Synthetic Oil: Is It Right For You And Your Vehicle?

The discovery of oil in 1859 at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania launched the US petroleum industry. And while the major product of the oil industry in the 19th century was kerosene for illumination, the rise of the automobile in the early 20th century quickly moved the oil industry’s focus to automotive fuels and lubricants.

Over the past century, vehicle engines have gotten more powerful, complex and sophisticated. They now must also get better and better fuel economy, while emitting fewer and fewer pollutants.

Motor oil technology has steadily advanced along with engine technology. The oil industry has responded to the demands of automakers and regulators with products that can withstand the demands of today’s higher-output and hotter-running engines.

But there are limits to what can be achieved with conventional petroleum-based motor oils. This has led to the development of synthetic oils, which have capabilities that can go way beyond those of conventional oils. Of course, there is no free lunch, so these high-performing synthetic oils do cost more than conventional oils.

In this article, we will explain the differences between the various types of motor oil available in detail, evaluating the pros and cons of each type, and come to some conclusions about which oil may be the right one for your specific vehicle and driving situation.

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First, a quick primer on what your oil actually does inside your engine:

The role of motor oil in your vehicle’s engine

The oil that circulates through the engine of your car, truck, or SUV has several important functions:

  • Keeping the moving parts from touching
  • Reducing friction
  • Transferring heat away
  • Carrying away contaminants and debris
  • Protecting against wear
  • Preventing corrosion

Today’s oils are a chemically complex blend of about 80 percent base oil stock (for essential lubrication functions) and 20 percent additives. The additives assist with all the other requirements for the proper functioning of the oil for the duration of time between recommended changes, which include:

  • Retaining viscosity at high temperatures
  • Inhibiting the formation of deposits, rust, and corrosion
  • Keeping solid particles suspended in the oil
  • Preventing wear as the oil quality degrades
  • Reducing friction for improved fuel economy
  • Allowing the oil to flow smoothly at low temperatures
  • Preventing oil oxidation at high temperatures
  • Preventing oil foaming in the crankcase
  • Protecting metal parts from corrosion caused by moisture and acids

A few things to keep in mind as we enter the world of motor oil

There are a great many brands of oil on the market. And each brand will have several different types of oil. The basic categories are:

  • Synthetic Oils
  • Conventional Oils
  • Synthetic Blend Oils

Next, we will take a deep dive into the differences between these types of oil, so that you can make an informed decision on what oil is best for you – and your budget. Let’s go!

What is synthetic oil?

Synthetic oil is made of synthesized, or artificially made, chemical compounds. These compounds can be derived from petroleum products, or they can be made from other raw chemical materials. What they have in common is a higher level of performance compared to conventional oils. Synthetic oils can be considered to be “designer oils,” specifically adapted to operate in situations that are beyond the limits and abilities of conventional oils.

In addition to being refined, just as conventional oil is, synthetic oil is also purified, distilled, and reduced to its basic molecular building blocks. This eliminates many of the impurities that remain in conventional oil. It also allows these individual molecules to be “customized” for the specific demands of today’s engines. These molecules can now perform better when asked to protect your engine and maximize its performance. This is called the “base stock.”

Next comes the special package of additives that are an essential part of synthetic oil. These additives are usually of superior quality, and work even better because of the synthetic oil’s custom-built base stock structure. So engines typically run cleaner and smoother with synthetic oil in the crankcase.

Important note: If your owner’s manual says to use synthetic oil, use it!

More and more new vehicles are coming from the factory filled with synthetic oil, and requiring its use. It is essential that you check your owner’s manual and verify whether synthetic oil is required, and what the change intervals are.

If so, you must use synthetic oil, and stick to the prescribed intervals! Doing otherwise not only risks potential engine damage, but could also void your warranty, even if your engine problem has nothing to do with the oil. Better safe than sorry!

Other symptoms from using the incorrect oil as recommended by the vehicle manufacturer: 

The benefits of using synthetic oil

There are many benefits of using synthetic motor oil. Synthetic oil does all this:

  • Reduces wear when the engine is cold
  • Flows and lubricates better at low temperatures
  • Resists thinning at high temperatures
  • Improved resistance to oxidation, sludge, and breakdown
  • Lasts longer, so drain intervals can be extended (check your warranty)
  • Improves fuel-efficiency
  • Improves protection from deposits and ash formation in turbocharged and supercharged engines
  • Allows for more horsepower and torque due to less friction and drag in engine
  • Creates a higher safety margin in extreme conditions (very high or low temperatures, letting oil level get too low, etc.)

Synthetic oils have been specifically designed to perform all the difficult tasks required of motor oil in today’s hot-running engines. Because of this, they can do a better job than oil that has been refined solely from conventional petroleum products.

Synthetic oil vs. conventional oil

We have covered what synthetic oil is, and how it has been improved over the conventional version. Let’s now compare synthetic and conventional oils.

Which is better?

This one is easy. Synthetic oil runs rings around conventional oil in terms of performance. A recent AAA research study found that synthetic oils protect engines an average of 47 percent better than conventional oil. They are more stable, flow better at low temperatures, their additives last longer, and they reduce engine wear more. So if performance is the only measurement that you are applying, and cost is not an issue, then definitely choose the synthetic.

What about the cost difference?

This is the primary issue for cost-conscious drivers. Synthetic oil costs more than conventional oil, approximately twice as much. Is it worth it?

Strictly speaking, it is. For all the reasons we have laid out above, synthetic oil is a superior product. It will do a better job over a wider range of conditions than conventional oil. It is also a much more complex product to make, so that also contributes to its increased cost. You get what you pay for, and all vehicles will benefit from it. That AAA research study estimated the increased cost of using synthetic oil came out to $5.33 per month.

Synthetic blend oil vs. full synthetic

Now we come to synthetic blend oils. Synthetic blends can be seen as the oil industry’s “Goldilocks” merchandising solution to the cost issue presented by the conventional oil vs. synthetic oil debate.

By creating a new type of oil that is part conventional and part synthetic, and splitting the cost difference, we now have a good-better-best lineup of oils on the shelf. Synthetic blends now sit in the middle of the rather large price gap between conventional and synthetic oils.

So, is a synthetic blend an acceptable alternative if you don’t want to spend what synthetic oil costs? That depends on your specific situation. Let’s look at some of the differences between full synthetics and synthetic blends:

Full synthetic oil Synthetic blend oil
  • Made for high-tech engines
  • Higher performance
  • Protects best from deposits
  • Best at reducing friction
  • Costs more
  • Not recommended for high-tech engines
  • Lesser performance
  • Some protection from deposits
  • Reduces friction less
  • Costs a bit less than full synthetic

It’s your call

So when does a synthetic blend make sense? It’s really a judgment call on your part. If you absolutely, positively refuse to spend what a full synthetic costs, but still feel that you need more protection than conventional oil offers, then a synthetic blend makes sense.

One final tip to keep in mind: if your owner’s manual specifies that full synthetic oil is required in your vehicle, DO NOT substitute synthetic blend oil. This will void your warranty.

Synthetic oil changes vs. regular oil changes

During an oil change, the old oil in your engine is drained out and replaced with new oil. Your old oil filter is also removed and replaced with a new one. Whether you are using conventional oil or synthetic, the process, and the amount of labor involved, is the same.

The only difference is the type of oil, and its cost. Synthetic oil costs more, so a synthetic oil change will cost more than a conventional oil change. If you are doing it yourself, the retail oil cost upcharge is the only difference. If you are having it done at a dealership or other service facility, you should inquire as to the price difference so that you are aware of the cost.

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Oil change intervals should be the same, regardless of the type of oil. Check your owner’s manual. If you do a lot of stop-and-go driving, you should observe the manufacturer’s “severe service schedule,” which typically specifies more frequent changes.

About extended oil change intervals

Some synthetic oil makers may tout longer oil change intervals, and some higher-end synthetic oils are sold with that promise. Extending your oil change intervals with synthetic oil will effectively reduce the cost of your oil changes on a cost-per-mile basis. But it’s not that easy.

If you are under warranty, you must observe the manufacturer’s oil change intervals, whatever oil you use. Otherwise you will void your warranty. And it is important to remember that regardless of how long the oil itself is claimed to hold up, it is constantly being contaminated with the byproducts of combustion. These accumulate at the same rate, whichever oil you are using. Changing the oil removes these contaminants, so the longer they stay in your oil, the more damage they can do.

How to know if your vehicle requires synthetic oil

There are two different answers to this question, based on two different interpretations of the word “requires.” We will cover both of them.

If your owner’s manual requires synthetic oil, you must use it

This one is easy. If your vehicle’s manufacturer requires the use of synthetic oil, you use it, no questions asked. While the list of vehicles requiring synthetic oil was once primarily made up of high-performance vehicles, this is no longer true.

The ongoing demands of higher fuel economy and lower emissions have seen engines quickly evolve. They are becoming smaller with fewer cylinders, and are adding turbochargers and direct fuel injection to restore the lost power and increase efficiency. These changes have resulted in much hotter-running engines, and a much more hostile operating environment for your engine’s oil. And that is why more and more new vehicles require synthetic oil.

There are other reasons why synthetic oil may be required

This other meaning of “requires” relates to the conditions you drive in regularly, the vehicle you drive, and your long-term plan for that vehicle. Here is where it may be possible to make a judgment about whether or not you should use synthetic oil or conventional oil in your car’s engine. We will list some scenarios below:

Definitely use synthetic oil if you:

  • Drive in extreme heat, in extreme cold, or in dusty/dirty conditions
  • Have a high-performance vehicle
  • Have an engine with a turbocharger or supercharger
  • Tow heavy loads
  • Like to extend your oil change intervals (if you’re out of warranty)
  • Plan to keep your car for a long time
  • Have a vehicle that is prone to sludge buildup
  • Make lots of short trips

Conventional oil is fine if you:

  • Are approved to use it by your vehicle’s manufacturer
  • Live in a moderate climate (not too hot and not too cold)
  • Change your oil according to the manufacturer’s service schedule
  • Lease your vehicle
  • Trade your vehicle every few years
  • Have an older vehicle that uses or burns a significant amount of oil (regularly topping up with synthetic gets expensive!)

Is synthetic oil right for you?

To wrap it up, synthetic oil is a much better product than conventional oil. It performs better, lasts longer, protects your engine better, reduces friction for better fuel economy, and flows better when cold. Synthetic oil has been thoroughly tested and proven, so you can use it with confidence.

If you have objections to the cost of synthetic, but want more protection than conventional oils provide, then a synthetic blend is an acceptable middle course.

If you lease or trade frequently, and rarely drive under challenging conditions, then conventional oil with normal change intervals should be just fine.

Whatever oil you choose, please remember to change it and the filter regularly, based on the recommendations in your owner’s manual. Happy Motoring!

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