Buying Guide: Best Engine Oil
Choosing the best engine oil for your car can be confusing.
This is especially true if you are getting an oil change and you have a somewhat pushy salesperson trying to convince you to upgrade to their “top of the line” synthetic oil.
Is it really that much better?
Is it worth the added cost on top of the oil change fees?
Or, is the salesperson or mechanic just trying to upsell you to make a quick, extra buck?
- What is the Purpose of Engine Oil?
- The Best Engine Oil Depends on the Car You Drive
- Other Factors that Affect Engine Oil
- Understanding the Types of Engine Oil
- What is the Best Engine Oil for Your Particular Car?
What is the Purpose of Engine Oil?
Engine oil, also known as motor oil, is essential for your car to run properly and safely. The purpose of engine oil is to keep your car or truck engine lubricated. This keeps things running smoothly. It also protects the engine against corrosion and rust.
Without motor oil, engine parts would rub up against one another without any layer of protection, causing friction, wear and tear, and ultimately, a lot of heat generation. Your car would not last that long in that condition.
Engine oil can be conventional aka “natural” motor oil (which is still refined) or synthetic engine oil (which is still ultimately generated from the same petroleum oil that conventional motor oil comes from).
All motor oil, whether conventional or synthetic, includes a variety of “additives,” which are substances that improve upon the basic functions of the oil and also help reduce wear and tear on your car’s engine.
The Best Engine Oil Depends on the Car You Drive
Before you open your wallet and shell out an extra $50 for supposedly premium oil during your oil change, know what your car actually needs.
Different types of cars and trucks need different types of oil. If you have a high-end imported luxury car, you will probably want (and need) the best engine oil you can get.
If you have an old clunker, you may need a different type of oil than a newer late model automobile.
Let’s take a look at the types of cars and trucks you might need to fill up with oil:
1. New Passenger Car or Truck
If you bought your passenger car, SUV, or truck in the last year, then you have a “new” car, SUV, or truck. Technically, once your car or truck model becomes “last year’s model,” then you have a “late model” automobile. See the next bullet for more information.
2. “Late Model” Passenger Car or Truck
You have probably heard this term a lot without really thinking about it. What, exactly, is a “late model” car? Is it the same thing as a new car? And if so, why not just say “new”?
A “late model” car or truck is a vehicle that is new or relatively new. Exact definitions can change, but one (from the state of Michigan’s scrap title law) is any passenger vehicle from the six previous years of car models.
Technically, then, this isn’t a “brand new” car, which would be a car model from this year.
If the vehicle weighs more than 8,000 pounds, then the time extends back to 16 years. These larger vehicles might include large trucks, heavy-duty vehicles, construction equipment, or commercial vehicles.
3. Older Model Vehicle
Passenger cars, SUVs, and trucks that are from models seven years ago and further back are older model vehicles, or just old cars. They, of course, need more maintenance and are more likely to break down, so they tend to need a different type of oil than a late model automobile.
However, this also depends on the mileage. A car that is 10 years old but has less than 50,000 miles on it could be in much better condition than a 5-year-old car that has 150,000 miles on it.
4. Classic Car or Truck
Not all old cars are classic cars. A classic car is one that is “collectible” and from before 1998. It definitely needs a higher grade of oil than the cheap stuff.
5. Antique Vehicle
An antique vehicle is any automobile or “horseless carriage” that is 100 years old or more.
6. Luxury Automobile
Your definition of luxury automobile may differ from someone else’s, but these would be cars that are generally more expensive than standard cars and have some sort of brand cache to them. This might include everything from a Lexus and BMW to a super expensive Rolls Royce.
7. Sports Car
Sports cars, if they are used for any type of racing, definitely need a different type of motor oil (synthetic engine oil) than your standard sedan or saloon (conventional engine oil). The grade of engine oil will depend on how high-end the sports car was to start off with.
Obviously, if you consider your cheap Mustang to be a “sports car,” you will have different motor oil needs than someone driving a Ferrari, Lamborghini, MacLaren, or Bugatti.
Consider that the Bugatti Veyron can cross a football field in a few seconds and hit more than 200 miles per hour. It needs a very high-end synthetic motor oil to do that.
8. Heavy-Duty Truck or Large Vehicle
By heavy-duty truck, we mean anything from a Ford F150 to a large RV or even commercial hauling vehicles. These need different types of oil than a small hatchback, obviously.
9. In-Between Automobiles
When you have a car like a basic SUV that is occasionally used for towing a trailer or going on camping trips, but is generally used for tamer things like picking the kids up from school, you still might need a special oil. This is because those occasional trips might end up putting extra strain on the car.
10. Diesel Engines
Diesel engines need special additives in the engine oil because the engines get dirtier more easily. They also need a compression engine oil, not a spark engine oil. So, don’t assume your diesel engine can take the same type of oil that your other cars can.
Other Factors that Affect Engine Oil
When you are selecting an engine oil for your car, SUV, or truck, you may have other factors to take into consideration, such as:
- The type of driving you do (are you in stop and go traffic a lot?)
- The weather (do you live where it is regularly over 100 degrees in the summer?)
- Your car’s make or model (many models have specific engine oils that are recommended)
- Any modifications you have done to your car’s engine (beyond just basic repairs)
Weather, in particular, can take a huge toll on an engine. Of course, the worst is the weather extremes. Excess heat or cold can put your car engine under a lot of strain.
Engine Oil Additives
Engine oil additives are designed to improve upon the effectiveness of your engine oil. Additionally, certain brands of oil boast special additives. Here are a few of the types of additives that might be incorporated into a particular type of oil.
- Anti-Wear/Anti-Friction Agents
- Foam Inhibitors
- Rust and Corrosion Inhibitors
- Viscosity-Index Improvers
- Friction Modifiers
- Pour-Point Depressants
Understanding the Types of Engine Oil
There are four basic types of engine oil, as follows:
1. Conventional Engine Oil
This is the most common form of engine oil, and is likely to be the cheapest when you get your oil change. It is also the default motor oil that is used in oil changes, and typically you won’t get an upgraded engine oil unless you specifically request it.
Conventional engine oil is motor oil that started off as crude oil (petroleum) that has since been refined. Chemical additives are also put in to help make the engine oil more effective.
This type of oil is best for late model cars that don’t have too much mileage and are used for basic driving (not heavy lifting or towing).
The downside of conventional engine oil is that it can break down in very high temperatures. It is also going to contain some impurities that can affect the functioning of your engine. Usually, you will not notice any negative effects, unless your car really needs synthetic oil, or you are pushing your car too much.
The additives in conventional engine oil are likely to be of a lower quality than those that are put into synthetic motor oils.
2. High Mileage Engine Oil
If your car has racked up more than 75,000 miles over its history, then you most likely should be getting high mileage engine oil instead of conventional motor oil at your next oil change.
The number one important difference between a conventional motor oil and a high mileage motor oil is the addition of critical seal conditioners.
What do seal conditioners do?
As cars age, the engine seals, which are made out of rubber, can get worn down. Rubber, a natural material, will break down over time, especially when it is constantly exposed to extremes of heat and cold.
The last thing you want in your car is brittle, cracked engine seals.
What the seal conditioners do is actually repair the rubber in the engine seals. No, the seal conditioners won’t completely “cure” those rubber seals of old age. However, they help to rebuild areas where the seals have shrunken or cracked. This helps the seals to expand and regain some flexibility.
(Wouldn’t it be great if human beings could put a human version of “seal condition” in our food to fix our creaky joints as we age?)
High mileage engine oil also has special detergents, antioxidant, and other additives that help reduce wear on an engine.
You would think that with all these great benefits of high mileage engine oil, why not use it even with newer cars? Well, you can. You might pay a little more, but there is no reason why you could not use this oil in your newer car, unless you truly need synthetic oil.
3. Synthetic Engine Oil
Synthetic motor oil is actually made from the exact same crude oil that conventional motor oil is made from. What is the difference?
Synthetic oil is processed more than conventional oil. In fact, it is processed to the point where the crude oil it is derived from gets broken down into basic molecules. This ultimately enables the development of an engine oil that is more consistent and pure than conventional motor oil.
The benefits of synthetic engine oil include higher performance and protection for your engine. The viscosity is better. Synthetic motor oil works better in high temperatures and cold freezes.
It is the motor oil of choice for people with higher-end luxury cars and sports cars.
Conventional motor oil will break down more quickly. This can be a problem for cars with turbochargers, which can heat up very quickly.
The main downside to using synthetic motor oil is that it does not build up engine seals like high mileage conventional engine oils can.
For this reason, older cars may do better on a high mileage motor oil.
Synthetic motor oils are also quite expensive, often double the price of conventional oil.
4. Synthetic Blend Engine Oil
Synthetic blend motor oil is (as you probably already guessed) a blend of conventional and synthetic oils, which can give you the benefits of increased performance of synthetic oil without the hefty price tag. It might also work better in certain types of cars.
This type of motor oil is a good choice for people who use their trucks or SUVs for towing things like boats or caravans. The oil performs quite well in temperature extremes and can offer excellent protection for cars dealing with heavy loads.
What is the Best Engine Oil for Your Particular Car?
Now that you have a basic understanding of engine oils, you will know a little better the next time you go to get an oil change. The easiest way to figure out the best engine oil for your car is to check your car manual for recommendations. Also consider your mileage and usage. And don’t be intimidated by the salesperson at the oil change place.