It’s the school holidays and a long weekend in some states, which can only mean one thing: petrol prices have taken an inexplicable jump.

The summer of 2020 is shaping up as a time when Australians re-embrace the great Aussie road trip. Lockdowns permitting – touch wood.

Illustration: Dionne Gain
Illustration: Dionne GainCREDIT:

With ski holidays to Europe absolutely off the table, many families are expected to take to the roads for “stay-at-home” holidays.

During the first stages of the coronavirus pandemic, petrol prices fell to as low as $1 a litre – lower in some areas – as international oil prices tanked. But normality has returned – to the petrol market, at least – and prices have quickly snapped back.

And it’s not just holiday driving that is fuelling more petrol demand. With restrictions on public transport, more Australians are using their cars for regular commutes.

So, it’s time to look at ways to save when it comes to petrol. And I’ve found a big one.

With restrictions on public transport, many Australians are using their cars more often.
With restrictions on public transport, many Australians are using their cars more often.CREDIT:ADRIAN DENNIS

I reckon I’ve paid $450 more than I needed to over the past five years because I didn’t understand one thing about cars and petrol.

Heads up: there are actually a lot of things I don’t understand about cars and petrol.

Granted, I became something of an expert, recently, on shopping around for affordable tyres. But I still have a long way to go because it turns out I have not known exactly which type of petrol I was supposed to be using in my car.

When I bought my Volkswagen Tiguan five years ago, the salesman told me clearly that I must always use Premium 98 unleaded petrol when filling the tank. Which I dutifully did – for the entire 67,500 kilometres I’ve driven since.

However, not long ago, I had started to wonder if using Premium 98, which regularly costs between 5 and 8 cents more per litre than Premium 95, was really necessary.

After pondering the issue on Instagram, I was tipped off to check the sticker inside my fuel cap door.

It clearly states: 95 RON.

“Who is this RON?” I wondered, “and why has he earned memorialisation in my car interior?”

Turns out RON stands for Research Octane Number, and it’s the octane rating that the manufacturer of your car has specified is the minimum you must use to keep your car in working order.

Premium 98 petrol has a 98 octane rating. Premium 95 has a 95 octane rating, or RON.


Perhaps, I wondered, RON is called something different in Germany, where my car was made?

So, I rang the service department of my dealer, whereupon a friendly young lady confided that although “the guys” always advised using 98 octane petrol, it’s not strictly necessary.

But is it preferable? Would using 98 help my car in some way?

So, I rang the NRMA and a spokesman advised that tests conducted by the motoring group had never established any benefit in terms of extra mileage from using 98 over 95.

I also emailed one of NRMA’s senior road testers, Tim Pomroy, who started working at the association in 1994 and has been reviewing vehicles since 2003.

“You’re right, your 2014 Tiguan only requires 95 premium,” he assured me. “There are lots of claims out there that 98 improves fuel consumption and performance, is cleaner, better for your engine, etc etc – all largely unproven.”

“My experience, after comparing 95 and 98 in vehicles designed to run on 95 over the years, was that I could not pick up any discernible improvement in driveability.”

Double huh.

To triple check, I also contacted my car mechanic to see if switching to 95 might do terrible damage to my car. He suggested a fun experiment to clock the mileage I got over a three-month period on 98, versus the mileage on 95 for the later three-month period.

But even I have my nerd limits. I’ve just decided to make the switch next fill-up.

Pomroy’s advice is to always check the petrol requirements for your car and stick to them. Using petrol with an octane rating below your car’s requirement can do significant damage to your engine.

Requirements should be spelt out in your car manual or on a sticker inside your fuel flap.

“Our view is to adhere to the vehicle manufacturers requirements,” says Pomroy. “Forget the salesman’s pitch and save your money.”

Having tracked my spending for a couple of months now, I can see I fill up my car about twice every month. On a 60-litre tank, that’s 1440 litres a year. Assuming I’ll now be paying about 6 cents less a litre by switching to Premium 95, that is an annual saving of about $86. Don’t mind if I do.

You can follow Jess’ money adventures on Instagram at @jess_irvine_pics

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