Land Rover, and other premium gas-powered vehicles on U.S. highways and that's a nice chunk of change.

Gasoline retailers and refiners love premium gas; it's more profitable.

But most automotive engineers say the main advantage of a premium gas engine is that it lets manufacturers boast of a few more horsepower.

The engineers generally agree that if regular gas is substituted, the power loss is so very slight most people can't tell (although a lot of drivers will argue a blue streak they can detect a significant difference). More importantly, engineers note, burning regular won't harm the engine and it won't void the warranty.

On the flip side are those who use premium gas in engines designed for regular, swearing it provides greater performance — to which the Federal Trade Commission says: hooey, they're just wasting money.

Which brings us back to the Corvette conundrum: If GM can run that sizzler on regular gas, why can't Honda and Mazda and all the other manufacturers do the same and eliminate millions of gallons of high cost premium gasoline?

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