The Real McCoey on RON - Research Octane Number

Mike Stevens | Aug 23, 2008

RON? Not your next-door neighbour.

What does the RON number mean in regard to petrol?

Unleaded fuels carry a RON (Research Octane Number) rating. Put simply, RON determines petrol's 'anti-knock' quality or resistance to pre-ignition; or if you want to put in another way, the Octane Number denotes its resistance to detonation.

If you run your vehicle on low octane petrol you might notice a 'knocking', 'rattling', or 'pinging' sound (as it’s often called), which means the fuel is detonating instead of burning smoothly. This is not only a waste of energy, but it can also damage your engine in the long run. Burning is the desired effect of any internal combustion engine (not an explosion per se).

Fuel with a higher octane number suitable for your vehicle's engine will eliminate knocking. Older cars that were designed to run on a lower RON fuel can also benefit from a higher RON, because the older the car and the higher the kilometres, means the engine will have a greater propensity to knock. This is mainly caused by a build-up of contaminants and carbon deposits which, when hot, can cause pre-ignition.

combustion

Rotary engines suffered from this too. As carbon deposits build up on the three apex seals of each rotor, the deposits get so hot, they glow orange with heat and then bang…detonation!

If you’ve ever seen an apex seal with what looks like burnt, corroded and ‘blown’ corners, you’ll know why. So in effect, a higher RON fuel when used in these situations will have a much higher threshold to detonate, therefore reducing that nasty characteristic of detonation.

Different fuels.

There may have been times when you’ve pulled up at the petrol station (and apart from feeling like you have just been violated when paying for your go-go juice) and thought to yourself: should I perhaps try XYZ fuel? Is it any better? What should I be using, and could I be using the wrong thing?

Let me quickly go through some basic facts about available fuels.

(ULP) Unleaded Petrol

holden_commodore_vk ULP was produced to replace older-technology petrol which used lead-additive as an upper cylinder lubricant (use of lead was phased out in most countries because of the damaging effects of lead on our health). Vehicles using ULP operate with a catalytic converter. Most vehicles built or imported since 1986, and a number of pre-1986 vehicles, have been fitted with catalytic technology.

ULP has a Research Octane Number (RON) of between 91 and 93. If you have a low mileage car, that isn’t a performance car, there is no need to extend your wallet to anything else but this stuff. It will do the job just fine, especially if the manufacturer of your motor vehicle recommends it. But you may wish to consider the following when making your choice.

(PULP) Premium Unleaded Petrol

PULP is a special blend of petrol with a higher octane rating, that can produce higher engine power, as well as knock-free performance for unleaded cars with a high-octane requirement. So yes, it does give you more performance, and, because it has a higher tolerance towards ‘knock’, it may stop your engine from retarding, assisting the car to run at its optimum.

2008-subaru-impreza-wrx PULP, usually has a Research Octane Number (RON) of 95/96 and as time goes on, PULP is starting to become the norm. As discussed earlier, perhaps higher mileage and older cars will benefit from running a higher RON to reduce knocking. Of course, if the manufacturer recommends you use 95+ RON fuel, then do that.

As it burns cleaner, and more completely, and can extend the number of kilometres you get out of each tank, there are good environmental reasons for choosing a higher octane fuel.

(UPULP) Ultra Premium

Most oil companies have a specially-named version of UPULP (Castrol Vortex and BP Ultimate are two examples) which has a RON of 98. It is a high-octane unleaded fuel that maximises engine power and performance, burns cleanly (keeping the upper-cylinders clean) as well as producing less pollution. It is more commonly recommended for imported and high performance vehicles.

98 RON is promoted as providing excellent fuel economy. It has low levels of benzene, sulphur and lower aromatics: its sulphur content is 10 times lower than the national standard for unleaded fuels. hks-evo-x

For performance cars, 98 RON go-go juice is the norm. But does a car that is designed to run on 95 RON fuel run better on 98 RON fuel? Some swear by it, but from what I have seen, I have no evidence to sustain that theory. Sure, you may get better mileage, but I am skeptical that we would see measurably positive results on the dyno. However, there are certainly exceptions to any rule, and there are just so many variables to consider it’s not worth turning the discussion into argument.

The basic principles of internal combustion technology in cars has changed little; where things have changed however is in programming and in the sophisticated fuel management systems (such as knock sensors) of modern cars.

Knock Sensors

spark-lightning

Some engines are fitted with a device called a knock sensor. Regardless of whether your vehicle has a knock sensor or multiple knock sensors, if it has high mileage, a higher RON fuel would be the most mechanically sympathetic thing to do. Why is that?

You see the knock sensors in your engine (if equipped) have a job to do. They protect your engine from knock by retarding timing; but here is the thing - your car ‘has’ to knock first before the knock sensors can do their job! This is not a good start in the first place. When an engine ‘knocks’ the engine temperature soars, and with most modern engines using an all alloy block, heat is bad... very bad.

Older engine blocks were commonly made from iron, and iron has a much higher melting temperature (at around 1,500 degrees centigrade) whereas an alloy block (we’re generalising here) melts at around half that temperature (being approximately 800 degrees centigrade).

Having first-hand experience with race engines that run an engine management system like a MOTEC tuned for a race fuel like ELF W.L.F (World Rally Fuel) at 102 RON ( the FIA limits for racing fuel is 102 octane), I’ve seen an engine ‘melt’ internally after just getting a ‘whiff’ of 98 RON when the engine was tuned for 102. Temps went through the roof and the engine was a throw-away proposition. This gets pretty expensive, let me tell you.

melted_piston

Of course this doesn’t happen anywhere near as dramatically with passenger cars built for consumer use, and most race engines don’t employ knock sensors to retard timing. It does however illustrate - at the higher end of the spectrum - just how important running the right RON for an engine can be and just how serious knock is.

So what does all this RON nonsense mean to the average motorist? Does it give you more power like many people suggest? Can you really ‘feel’ that extra power via the driver’s seat? Does a higher RON fuel equal better fuel consumption? The answer to these questions is somewhere between “maybe” and “yes”, but it depends a lot on your car, its state of tune, and how you drive.

So what do you next time you find yourself at the petrol pump?

My advice is reach for the better stuff. Not only are you “spreading the love” to your engine, but you will likely see better mileage and you will be doing your bit for the environment. On the whole, the higher the RON, the cleaner the emissions.

Till next time, Happy and safe motoring.

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Filed under: Racing, Porsche, 500, environment, Holden, Subaru, impreza, petrol, fuel, evo, Technology, mps, rta, fia, commodore, holden commodore, EV, rotary, import, cts, benz, MG, emissions, rs, fuel economy, research, is, system, ve, US, engine, Engines, ss, oil, esp, ti, economy, News, sound, z, sti, TT, motor, Seat, mb, x, performance, car, design, fr, art, rl, cars, FF, red, tl, ring, ice, report, g, The Real McCoey, LED, mc, race, quality, RX, dyno, premium, wrx, hks, driver, exhaust, ARC, special, note, top, mccoey, may, motoring, job, LTR, three, oil companies, bp, pollution, mileage

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  • Timmy says,
    6 years ago
    You mention Shell Vortex and BP Ultimate as being 95-96 RON. I'm pretty sure that when I put some juice in the chariot that they both have the octane rating listed as 98 on the pump. Why then, aren't these listed as being UPULP, or am I getting this number confused with a different scale or rating?
  • steane says,
    6 years ago
    You're correct Timmy. Correction has been made. Thanks for pointing it out!
  • John E says,
    6 years ago
    Hey this article was great, probably my favourite on TMR and can remember few automotive reports in general I have found more interesting. It could've just been your average analysis of RON fuels but the racing experience really worked for me thanks!

    (Oh and great picture with the flaming exhausts I want it as my background lol)
    • Alan Li says,
      6 years ago
      Hi John.

      That Porsche is a car fettled by European tuning experts Gemballa. I couldn't find a search in Google Images on the first few pages, but if you're keen you can try and locate it.

      I know Gemballa Australia has been using that shot in their print ads.
  • Alan Li says,
    6 years ago
    But does a car that is designed to run on 95 RON fuel run better on 98 RON fuel? Some swear by it, but from what I have seen, I have no evidence to sustain that theory. Sure, you may get better mileage, but I am skeptical that we would see measurably positive results on the dyno.


    Fifth Gear ran a fuel test a while ago, testing differing RON fuels in several cars. In the test, they used 3 cars (a cheap runabout, a premium car, and a sports car). Only the sports car found a gain by running a higher RON fuel.

    It boils down to the tuning decisions made by the OEM. In some cases, if the ECU detects a greater resistance to knock via its sensors it'll just lean the mixture out, using less fuel while retaining the same power output. In others the ECU will advance its ignition timing as well as maybe leaning out the mixture a little, increasing power and possibly providing a slightly better economy.

    I only run my car on 98RON. Mainly because I've got an aftermarket ECU that's been optimised for 98RON, and secondly because I do notice a difference in my sports car between 95 and 98 (and 100RON before Shell discontinued V-Power Racing) even before I installed the computer.
  • Tony says,
    6 years ago
    One thing I'd like to ask is- is it safe to go to a 'lower' fuel if they don't have what you need? For example, filling up with unleaded a European/Japanese car that takes premium, because they're out at the bowser...

    I've had to do it a couple of times (start of the year was a shocker, nobody had premium for a couple of weeks), so I'd really like to know!
    • Alan Li says,
      6 years ago
      I'm not an engine builder, but to my understanding its OK in the short term as long as you drive the car gently. Engine knocking occurs when the engine is under heavy load or high RPM, or in high ambient temperatures, and its here that you need the knock resistance from the fuel.

      The minimum fuel RON level required is for "all conditions" to deliver the advertised power and torque reliably. Since that only occurs when you're going flat out or in hot conditions, if you're babying the car a lower-than-recommended RON won't destroy the engine. The knock sensor can adjust the fuelling and timing to cope to a certain extent, since you can possibly get a bad batch of fuel no matter what the advertised rating. Using a bottle of octane booster only knocks up the fuel by half to a single unit of RON, so its also not a proper workaround.

      Its not advised long term to run on a lower RON fuel, since no-one drives their car only at quarter throttle in winter. Should you have any engine issues and the warranty department notices long-term use of low RON fuel....you'll have just voided your warranty.

      You'd have to have a major RON deficiency, and pretty much be racing the engine, to see an instantaneous failure though.
  • DriveCritic says,
    6 years ago
    1 like
    Nicely written, well presented and informative! I fill up my sports car with 98RON as well -- the manual recommends PULP but given the car runs on 100RON in its homeland, I sought a compromise.
    ---
    I've linked to this article on http://DriveCritic.com/
  • Jack says,
    6 years ago
    1 like
    Helpful articel, thankyou.
    Question: I just bought a 2008 Toyota Camry 4 cylinder 2.4 litre Ateva.
    OEM Toyota recommends RON 91 (regular unleaded) but is it worth running a higher RON fuel for a few more engine kilowatts, as the Camry 2.4 is a little underpowered.
    I am thinking of using Mobil Synergy 8000.
  • rizan says,
    5 years ago
    1 like
    Please help me...i drive Caldina ZT (1AZ FSE D4 VVTi).
    my salesman force me to use RON92 coz she claims that RON97 is not suitable..even my fren drive ZT almost 1 year and fill RON92, no problem...when i check in Caldina Spec..
    its claimed use Unleaded Regular Petrol..
    my question is;
    1. What should i use..coz when i ask Caldina Club..they said better use RON97..coz most of ZT use RON97
    2. What effect if i use RON92 and RON97
    tq..sorry poor english.
    • Chunky monkey says,
      2 years ago
      Dog, you should do what they say man. You should just go and do "whatever" They are the trained to do this, not us. Soo, I would just go with it man ! smile
  • armarra1 says,
    3 years ago
    RON is a european standard that differs from Octane rating in USA. Every one seems to have a different standard for this. there is even another standard called the MON Motor Octane Number..go figure.

    If these ratings are different by 5% as in above, then much damage can be made by not checking the standard being quoted when someone mentions '95' for example.
    Also...
    Are you sure that the melting was not caused by running too lean for that octane rating ?


  • Dillon Chaffey says,
    1 year ago
    Great article, mate. Thank, you.

    Very concise and definitely thought provoking. Keep these articles coming.
  • rawhide says,
    9 months ago
    As soon as engine revs or comes under load, timing advances right out anyway, so what's the point?

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