Increasingly strict government emissions regulations in combination with consumer demand for high performance vehicles is driving gasoline engine development towards highly downsized, boosted direct injection technologies. In these engines, fuel consumption is improved by reducing pumping, friction and heat losses, yet performance is maintained by operating at higher brake mean effective pressure. However, the in-cylinder conditions of these engines continue to diverge from traditional naturally aspirated technologies, and especially from the Cooperative Fuels Research engine used to define the octane rating scales. Engine concepts are thus key platforms with which to screen the influence of fundamental fuel properties on future engine performance. ‘ULTRABOOST’, a collaborative research project which is co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the UK's innovation agency, is a downsized, highly boosted, 2.0L in-line 4 cylinder prototype engine, designed to achieve 35% CO2 emissions reduction without compromising the performance of a 5.0L V8 naturally aspirated production engine. To probe engine response to fuel, a matrix of 14 formulations was tested at several engine conditions. This is the first in a series of fuel related papers and focuses on the engine's response to the research octane number (RON). The knock limited spark advance was determined for a series of fuels with RON varying from 95 to 112; octane was shown to provide 5 or 10° crank angle advance in knock limited spark advance at 2000 and 3000 rpm, respectively. This study demonstrates that fuel octane quality continues to be important for the performance of emerging downsized engine technologies. Furthermore, the trend for continued engine downsizing will increase the potential performance benefit associated with knock resistant fuels.