Don't be fooled by pricey, fancy oils
From the Detroit Free Press:
Don't be fooled by pricey, fancy oils
Auto experts say money often wasted
July 15, 2004
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS AUTO CRITIC
Deciding what oil to put in your car used to be as simple as ordering an after-dinner drink in Dublin. You'd buy a quart of 10W-30 as reflexively as I'd order a glass of Jameson's whiskey.
The numbers following an oil's name -- 10W-30, for example -- indicate how viscous, or thick, the oil is.
The first number, 10 in this case, shows how viscous the oil is at low temperatures. The second, 30, is its viscosity at high temperatures. The W means "winter."
Both numbers are important. Oil must flow freely at low temperatures for lubrication when the engine first starts and during the winter. But the oil must also flow at high temperatures, such as when the engine has been running for a long time.
Today, topping up your crankcase is more like watching my friend Deb order a martini: Bombay gin -- Sapphire if you have it -- a hint of vermouth, a dash of olive juice and bleu cheese instead of a pimento in the olive -- no, make that two olives on a skewer.
Oil companies advertise a bewildering variety of oils they say were painstakingly developed for specific vehicles. Whether you drive an SUV, a car with a lot of miles on it, or a sports car, they claim to have the one and only oil that's right for it.
It's enough to drive a person to drink, and it's a waste of money, according to a variety of experts.
"They're trying to distinguish an essentially generic product," said an expert on Ford's vehicle-service operations, who asked not to be named. "They're marketing a commodity."
The designer oils with their special claims can cost six times as much as motor oil distilled from the black goo that came bubbling up in Jed Clampett's backyard. A recent check of Detroit-area stores turned up synthetic oils selling for as much as $5.99 a quart, versus 99 cents for store-brand 10W-30.
That's an extra $20 to $30 an oil change, but it's chicken feed compared to rebuilding an engine, so a lot of people dig into their wallets just to be on the safe side.
Automakers say you should simply stick to the oil and service schedule they recommend.
"We test oils in extremely rigorous circumstances," said Tracey King, Chrysler Group product development specialist responsible for testing and recommending oils and other organic materials. "Our engineers try to break the engine's parts. If they succeed, we specify another oil."
"As long as you follow the manufacturer's recommendations, you can't go wrong," said Harold Schock, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Michigan State University's Automotive Research Experiment Station.
The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and petroleum industry's trade group, certifies oils and agrees that the manufacturer's recommended oil is the preferred choice.
"We always recommend consumers follow their owner's manual," API spokesman Kevin Ferrick said, although he added that owners of classic cars from the 1960s and earlier should also consult with car clubs for the latest information.
The API's "Starburst" emblem on the container guarantees an oil meets the automakers' standards, King said. Beyond that stamp of approval, the API does not endorse any specific oil.
Chrysler recommends traditional oil, sometimes called mineral oil, for almost all its vehicles, she said. The only exceptions are high-performance models like the Dodge Viper, for which the company recommends synthetic oil. Most automakers recommend a single grade of oil -- at Ford Motor Co., it's a 5W-20 synthetic blend -- for nearly all their cars and trucks.
Ford recommends oil changes every 5,000 miles or six months for vehicles that get normal use and every 3,000 miles or three months for vehicles that do heavy work like towing and hauling heavy loads.
Most automakers recommend oil changes in that range, but some, including BMW and General Motors, use engine sensors to determine the interval, which can be much longer.
Some synthetic oils claim to last as much as 15,000 miles, but "we see no evidence of that," Chrysler's King said. "They have not demonstrated it, so we do not accept it."
Automakers all say the oil they put in a new car or truck should be used throughout the vehicle's life.
"Oil companies make so much money off oils for higher-mileage cars," King said. "We don't recommend it. There is no need to spend money on it."