Motor Oil Selection Advice

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation
Tags: automotive, motor oils

When it comes to automobiles, people have sharply different motives and objectives. This is reflected not only in the cars they own but also in the way they drive, the fuel they purchase, routine maintenance and general upkeep. Therefore, a good starting point in customizing motor oil selection and lubrication practices for automobiles is to get a better handle on car owners’ objectives and how they relate to lubrication. Perhaps you will recognize yourself in the list that follows.

Manipulating Engine Life Expectancy
For many people, the only thing they care about engine failure is that it doesn’t occur while they own the car. These are often the same people who buy only new cars and sell them after just a few years. Others buy new cars too but hold on to them for many years, even decades. They take great care of them by nurturing the car with painstaking effort and detail. Conversely, those who buy used cars know that engine reliability and life expectancy are less certain due to the possible lack of maintenance vigilance by the previous owner.

Most automobile engines have a life expectancy of 150,000 to 500,000 miles. It is due to the wide range that many see special opportunity - perhaps you see it as well. The specific life of a particular engine is largely influenced by its wear rate, that is, the amount of metal that is worn away from frictional surfaces per highway mile, per year, per gallon of fuel, etc. This wear rate in turn is influenced by such things as driving patterns, climate, engine design, environmental contamination and lubrication. A few of these things are in the realm of car-owner control, but many are not.

Let’s take as an example the car owner who buys a new vehicle for getting around town - someone who plans to sell it before it reaches 100,000 miles. He or she will generally have few issues or concerns with respect to motor oils and filters. Nearly all motor oils that bear the American Petroleum Institute (API) marks and have a viscosity recommended by the owner’s manual will achieve such a modest goal. So too, there is little need to spend extra money for filters, engine treatments or more-accelerated oil change frequency.

However, if the above description doesn’t fit you because of where you drive and how you drive or because you plan to own your car long after it becomes a classic, then read on. As stated, an engine wears at a certain rate - sometimes slow, sometimes fast. The rate at which this wear occurs can indeed be influenced by lubrication in many ways. In certain exceptional cases, wear can be nearly held in check. Nurture your oil and you nurture your engine. After all, what comes in more regular contact with the engine’s critical frictional surfaces than the lubricant that bathes them?

Letting Fuel Economy Put More Jingle in Your Pocketbook
The careful selection of a motor oil and filter can have a noticeable positive influence on fuel consumption. However, for many car owners, better gas mileage is of little concern as evidenced by the kinds of cars they choose to own. For others who are more frugal, anything to save a penny gets their attention. However, some lubrication options that offer enhanced fuel conservation might also be more expensive (such as oil and filter costs) and perhaps also provide less protection against engine wear and endurance. Incidentally, if you are an environmentalist, any lubricant that also saves you gas money, by default, is good for the environment. When there is less fuel burned by your car’s engine, there is less harmful emission being exhausted out the tailpipe.

The Hassle of the Oil Change
Some people don’t want to be bothered with having to change their oil. They would prefer to buy lubricants that offer the longest life and service interval, even if it costs them more and even if the life expectancy of the engine is affected. Convenience drives their decision.

Money is Not an Option
Of course there are those fortunate few who can afford the best of everything. They are surrounded by all the high-quality possessions of a life of luxury. As such, they would not settle for anything short of the best for their automobile and its accessories, including the best motor oil and the best filter. However, when it comes to lubrication, the best is indeed a foggy concept - after all, don’t most of the major suppliers of lubricant claim to have premium products that are the best? What defines the best? Cost? Aggressive advertising?

Brand Loyalists
Many automobile enthusiasts and gear heads are totally preoccupied with the love affair they have with their car. They belong to auto clubs, hang out at garages and auto parts stores, have an extensive collection of tools, and of course take great pride in talking about the specific motor oil they use. Their lubrication decisions are often rooted in tradition, loyalty and the habits they have formed.

Fear of Criticism
A surprising large number of us are controlled by fear of criticism and embarrassment. We want to know what everyone else is doing so that we can go with the flow. If our father, brother, sister and best friend all use a conventional 10W-30 Brand X motor oil, we wouldn’t dare consider anything else. After all, we can’t be criticized if we follow the recommendations of our network of personal advisors.

Oil is Oil
This last category is for those car owners who really don’t care. They trust that any oil sold commercially by a household-name oil company is good enough for them. They don’t want to be bothered with the details of having to analyze the available alternatives. To them, ignorance is bliss.

Next year, the new ILSAC/API GF-4 passenger car motor oils will be introduced. The objective of the GF-4 oils is to enhance protection of new emissions control devices (for example, lower phosphorous levels), improve fuel economy, enhance cold-temperature performance, boost engine durability under high temperatures and extreme loads, and provide overall improved protection of the engines in existing cars.

While these improvements have good intentions, according to some motor oil formulators and additive companies, there may be real challenges ahead. One concern is the backward compatibility of the GF-4 motor oils for use in older engines. Another is pure economics. Because the GF-4 oils will be made from higher-grade base stocks, the concern is that new formulations will be significantly more expensive than the GF-3 motor oils available today. Some have speculated that the cost may nearly double.

With this news, we now have new motives for optimizing the selection of both our motor oils and our drain interval.


About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advised hundreds of companies on developing their lubrication and oil analysis programs. Contact Jim at

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