Is Synthetic Motor Oil Better for Your Car?

Synthetic oil costs more than conventional oil, but it's designed to last longer. (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

Synthetic oil costs more than conventional oil, but it's designed to last longer. (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

You've probably heard about synthetic oil before, whether at a quick oil-change business or by your trusted mechanic or dealer.

But you may not be sure exactly what it is and, most importantly, whether it's something worth considering for your car.

Synthetic oil vs. conventional oil

Synthetic oil is exactly what it sounds like: an engine lubricant created artificially from chemical compounds. Some classes of synthetic oil start with conventional oil as a base that's then chemically altered to produce synthetic oil, while others may be artificially created from other raw materials. In contrast, conventional motor oil (also referred to as standard oil or mineral-based oil), is refined from naturally occurring crude oil.

Highly rated mechanics say synthetic oil does offer specific advantages over conventional motor oil. “With synthetic, the oil’s ability to do its job within the car engine is superior to mineral-based oil,” says Greg Hochhalter, owner of highly rated Auburn Foreign & Domestic Car in Auburn, Wash.

“The primary purposes of synthetic oils are to reduce engine wear during cold start-up and drive-away, and to avoid or reduce oil degradation,” says Sam Bell, owner of highly rated The Lusty Wrench in Cleveland.

In a nutshell, synthetic oil is thinner, resists temperature extremes better and generally lasts longer. You likely won’t notice any difference in how your car performs, but the durability characteristic is the most important from a car owner’s perspective, as it translates to less frequent oil changes compared to conventional motor oil. “The fundamental difference is that synthetic oil can go longer before it starts to break down when compared to conventional oil,” Hochhalter says.

Is synthetic oil better?
Is synthetic oil right for your vehicle? (By Eldon Lindsay)

Although recommended oil change intervals vary by vehicle manufacturer, in general, a good rule of thumb to follow is to change conventional motor oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. “If you’re using full synthetic oil, we recommend going about 7,500 between changes,” says Leo Jay of highly rated Dere Auto in Seattle. Bell says that with synthetic oil and some manufacturers, intervals between oil changes can be much, much longer: "In some cases as much as 15,000 miles or one year."

Some mechanics, though, say you should change your oil every 5,000 miles even with synthetic oil.

How much does a synthetic oil change cost?

According to recent Angie's List reviews, the average cost of a basic, conventional oil change is $46. Achieving a prolonged oil-change interval will cost you more money with each oil change, as the synthetic oil change price is more expensive, generally costing about twice as much as conventional oil. However, Dere says the longer interval should also factor into your cost consideration.

“It can actually be cheaper overall because you’re not paying for the labor on the oil change or the oil filter as often [with the longer intervals]. It's like getting two oil changes for one," Dere says.

Is synthetic oil worth it?

So, how do you know if synthetic oil is right for you? Mike Aronow, owner of highly rated Sunset Auto Imports Services in Hendersonville, Nev., says it all depends on how frequently you prefer to change your oil. “The biggest factor of using synthetic oil versus conventional oil is the longevity of it," he says.

Related: Should I Use Synthetic or Conventional Motor Oil?

If you are punctual about getting oil changes, and your vehicle doesn’t already require synthetic oil (more on this later), you may want to stick with conventional. “If you are good about changing your oil when you are supposed to, there is no reason to use synthetic oil,” says David Bulko of AutoAid & Rescue in Van Nuys, Calif. “If getting your vehicle in for service doesn’t always happen on time and you find yourself always going over on the recommended change interval, maybe synthetic oil is for you.”

“What I’ve discovered is that people get busy and tend to put oil changes off,” says Carl Roberson of highly rated Carl’s Cool Cars in Las Vegas. “With synthetic, you can put it off a lot longer and be OK.”

Is synthetic oil better?
Change your car's oil regularly. (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

Bell advises being careful when going extended periods without changing your oil.

“One of the biggest drawbacks to using synthetic oils is also one of the biggest advantages," he says. "Longer service intervals are obviously less hassle for the consumer, but, if you're like most consumers, you'll never even open the hood between oil changes. So, if, for example, you develop an oil consumption problem, you may drive for several months and many thousands of miles with your oil level too low.”

Do some vehicles require synthetic oil?

Whether or not synthetic oil is right - or required - for your vehicle first depends on what type of vehicle you drive, highly rated mechanics say. New and late-model vehicles from European makes such as BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Audi typically require the use of full synthetic oil. Bell adds that certain new vehicles from Subaru, some Hondas and Toyotas (typically hybrids), and some high performance cars also require synthetic oil.

“Always check your owner's manual,” Bell says. “If synthetic oil is required, you risk losing any warranty coverage for an engine problem if you fail to comply, even if there is no direct connection between the problem and the oil you chose.”

Why oil changes are important

Considering that an oil change can cost about as much or less than a full tank of gasoline for many drivers, they're a relatively cheap investment to prolong the life of your vehicle. “Oil service is the most important thing you can do for your car,” Aronow says. "Preventive maintenance doesn’t cost money, it saves you money."

And whether you use conventional motor oil or synthetic, regular oil changes by a qualified mechanic can help ensure longer life for all your car’s mechanicals.

“The most important part of an oil change is not necessarily the actual changing of the oil, nor the new oil itself, but the inspection that well-qualified automotive professionals always include as part of their under-the-hood routine,” Bell says. “Whatever oil you use, someone has to check under the hood from time to time to avoid serious surprises.”

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 22, 2014


More Like This

Should I use synthetic or conventional oil?

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snythetic or conventional oil
Auto experts say you should check your owner's manual to determine which type of oil to use. (Photo by Fred Patton.)

Need an oil change? Both synthetic and conventional oil have their pros and cons. Learn the factors that determine which one is best for your car.

Comments

does this synthetic stuff taste any better than that conventional crap? I mean that's really all we need to know!

I have a 2002 Alero. It has over 166,000 miles to it. Ive been using synthetic blend oil in it. Ive been debating on wether to go full synthetic on it. Any suggetions?

The best way is just pull the dip stick out and simply take a look at the oil,touch and fill it w/your fingers. Bc most of the time after 3-5k miles late,synthetic or conventional will look pretty nasty or not! You be the judge, simple as that. For me, personally I would not trust any type of oil in my engine longer than 5k, bottom line!!!! Whether the oil is still good or not, I don't really care!!! People getting trip out on oil changes these days, when motor oil is your cars blood and is dirt cheap to change compare to getting a new engine. Make no sense at at to me…...

As a jet engine mech in the Marine Corps, at various air bases in California, Japan and Viet Nam, I am witness to the fact that combat jets use only synthetic oil. Therefore, as an on the road inspector I refused to use anything but synthetic oil. 300-500 thousand miles on an engine can be expected, in my experience. Little 4 cylinder engines need all the help they can get compared to the old 8 cylinder power plants. Gas mileage with the thinner oil, creating less friction, and saving wear with cold starts and drive aways, and in general, is improved. An automobile being driven all day can fly past any oil change point. But so can one used only to and from work. Therefore, the knowledge that time between changes is vastly extended can be an engine saver. I have known idiots who boo hoo oil changes at all are.....well.....idiots. And once you begin using synthetic oil (Mobil One) one must never suddenly switch back to conventional oil.

I have 8,000 miles on my Corolla since last change with Mobil1 and respectfully disagree. It still looks like new. Filter is important, cheap filters are just that.

I lease a 2014 Nissan altima and switched to synthetic just to have less time between oil changes. I drive aprox 1000 miles a month. The dealer said oil should be changed every four (4) months. Guess I wasted my monthly...

My local gas station gives me a oil and filter change uses Wolfs Head oil with tire rotation for a flat $24.00 and brings my car back to my yard when done. I do it every 3,000. Toyota camry V6 xle 118,000 miles and runs new.

Full Flow filters all have a check valve. When it opens, all contaminates previously caught by the filter can flush back in the engine through that open check valve. That check valve is required because we do not want to starve the engine of oil during critical moments of acceleration or cold starts. In short, full flow filters are culprits in and of themselves because of that darn check valve. So... Synthetics or Crude Oil is almost a mute point! Here's the main point: >We are constantly contaminating engine oil. >Full Flow filters can flush trapped contaminates back into the main oil supply. >Changing oil frequently removes contaminates from the oil supply. We always add secondary oil filtration to our long-term autos. Bypass filters offer serious oil filtration and can lengthen the oil change intervals.

My question is: Would it be advantageous for me to start to use synthetic oil in my 1998 Toyota Corolla Sedan ? Currently the vehicle has a little over 126,000 miles on it.

This might sound unbelievable but my 2006 H2 Hummer has only 16000 miles on it. With the low amount of driving I do, when should I have the oil changed? I was told not to put synthetic oil in the enging until I have 10,000 miles. I still use regular oil 5W30. This is what the manual calls for. Should I change to synthetic oil and have the oil changed every two (2) years?

Oils (both synthetic and standard are equal in this regard) have additives that are time released. Once they interact with the little bit of fuel, exhaust and other particles that get into the engine the timer is started. If you want to go 2 years without doing an oil change you need to buy oil additive. The additives are pretty cheap. If your mileage is low enough I believe this will be fine. At the same time, do NOT overfill your engine oil. If you put a couple of those bottles in and the engine oil gets overfilled you will be damaging your engine. Literally a quart overfilled is way worse then 2 quarts under filled. If the car manual does not say to wait to put synthetic in then do what you want. There are two schools of engine break in (which some manufactures pre-run/break in engines in the factory). The first school is drive it a like a baby and break it in nice and easy. The other school is break it in the way you want to drive it/treat it. I say break it in the way you want to use it. That way the wear pattern set is consistent. But admittedly I'm much harder on my vehicles then most (not that I have ever seen a premature failure with my vehicles). .... When you get into technical engine break-in procedures it gets really impossible, camshafts want one RPM for break in, cranks another, valves a whole range of RPMs. There is no winning. Good luck.

I would advise anyone NOT to use synthetic motor oil in your lawn mower or any other small air-cooled engine application! I was warned about it by the person from whom I bought a small engine for my lawn tractor but I assumed the other person put it in when the unit was new, and not broken in. I changed to it in an engine that had about 150 hours on it that was not using much between changes and immediately had a problem with smoking and oil consumption! Changing back to conventional oil did not correct the problem. I have not torn the engine down yet, so I don't know what problem it may have caused. Just a word to the wise: I should have listened!

What about air cooled motorcycle?

inform the public of this type of engine oil ,benefits and the appropriate mile interval change

My '92 Chevy PU has been on Synthetic Oil since 8000 miles. The engine runs as smoothly as when new, maybe better. I also have Amsoil Synthetic Transmission Fluid in the Trans. Trans. began shifting roughly so I went to my Dealer and he flushed the system and installed the Synthetic. Within 20 miles of traveling I could tell the difference. As promised the Synthetic clearly cleaned the Transmission valves and smoothed the performance thereof.

So you asked a bunch of people who make money changing oil and they say it's worth it. I agree that good synthetic oil is better than conventional oil in that it can take more abuse under extreme conditions and can stand up better to abuse under adverse conditions... But, under most circumstances the average consumer will not see any advantage over conventional oils with regular oil changes. If you read the studies done on motor oils, there is little difference between them if they meet certain API requirements, if you change your oil every 3k miles then you can use anything as long as it is the proper viscosity for your engine. Most experts agree that 3k mile oil changes are a big waste and you probably should drive your oil many more miles up into the 7k range if all you are doing is normal driving. Changing synthetics at short intervals is a big waste of $$$ Why are some manufacturers requiring synthetic? It's so they can offer you 3 years of free maintenance on the new car, the push the oil change intervals out to 15 or 18k miles and guess how many oil changes they have to perform..... I don't see how they can "require" you to use synthetic as you can get standard motor oils that meet all the specs of synthetics....sounds like a $$ making scheme to me.

Brian has a good point, even if it isn't thinking the thought through to the end. Let me explain... Reducing frequency of your oil change, costs the car owner much less money over time. It also saves landfills by reducing the oil dumped (for people who dump oil illegally); it also reduces the oil waste (for people who dispose of it properly). Synthetic oil has been proven to do a better job over an over again. Here is something people forget: Many synthetic oils allow for better cold weather starts because there is no wax in your oil to thicken up when the weather gets cold, as well as cooling your engine better. Also... many people WILL see a difference in gas mileage OR power after changing to synthetic. There are even synthetic oils specially designed for late model cars. Let me think... -Cheaper over time... -Better for your car (proven over & over, even Brian agrees)... -Saves oil being dumped (legally or not)... -Less work for me or my mechanic... -I could go on but, I switched to AMSOIL Synthetic Motor Oil a long time ago and cannot imagine going backward & using Petroleum again (both my cars, lawnmower, motorcycle, even my compressor for my nail guns). -Thanks

First off, both natural and synthetic oils should be good for 5000-7000 miles, not just 3000 miles. However, synthetic oils will NOT last longer for the simple reason that "oil" doesn't "wear out" at all (this is why it is able to be recycled and reused). What wears out is the "additive package" in the oil and that package is roughly the same whether your oil is synthetic or non-synthetic. So buy synthetic oil if you want the best oil available (slicker, better shear strength) and are willing to pay more for it but do not do so expecting to keep the oil in there a lot longer. That is faulty logic.

This article contains some correct information but there is a lot of important information missing. First off, many mechanics are now recommending that higher mile vehicles NOT switch to synthetic, as it often results in new oil leaks. Secondly, some types of vehicles are harder on oil and therefore benefit more from synthetics. These include turbocharged cars that use oil to cool the hot turbocharger bearings, as well as diesels, especially those like fords that use high pressure oil injection to fire the fuel injectors. Vehicles that are routinely subjected to high rpm or high load service will also benefit more. However, as far as the longer oil change interval is concerned, changing to synthetic oil won't reduce the contaminate load of the oil, nor will it help the oil filtration system filter the oil any more efficiently. The only real way to extend oil change intervals is to send oil away for an analysis to determine if your oil change interval can be safely extended. For the relatively small amount of oil most modern engines require, the hassle and cost of oil analysis probably isn't worth it, especially with the average car owner only owning their vehicle a few years from new. Another thing worth mentioning is that if you have run conventional oil in your engine and build up sludge deposits, switching to synthetic can flush these deposits out. I've read that some people now recommend doubling up on a filter change not longer after switching to synthetic to try and keep a clean filter in there. If the filter gets plugged, more oil bypasses the filter on most vehicles, and this means less oil gets filtered.

Actually, Andrew, SOME synthetic oils (AMSOIL, for example) does "...reduce the contaminate load of the oil,". A better Synthetic oil surrounds the contaminants & also keeps the metal parts of the engine from touching, better than petroleum oil does. This does a lot to help the engine keep from wearing out. This means your engine lasts longer. This synthetic also helps lubricate your engines seals better, so they don't wear out & let your oil 'leak'. Many of the stories told in the past about changing to synthetics ruining your engine no longer apply. There is a matter of doing things right though. If you are considering changing over to a synthetic oil, please check with someone who really knows what they are talking about, and not just someone who has a strong opinion. Many people who deal with synthetic oils have had an education beyond that of many mechanics who actually change oil for a living. Many of us literally go to University & learn about engine lubrication, Oil history, etc. So, please be careful who you listen to about such matters. -Thank you.

very good information in this article!

Regular oil currently sells for around $4 a quart and synthetic oil is around $6 a quart. The cost of the oil filter and the cost of the labor are exactly the same. A complete oil change for most vehicles requires a maximum of 5 quarts. When you do the math, a synthetic oil change should only cost about $10 more than a regular oil change. I see places that charge $30 for a regular oil change and $70 for a synthetic one. If that's the case where you get your oil changed, I recommend that you either do it yourself or find a shop that will let you buy your own oil and filter and only charge you the cost of the labor.

The 7500 interval between oil changes may be common but it's not across the board. I drive a turbocharged Subaru, Subaru requires synthetic oil for their turbocharged vehicles with a 3750 mile interval change. You can go with a longer interval but unlike Jiffy Lube trying to tell me I need to change my oil every 3000 miles I tend to put a bit more stock in my manufacturer's recommendations.

I have been told that once you use synthetic you can never use regular again without hurting the engine, is this true?

No, it is NOT true at all. If your vehicle does not specify only synthetic oil, you can switch back anytime to regular oil but I would not keep switching back and forth numerous times or anything.

I worked for a large oil company and handled some of the tax issues related to synthetic oil. Our company claimed the lineage of the discovery of high quality lubrication oil back in the 1860's when kerosene was distilled in a vacuum. My understanding is that synthetic oil has always been crude oil based. At the refinery an elaborate process is undertaken to reform the hydrocarbon molecules whereby they will lubricate the best. These reformed molecules don't oxidize like simple hydrocarbon molecules which made up a large portion of each can of oil. Synthetic oil can handle the heat much better and also stay liquid at very cold temperatures. When regular oil oxidizes it forms sludge, acid, and adheres to the inside of the engine. If you heat synthetic oil in a frying pan it does not burn and carbonize like convention oil, but rather appears to vaporize. When the synthetic oil was introduced to the retail public it said on the can that it was good for 20,000 miles. Nobody believed that statement because Arnold Palmer had convinced us to change oil every 3,000 miles like he did with his tractor. Actually, the synthetic was probably good for 100,000 miles, but who would believe that? Here is a tidbit about this oil that few people know. Synthetic oil should technically be called synthesized oil. It was called synthetic oil by our company at the time in an attempt to have this oil exempted from the excise tax -now repealed- which applied to every gallon of oil. There was a tax on every kind of natural oil including cadavor oil. The thought was if it was a "synthetic oil" it would not be subject to the excise tax. The case was lost in appeals with the IRS/Treasury Department for the tax exemption, but the term "synthetic" stuck. All motor oils have improved in quality, but I feel the synthetic oil is a very wise investment for your car's engine.

Sorry Mike but not all synthetic oil come from dino juice. For example Amsoil make synthetic oil base on natural gas and I`m not sure but Mobil 1 oils are from natural gaz too . Mobil sued Castrol on synthetic oil defenition Castroll oil are effectively based on dino juice and Mobil sued Castroll cause they used synthetics name on oil based on crude oil. Castroll won the case.

Does synthetic oil collect less dirt, carbon, and other abrasives than natural oil?

It is always recimended to read your vehicle manual. Most vehicles are open to how the vehicle is driven. In town day to day driving or driving in unusual weather conditions like extrme temperatures and towing require more frequent oil changes at the recommended 3000 miles. If you drive mostly on the freeway, then the oil changes can be extended to 5000- 6000 miles. I agree that synthetic oil is a premium and usually extends the change time interval to 7500 miles. There have bee a lot of studies, but for sure while the vehicle is in warranty use the suggested grade and change it as recommended otherwise the warranty is void. I listen to Click and Clack on NPR and they feel the same as I have expressed above. I have had multiple vehiclles with 200,000+ miles and no engine problems using the above recomendations. If you are astute pull the dip stick out and look at it regularly. With a clear color and no gas smell you are doing well.If the oil is black or milky and down a quart get in and get an oil change immediately . After 150,000 miles on a vehicle you amy want to go to a long long engine wear type of oil. If the engine makes a lot of noise or the oil light flickers get help, you are looking at a possible problem. I hope this helps someone.

Bill said "...but for sure while the vehicle is in warranty use the suggested grade and change it as recommended otherwise the warranty is void." People who own cars & are told stuff like this, really need to read the "Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act". This will also give you information that will educate you beyond what your car dealer or some mechanics want you to know. A car manufacture cannot tell you what oil you have to use in your car (which grade is fine), unless they want to provide that oil for you free of charge. Some of the better synthetics actually last longer than 7500 miles & have been proven to do so many times over. Don't be mis-informed!

I have a 2011 crysler town and country van. They always have me change my oil every 3000 miles. Is this the normal for synthetic oil?

your synth oil is good to go for at least 7500 miles! don't let them gouge you.

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