Synthetic motor oil has been around for decades. Many motorists and auto experts rave about the benefits of synthetic oil, especially when compared to conventional oils. After all, synthetic oils are used in high-temperature, high-speed turbine engines, so there must be some truth to all of the exaltation. But when you walk the automotive aisle and see the price tags on bottles of synthetic, you may be more likely to faint from sticker shock than to load up your cart. Synthetic oil costs far more than its conventional counterpart. Besides, people have a lot of questions about synthetic oil. Why then would you spend your hard-earned cash just for a few bottles of oil that are going to be replaced in a few thousand miles? Is synthetic oil really worth the difference?
What is synthetic oil?
To answer the question of value, first, we need to look at what the lubricant actually is. How it is made. Synthetic oil is created artificially in a lab from various chemical compounds. The base oil used in the creation of synthetics may originate from a highly-refined petroleum product or from some other compound. From there it is modified to be extremely uniform on a molecular level. High-quality additives are included in the formulation to improve engine function and protect engine components.
Synthetic oils were first developed in the nineteen twenties, rose to more widespread development and use during WWII when Germany experienced an oil shortage, and again during the oil crisis of the seventies. Synthetics have evolved during decades of refinements. Advances in synthetic oil technology have made them popular not only in aerospace, but in today’s cars, trucks, and SUVs.
Due to their high degree of refinement, synthetic oils boast a number of distinctions:
- Uniform molecular size
- Reduced impurities from refined base stock oil
- Extreme temperature performance ability
- Enhanced additives
- Resistance to thermal breakdown
- Ability to be engineered to low viscosity
Synthetic oils are engineered and manufactured to exacting standards and are offered by most major oil companies today, each of which has its own “trade secret” proprietary formula.
Impact on oil change intervals
Because synthetic motor oil is consistent, contains few if any impurities, can handle extreme hot and cold, and resists thermal breakdown, it is capable of many miles of service in an engine. In some cases as many as twenty thousand miles! In general, synthetic oil will allow for longer intervals between oil changes. At least in some vehicles.
The average engine can run somewhere between five thousand and seventy-five hundred miles between oil changes. A search through the owner’s manual in any car will reveal the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation for the time between oil changes. But some engines, usually those with the lightest-weight oils, already contain synthetic motor oil from the factory. If a car comes with synthetic oil from the manufacturer, it is not wise to try to extend the oil change interval.
Still, synthetic oil is capable of high mileage intervals between oil changes.
Synthetic oil vs. conventional oil
Conventional oil is the name given to common motor oil derived and distilled from crude oil. It is refined in the process, but not nearly to the degree that synthetic oil is refined. Conventional oil is made up of molecules of different sizes and shapes that wear against each other. It also contains impurities that can lead to engine deposits, sludge, and shorter service life.
Synthetic oil does not look different than conventional oil, but it does allow for premium performance and the following advantages:
- Improved fuel economy
- Increased engine protection
- Longer life/duration between oil changes
- Reduced engine drag due to lower friction
- Better extreme temperature performance
- Easier engine starting
- Cleans engine sludge and deposits
- Fewer emissions
The only case where synthetic oil does not show as superior to conventional oil is if a vehicle owner insists on holding to the “every three months or three thousand miles” oil change myth. No vehicle manufacturer recommends oil changes so frequently, but many drivers still seem to follow that standard.
The downside of synthetic oil
Okay, there is one other case where synthetic oil does not best conventional oil: price. Synthetic oil can cost up to ten times the price of some conventional oils. Is it worth the cost? Not if you change it too frequently. In that case, you are throwing your money away. But if you take advantage of its longer service life and trust in its advanced technology to protect your engine, then you just might find that it’s worth it.
Full synthetic or synthetic blend?
Now, in their attempts to improve on the quality of the lubricant they put into their engines, some drivers also try to save money by using semi-synthetic, or a synthetic blend. These are products that combine synthetic oil with conventional oil. Why not go for the best of both worlds – a product that is at least partially synthetic and yet costs less than a full synthetic?
Well, a synthetic blend is something akin to adding synthetic oil to your conventional oil. It is a mix of the two. The trouble with that idea is that conventional oil is present with all of its shortcomings, like inconsistent molecular structure and impurities. The inclusion of synthetic oil does not remove the problems that can come with conventional oil. For that reason, many oil companies are beginning to shy away from synthetic blends in favor of the purer full synthetic products they offer.
The final tally
None of this is to say that one type of oil – conventional, synthetic, or synthetic blend – is wrong to use in an engine. Each product can provide protection given the right circumstances. Sure, fully synthetic oil is of the highest quality and provides the highest potential protection. But it is more important to change your oil regularly – according to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation. Yes, you can increase the interval between oil changes if you switch to synthetic oil (if your car does not already call for synthetic). Yes, synthetic does offer better cleaning and protection. But millions of vehicles are protected by conventional oil. Whether or not you switch to synthetic oil, whether or not it is worth the cost, is a personal decision only you can make.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright September 2019
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