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How to choose the right engine oil: the ultimate guide

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Whether you’re a car enthusiast or just have a run-around to help you with the basic dallies, you’ll need to appreciate how important engine care really is. And, one of the best ways to look after it is to make sure that you’re using the right kind of high-quality vehicle motor oil to keep the parts moving and happy.

Knowing which one to use can be a little overwhelming, so we’ve put together this handy little engine oil guide to help you get your head around the basics – but please, before taking any action, we recommend you talk to our friendly vehicle servicing team to make sure you’re doing the right thing.

Ready, engines, go!

Why vehicle motor oil is important

Before we get into more detail, here’s why engine oil is essential for the function of your vehicle:

Friction prevention – Think of your knee and all the moving parts it has. If the bone was rubbing bone during movement, you’d cause some real damage. The same goes for your engine. While it’s not a joint, it does have a lot of moving parts which heat up and get damaged through friction, unless they are oiled up.

Heat channelling – As a natural product of friction, heat builds up in the engine when it’s used. We need oil because it serves as an insulator for that extra heat, preventing the internal combustion of the engine from getting too hot.

Minimizes oxidation – Fuel and air provide combustion, but part of that air is, of course, oxygen, which can corrode the engine from within. Layers of oil flow help protect the metal inside.

Common oil questions:

How does engine oil vary?

There are many little things that set oils apart, but one of the main ones is that it comes in different viscosities, which are indicated by a grade number (such as 5w40). There are also different blends, for different engines (which we will get to later in this article)

What oil should I use for my car?

You should always use the type of oil as recommended by the manufacturer in the car’s manual. It may not recommend particular brands, but the grade and ACEA (the main lobbying and standards group of the automobile industry) specifications are the most important.

Do oil brands matter?

As long as the grade and ACEA specification is correct, you should be fine. However, we would recommend that you choose a reputable brand to make sure you keep your engine as safe as possible.

Can I use cheaper brands?

The short answer is ‘you can’; as long as the grade and ACEA specifications are correct. But, like with anything else, you get what you way pay for, and if the price is lower, you can expect a lower quality of the product. We recommend that you don’t go for the cheapest ones if you can avoid it.

How often should I check my oil?

While this isn’t a set rule, if you drive a lot, you should check it more often. The general rule of thumb is to check oil levels at least once a month, after average use.

How often should I change it?

This entirely depends on the type of vehicle you have. Please consult your manufacturer’s manual to make sure you are changing it at the correct time.

What happens if I use the wrong oil?

Putting in the incorrect oil will put a lot of stress on your engine and all of the mechanical components inside. If these are not properly lubricated, they will wear down a lot faster and reduce the overall lifespan of the engine.

Types of oil:

The three main categories of engine oils are known as ‘synthetic’, ‘semi-synthetic’ and ‘mineral’ oils. Here’s how they compare:

Table over the different types of motor oil

There’s also a middle-ground in the form of semi-synthetic oils, which combines minerals oils with synthetic ones. They offer the benefits of both types, as well as a good price/quality ratio.

Engine oil viscosity

This refers to the ‘thickness’ of the oil and how well it flows. For instance, thin oils have low viscosity and can be poured more easily at low temperatures. They are better at helping engines start in cold weather, while thicker oils are better in high temperatures and exertion.

Oil viscosity numbers

Viscosity is measured through a common classification which uses the format of “XW-XX”. The first ‘x before ‘w’ (which stands for ‘winter) shows how well the oil flows at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (which is around -17.8 Celsius). The lower the number, the more resistance the oil has to cold weather.

The numbers after the ‘XW; show how vicious the oil will be at 100 degrees Celsius, and how well it handles being at high temperatures.

To put it another way, if you’re using your car in colder regions, you’re better off with lower-viscosity oils, and if you’re in higher temperatures, you’ll want an oil with higher numbers.

Choosing the right oil

Here are a few things to consider when choosing your vehicle motor oil:

What is your existing oil? If your vehicle is already running well without issues, there’s probably no reason to change the brand. Stick with what you know.

What does the owner’s manual say? This is the most important thing to remember, because if you use something outside of the manufacturer’s recommendation, it may cause serious damage and void your warranty at the same time.

What is your climate? If you live in a very hot, cold or mountainous area, this will affect your choice of oil. For instance, if the number before the ‘w’ in your choice of oil is lower, it’s likely to work better in cold weather.

How old is your vehicle?  Those with older vehicles are likely to be running on mineral oil for most of its life – check with your mechanic if it’s safe to change to a semi-synthetic type before doing anything.

So there you have it – the basics of vehicle engine oil. The above information is supposed to serve as a beginners guide only, and should not be taken as concrete advice. All cars are different and have different needs, so if you are planning to change your oil, get in touch with our experienced and friendly vehicle servicing team so that they can help out.