Detroit 3: High octane has pluses

DETROIT -- Automakers could increase fuel economy as much as 5 percent if the United States used the same blend of high-octane gasoline that is sold in Europe, Detroit 3 powertrain chiefs say.

With high-octane gasoline, automakers could fine-tune existing engines to boost fuel economy and reduce engine sizes on future engines without sacrificing power. The powertrain chiefs spoke here last week at a panel discussion sponsored by SAE International.

Octane is a hydrocarbon that delays detonation of fuel in the cylinder as pressure increases. So high-octane fuels permit powerful and efficient high-compression engines. Premature detonation causes engine knock or pinging.

Octane also has been popularized as a rating. Premium gasoline in Europe is equal to about 98 octane in the United States. Premium fuel in the United States is 93 octane.

"It's a common-sense thing for me," said Bob Fascetti, Ford Motor Co.'s vice president of powertrain engineering. "We can put in higher compression ratios, and we won't be [engine-] knock-limited on the fuel that's available."

Bob Lee, Chrysler Group's head of powertrain, says a fuel shared with Europe also would allow automakers to design similar engines for Europe and the United States, which would cut costs.

Some consumers would object to paying more for high-octane fuel. And in the past, the oil industry has resisted some investments to improve fuel quality, such as removing most of the sulfur.

Carlton Carroll, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade organization, says, "America's refining industry delivers the fuels that consumers demand."

Steve Kiefer, who joined General Motors last fall as vice president of global powertrain operations, agreed with Fascetti and Lee. This year, GM is launching a family of three- and four-cylinder Ecotec engines, many of which would benefit from higher-octane fuel.

Says Kiefer: "You can't deny the physics."

You can reach Richard Truett at