I've never understood why a generic gas station can be empty while right across the street customers are lining up at a Shell station charging twenty cents more per gallon. As I'd always assumed, generic gas and brand-name gas are essentially identical.

At the Maryland Fuel Testing Laboratory, chemists conducted a battery of tests. First, they verified that gas was formulated correctly for the season. Then, they checked for contaminants, like excessive sediment or diesel, accidentally mixed with the gasoline.

They also ran the gas through an elaborate engine to make sure it got the 87 octane level people pay for. Both samples easily met state standards.

"By and large, it's one and the same. … You will find results will almost mirror each other," said Bob Crawford, who works at the lab. "There are going to be slight variations -- but gasoline is gasoline."

When gasoline arrives at regional distribution centers, it's all the same. Different gas station chains then buy the raw fuel and add their own blend of detergents. In the past, there might have been more of a difference between different brands of regular unleaded, but these days the EPA requires that all gas contain a minimum amount of detergent to keep car engines clean.

If you're paying for a particular brand of gasoline, "you would be paying more for brand loyalty, primarily," Crawford said. "Some people feel more comfortable dealing with a particular brand." ...

"The generic, no, will not do harm at all," Crawford said. "I use the lowest price. It makes no difference what the brand is."

Paying extra money for a brand-name is a foolish waste of money, whether we're talking about Prada purses or Shell gasoline.

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