Is it worth using premium car fuel?

An AI-generated image of a superhero using a petrol pump with premium fuel.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been having some car issues of late, which has seen it spending a lot of time in the garage being fixed. So far, it’s been running okay for the past couple of weeks, and so I’m very hopeful that there’ll be no more expensive repairs due for a while at least.

At its most recent garage visit, to have the particulate filter cleaned, the mechanic asked whether I was using supermarket fuel. Because, in his view, this was why I was having problems with the filter. Premium fuels – the ones that you pay extra for – have additives which claim to help clean out your car’s fuel line. As well as preventing the filters getting full, they should – in theory – boost efficiency and result in you getting more miles per gallon of fuel. Once the car was fixed, I was therefore advised to stick to premium diesel for a few months.

This was a topic that the excellent BBC Sliced Bread podcast covered back in January last year. There’s also some information from Auto Express and Which? (for which you may need a Which? subscription to read). The consensus seems to be that premium fuels can help keep a car running better, but they only need to be used occasionally. Supermarket fuel – or at least, supermarket petrol – should be fine to use most of the time. And it is generally cheaper than even the basic fuel from branded petrol stations.

As instructed by the mechanic, I filled up with Shell’s ‘V-Power’ premium diesel earlier in the week. You pay quite a bit more – it was £1.76 per litre, as opposed to £1.58 per litre for their standard diesel. For context, £1.53 per litre is the current cheapest price locally for diesel, according to PetrolPrices.com. My tank was low – the fuel warning light had come on – so I paid almost £100 for a full tank. This was £12.65 more than if I’d filled up with regular diesel at the cheapest nearby petrol station.

We’ll see if it makes a difference. Although my car does track its fuel usage in miles per gallon, it doesn’t use a moving weighted average and so it’s prone to fluctuations, making it a bit useless. My car is over 11 years old, and so anything to clean out the fuel lines and injectors is welcome.

I’ve also used some engine cleaner from Halfords; you put this in once your tank is below a quarter full (i.e. three quarters empty) and then take it for a decent drive until the fuel warning light comes on. It recommends that you use it around four times a year, and this may be a better option. Theoretically, it does the same job as the premium fuel, but costs £10-20 each time. Overall, that works out cheaper than paying more for premium fuel.

So, in honour of Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer to the question ‘is it worth using premium car fuels?’ is probably no. You can use supermarket fuels, but maybe pop some engine cleaner in now and again – especially if you have an older car. Or go electric – I’m sure our next car will either be a plug-in hybrid or a fully battery electric vehicle.

The expense of keeping a car on the road

An AI generated image of a car being worked on by models of ancient Greek workers outside a Greek temple.

I write this at the weekend, after picking my car up from our local garage for the fourth time in as many months for repairs.

We’ve had our current car for almost five years, and it was seven years old when we got it. In that time, we’ve probably spent more money on repairs and servicing than we did buying it.

Its most recent visit was to replace two of the coil springs from the suspension, which failed in quick succession. The first went on the way back from Sci-Fi Weekender in Great Yarmouth on Sunday, and the second after going over a road hump on Wednesday. This resulted in a low grinding noise which prompted a call to our local garage.

Before that, we had both rear suspension arms and brake pads replaced, a new parking sensor, and a new wing mirror. My car has motorised wing mirrors which automatically tuck themselves in when the car is locked, but the motor seized up on one, and they’re sealed units, the whole wing mirror needed replacing.

I’m fortunate that there’s a good, independent garage within walking distance of home, that has been able to do all of these repairs. That means I can drop the car off in the morning, and then work from home. Having to fork out hundreds of pounds for car repairs, is even less fun when you also have to use a day of annual leave from work for it.

Earlier repairs have included replacement body work, a new timing belt, new front suspension, and the usual replacement tyres. I wouldn’t go so far as saying my car resembles the Ship of Theseus, but it’s certainly had a lot of work done on it over the years, and many parts are no longer original.

Whilst I would be tempted to cut our losses and get a new car, to get something similar in age and size to ours at time of purchase would set us back at least £7000. We just don’t have that kind of money right now, nor would we want to take on more debt to buy one. And I would rather keep this going until we can replace it with a used hybrid or battery electric model. Or somehow come into enough money to buy a new car outright.

Adding CarPlay to your car without installing a new stereo system

A photo of the free-standing Carplay unit in my car

I’m someone who always has my phone doing something passively in my car whilst driving – whether it’s listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks, or giving me directions in Google Maps. Until now, I’ve just had my phone sat in a cradle with a built-in Qi wireless charger, because my car stereo doesn’t support CarPlay.

And then I found out, via Matt Haughey, that it’s possible to buy an additional screen for your car that just offers CarPlay, or its equivalent Android Auto. So I followed suit.

The three ways to CarPlay

As Matt points out, there are now three ways that you can have CarPlay in your car:

  1. It’s already built in. If you have a relatively new car, then the built-in stereo system will support it natively, either through a USB connection or wirelessly.
  2. If not, you can replace the existing stereo system with an after-market, or third-party system which supports CarPlay.
  3. Or, do what I’ve done – keep your existing stereo system as-is, but add a free-standing unit that connects to your car.

The reason why I’ve gone for the third option is that neither of the others are available to me. I drive an original Peugeot 3008, which I bought second-hand in 2019. Whilst it’s one of the higher-spec Allure models with cruise-control, climate control and a head’s up display, whoever bought it new decided to have the most basic in-car stereo system on offer.

No really, it literally just has a radio, CD player, auxiliary audio connection and a USB port that supports iPods. It doesn’t even have Bluetooth.

When I first bought the car, I did investigate the second option, of having the stereo system replaced with a Sony after-market system that supported CarPlay. However, I was advised by an installer that this would cause issues. This was backed up by various horror stories that I found online.

Annoying, many cars that were sold between around 2010-2016 put various car configuration options into the stereo menus. So, if you removed the stereo, it meant that you couldn’t amend settings for your headlights for example. I have seen some videos where independent garages have managed to get a working CarPlay system built in to a car like mine, but considering that the after-market units are usually around £300 plus additional parts and labour, it’s an expensive option.

Free-standing

So, to the third option. Periodically, I’ve tried looking for something very similar as I though it would be an obvious thing to make and sell, but never managed to find anything. So when Matt’s blog post popped up, I went straight to Amazon to find something similar. Indeed, it looks like most of these units have been on the market less than 6 months.

Matt bought his because he’s bought a new Rivian electric SUV. As Jeff Bezos was an investor in Rivian, it doesn’t support CarPlay or Android Auto. Instead, has its own touchscreen interface incorporating Amazon’s Alexa. And that’s probably okay if you just want to play music, but you don’t get access to the various apps on your phone – especially podcast and audiobook apps, or Google Maps. Sure, pretty much every car nowadays has a built-in SatNav, but Google Maps also has live traffic data and live re-planning of routes whilst driving, in case a quicker route becomes available. I understand that Tesla cars also don’t support Android Auto or CarPlay, although you’ll never catch me driving a Tesla for as long as Elon Musk is associated with the company.

Eyetoo 7″ CarPlay screen

The unit I bought was this Eyetoo 7″ model from Amazon (affiliate link). It’s a more basic model, which just supports CarPlay and Android Auto without offering much of its own interface. As well as the unit with the screen, you get:

  • a very long USB-C cable that has a 12 V cigarette lighter plug on the other end. Seriously, it’s about two metres long.
  • an auxiliary cable to plug into your stereo.

It can also broadcast on an FM frequency that you can tune your car radio to, if you want fewer wires.

There are several other models, all by different Chinese manufacturers that I’ve previously never heard of. Some of these have some additional features:

  • Built-in dashcam
  • Connection for a rear parking camera
  • MicroSD card port and media player software on the device
  • USB port for connection a phone directly

Whilst a reversing camera would be useful, it would probably need to be professionally installed. In any case, my car does at least have reverse parking sensors so I didn’t bother.

The unit comes with both a suction cup for attaching to a windscreen, and a stand with sticky pads for attaching to the dashboard. As you can see in the above photo, I went for the latter. This leaves a tripod screw on top, which you could also use to attach a dashcam, I suppose. The stand is pretty sturdy and holds it up well – it doesn’t wobble around at all. That being said, it does mean that it’s not easy to remove if you want to use it in another vehicle.

It starts up as soon as there’s power to the 12 V socket – i.e. when you turn the engine on – and takes a few seconds to boot up. Connection to CarPlay is wireless, which is good as this model doesn’t have a USB port for a wired connection to your phone. It takes a further few seconds for CarPlay to open, but it does open automatically and will even start playing your music for you.

The screen is fine – it doesn’t have automatically adaptive brightness and it’s not very high resolution, but more expensive models look like they offer this if that’s important to you. But on the whole, I’m really happy with it – it’s great to finally have CarPlay in my car without having to spend a lot of time or money on having it professional installed, and it hasn’t broken anything that affects the car’s systems. I am looking at ways of tidying up the cables though – perhaps with some right-angled connectors.

If you’re looking to add CarPlay or Android Auto to your car without needing to take it apart, I would recommend looking into this as a viable option.

Laaaan-dun

The City of London

Next week, Christine, our baby and I are off to London for a few days. It’ll be our first trip as a family of three there; I last went in January on my own when our baby was only a few weeks’ old. It’ll also be the first time I’ve ever driven to London, as we’ve always taken the train or coach in the past.

I’m driving because we’re also visiting family on the way, but also because of the amount of luggage we’ll need. Babies may be small, but they also need several days worth of food and nappies, a pram, travel cot, high chair and other things. So whilst Christine and I could do several days in London with a rucksack each, with a baby, we’ll need the car.

We’re staying in a hotel in north London that’s easily reached by car and has parking, but is also close to a tube station. Once we’re there, I have no intention of driving in central London – congestion charge aside, I’m not keen on driving in city centres. And whilst London Underground is not great for prams or wheelchairs, our baby thankfully tolerates being carried in a sling.

Part of the reason for our visit is so that I can go to the HE Show at Olympia – if you’re going as well, drop me a line. We’re also planning to go to the Tower of London, as it’s been many years since I visited, and Christine has never been. It’s expensive, unless you have lots of spare Tesco Clubcard tokens like we do.

I always look forward to trips to London, partly because we always make a point of seeing friends who live there when we go, but also because there is so much to do. It makes a change from a few years ago when I developed a general dislike of the place. Back then, I also had access to free train travel and so could visit London (or, indeed any British city) whenever I wanted to. Perhaps I like London more nowadays because I only get to go there once or twice each year, and it usually requires weeks of forward planning – I can’t just decide to go there on a whim like I used to.

How to: get cheaper car insurance

Alas, the car I've bought insurance for is not this Rolls Royce

Having bought a car at the weekend, I also needed to arrange car insurance. The law in Britain now requires all cars that are used on public roads to have a valid insurance policy; if you don’t, then you must park the car off-road and submit a SORN. If your car is found on a public road, parked or moving, then you can be fined. So I needed to have a policy in place before I would be able to drive the car away.

Like many things, buying car insurance can be simple and quick, but if you’re prepared to put some effort in, you can bring your premiums down significantly. I can wholeheartedly recommend the advice on MoneySavingExpert.com which gives some tips on how to reduce your premiums by tweaking the information you provide. I would advise you to read the whole article, but here are the things I tried that worked for me.

1. Trying multiple price comparison web sites

It’s hard to avoid the various price comparison web sites that advertise nowadays. Whether it’s the one with the meerkats, talking robots or annoying opera singer, these sites are well-advertised. They work by taking your details, and obtaining quotes from a range of insurers on your behalf, which are then ranked to show you the cheapest. The sites make their money from the referral fees that insurers pay when you take up a policy. Considering how much these sites advertise, they must make a lot of money from these referral fees.

It’s worth trying multiple sites, as different sites work with different insurers. I got different results from each. You can also usually get cashback if you click through to a price comparison web site from a cashback site like Quidco (referral link) or Topcashback (referral link). I got about £2 from them, just for getting a quote.

2. Go direct to insurance companies

Once I’d found the cheapest insurer – and the three comparison sites I tried all gave the same company – I also tried to get a cheaper quote by visiting their site directly. Again, going via a cashback site may net you cashback as well. Remember those referral fees? Cashback sites pay those to you.

It’s also worth checking Aviva and Direct Line, who do not advertise their policies on price comparison web sites. As it happens, both gave me unaffordable quotes that were nearly double the cheapest that I could find, but, worth a try.

3. Tweak your job description

I have a rather unique job title of ‘Student Recruitment and Data Officer’, which isn’t on the selection lists that insurers ask for. Originally I put it through as ‘Recruitment Consultant’ working in state education, but I found changing it to ‘Administrative Officer’ in the university sector lowered my premiums significantly (by about 20% in my case). As long as the title still accurately reflects your job role, you should be fine.

4. Add another driver

As Christine hasn’t passed her test yet, it was going to just be me on the car’s insurance policy. However, we found that adding another family member to the policy, as a secondary driver, reduced my quote by another 10%. To be effective, this must be someone that would realistically be likely to drive the car, and who has a good driving record with no penalty points or recent insurance claims. Adding an irresponsible or inexperienced second driver may increase premiums, but it’s worth trying.

5. Include some business use

If you think adding another driver is a bizarre way to reduce your premiums, here’s one that seemed even weirder. I will need to drive for work from time to time (I reckoned no more than 1000 miles per year) and so I included this in the policy. This means that I won’t need to arrange a hire car, so my employer also saves money too. After getting quotes with this included, I tried taking it out and stating that the car would only be for ‘leisure’ use (no commuting and no work-related activities). That actually pushed the premiums up by about 10%, so I put it back in.

Plus the things that I didn’t try

I didn’t try everything. I could have got an even cheaper policy if I had opted in to a ‘black box’ insurance policy. This involves the fitting of a recording device to your car that monitors your location and how you drive – and if you drive safely, you’ll save money. InsureTheBox is one of the better known firms that offers this (a friend works for them), but it’s available from a variety of insurers.

Sometimes, opting for third-party insurance can be cheaper, but it covers less than fully comprehensive insurance which could leave you out of pocket in the event of an accident. And, again bizarrely, sometimes comprehensive cover is cheaper than third-party because of risk factors.

And if you have another type of policy with an insurance firm (say home or travel insurance), some insurers may give you a discount if you take out more than one policy from the same firm. Our home insurance was arranged via a broker when we got our mortgage so I wasn’t able to approach them for a car insurance quote on this occasion.

In the end

As it happened, the cheapest quote I got was via Confused.com, for Diamond insurance – a company that historically only covered female drivers. Both are owned by Admiral Group, incidentally. Overall, the policy ended up being about £200/year cheaper than when I started, which isn’t bad for a couple of hours spent entering information into various web sites. Insurance for new drivers is always expensive and I’m hoping that, should I continue to drive like Captain Slow, my premiums should come down in future years.

A car. An actual car.

A photo of my Nissan Note

Well, I now own a car. After having passed my driving test last month, and with an imminent house move and a little one on the way, we decided that we really needed to get a car sooner rather than later.

Fortunately my parents kindly gifted us most of the money that we needed, so we were able to buy a decent-sized second hand car. After trawling the listings for local dealerships on Auto Trader, we found a local dealership with a good range of cars within our budget. We then narrowed this down to two cars, at the same price, which we took on test drives.

The first was a Hyundai i30, which was good car, and slightly newer with better equipment, but it didn’t drive so well and didn’t have as much internal space. So, we went for a 2008 Nissan Note.

It’s got a 1.4 litre petrol engine (which is fine for us) and a manual gearbox – I’m indifferent when it comes to manual or automatic but both Christine and I are/were learning in a manual car. The boot is big and there’s also plenty of legroom in the back, plus there are Isofix fixings for a child seat. It’s very much a family car, and whilst it may not be very cool or trendy, it should be very practical for us.

I’ve had a bit of time to drive it but the big test will be in a few weeks when we drive down to Staffordshire for a family wedding. I say ‘we’ – it’ll be me driving there and back as Christine still hasn’t sat her theory test yet, never mind her practical test. I may try to arrange a motorway driving lesson with my instructor before then.

After putting up with not having a car for so many years, it feels very weird to finally own one. We’ve managed to make do with public transport, but I am very much looking forward to not having to pay over the odds for taxi fares, or complicated bus and train journeys that take twice as long as driving would.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about car insurance.

Passed

A photo of part of my driving test report, showing just two minor errors

I passed my driving test today, with just two minor faults (you’re allowed up to 15). As you can probably imagine, I’m delighted, and also very relieved.

Technically this was my third attempt at the test, but it’s been almost 8 years since my last attempt and so I’ve had a fresh set of lessons since. My lessons have been approximately weekly since July last year so it’s taken just over 12 months, although that includes a month-long break in March when I was in the Middle East. I passed my theory test in April.

Now I just need to wait for my full license to arrive, which will take two-to-three weeks, and then I can go and buy a car. Having a car will definitely make things easier, especially with a newborn baby come January.

2015 is certainly turning out to be a big year for me.

A photo of me posing with my Practical Driving Test Pass Certificate

Theoretically passed

Two of the big things we’re aiming to do in 2015 are learn to drive, and buy a house. We’re making progress on both: we’ve had an offer accepted on a house (although we’re probably still a good 6 weeks away from getting the keys), and last week I passed my theory test.

I’ve passed the test before, but that was way back in October 2006, when I last had driving lessons. Because I didn’t then pass my practical test, my theory test certificate expired in 2008, meaning I had to take it again.

The test has changed a little bit since last time. Firstly, there are more questions – 50, instead of 35 – and a higher pass mark; you now need to get 43 questions right instead of 30. 5 of these questions form a case study, which was also new compared to last time.

The second part of the test is hazard perception, where you watch several videos and have to identify the hazards that take place. This is to make sure that you’re aware, and would have time to react appropriately in a real situation. This was new when I took it last time – back then, a series of actual video footage was used. Nowadays the videos are mocked up using reasonably realistic CGI – right down to the idiot BMW driver who pulls out in front of you.

I actually didn’t expect to pass. Even though I’d passed it before, in the week running up to it, I heard of two people who had failed it, so I assumed I would too. As it happened, I got 47 questions right out of 50, and scored 58 out of 75 for the hazard perception. To practice and revise, I used the Theory & HPT app from SmartDriving, which was recommended to me by my instructor. It’s up-to-date and comprehensive with hundreds of practice questions, and available on iOS (iPhone and iPad), and on Android. There are many other apps out there that I haven’t tried, but this one seemed to work for me.

Now I just need to pass my practical test. This week’s driving lessons suggested that I’m most of the way there but there are a number of areas that I still need to improve. Hopefully I’ll be able to take the test in the summer, by which time I’ll have had lessons most weeks for around a year.

Back in the driving seat…

A photo of a Rolls Royce outside a hotel in the Lake District

Yesterday was my first driving lesson since 2007. It went quite well, on the whole.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for many years will remember that I had lessons in 2006 and 2007, and took my practical test twice (and failed) in 2007. Afterwards, I ran out of time and money, and ever since I have been fortunate enough to be in situations where having a car hasn’t been so important. But we’re looking to buy a house soon, and being able to buy one that isn’t necessarily close to a railway station would be nice. Plus, as and when we start a family, having a car will be a big help.

We’re both learning at the same time, with the same instructor, but with lessons on different days. There’s no race to see who passes first but we can’t really go forward with a house purchase until at least one of us is driving.

Despite it having been almost seven years since I last got behind the wheel of a car, it was surprising how much I remembered – even if it took a little while to get used to it again. What took weeks of practice all those years ago took less than an hour to pick up again. That’s not to say that I can get ready to book my practical test any time soon, as I definitely will need more practice in the meantime. In particular, I got a bit flummoxed when trying to pass some cars parked on the left, with an oncoming bus and then being required to turn right.

I will need to take my theory test again as the test I took in 2006 was only valid for two years. I’ll need to get around to booking that soon. It’s changed a bit since I did it, with the pass mark now 45 out of 50 rather than 30 out of 35 (I got 33 last time).

My next lesson is next weekend, where I’ll be tackling some roundabouts.