Today's engines use highly evolved versions of a device called a knock sensor to adjust settings automatically for low-octane gas. And more engine control computers have adequate memory to allow separate sets of instructions for various octanes. The engine control computers keep pushing to maximize performance on whatever grade of fuel is used.
Extreme pressure inside the cylinders causes knock, which is the sound of the pistons literally rattling inside the cylinders. Too much too long can damage the engine. A little now and then won't.
The only modern engines that should really need premium are those with superchargers, which force-feed fuel into the cylinders. "You're driving along and just tramp the gas and the knock sensor cannot sense the knock fast enough in some cases," because the supercharger boosts pressure so fast, says Bob Furey, chemist and fuels specialist at General Motors.
Burning regular when the owner's manual specifies premium won't void the warranty, nor damage the engine, even the most finicky automakers say. "You're giving up perhaps just a little bit of performance that a customer wouldn't really even notice, it's so slight," says Furey.
Automakers say they don't test premium engines on regular to check the difference, but some auto engineers estimate that power declines roughly 5%.
"We can't guarantee the vehicle will perform as specified if other than premium fuel is used," says Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman Michelle Murad. All U.S. Mercedes engines specify premium.