Timothy Boyer's picture

Consumer Reports Car Experts Have This to Say About Whether You Should Pay More on Synthetic Oil For Your Oil Change

Have you ever wondered if you were being scammed into paying more on your oil and filter change because the service tech told you that if you switched to synthetic oil then you would actually save money in the long run with less-frequent oil changes needed? Find out what really matters according to Consumer Reports car experts who have this to say about your car’s oil changes.
Advertisement

What Is Synthetic Oil?

Synthetic oil is basically your regular motor oil that has been processed to a greater degree removing contaminates and other impurities that can affect how an oil performs. In addition, beneficial additives are often supplemented in synthetic oils to improve engine operation.

Because of this processing, synthetic oils can operate over a greater range of temperatures. Your regular motor oil, however, needs to be chosen based on its recommended viscosity for your location and weather conditions. This is especially important in climate regions and seasons where undue engine wear occurs during frigid startups because the oil has not warmed up enough initially to lubricate the pistons as the vehicle starts up.

Benefits of Synthetic Oil

Perhaps the biggest benefit of synthetic motor oil is that it lasts longer and might lead to less overall oil-industry related pollution. Regular motor oil on the other hand chemically breaks down much sooner requiring more frequent changes (and hence more oil production)---especially when driving in a dusty environment and/or under rough engine operating conditions, such as towing a vehicle.

Related Article: Here's what oil analysis tests showed on a popular Subaru model.

One of the other problems with traditional motor oil is when a vehicle is driven very little, or never to the point where the engine reaches relatively high temperatures. High temperatures are needed to burn off condensation that collects in the regular motor oil as well as burn off oxidation compounds that develops over time.

But there is more to synthetic oil than just that it lasts longer and over a wider range of temperatures. Synthetic oil is becoming increasing more common in new vehicles as engine advancements are made. Synthetic oil has a lower viscosity than regular motor oil and as such reduces the friction between moving parts such as the pistons against cylinder walls and thereby helps improve the engine's fuel efficiency.

Synthetic or Regular Motor Oil?

When deciding on whether to use synthetic oil or regular motor oil, it’s not just an either/or decision on the correct oil for new or a relatively new car. As it turns out, some car models actually fall somewhere between with their engine’s oil requirements needing a “synthetic blend” of oil that has the combined properties of both regular motor oil and synthetic motor oil.

Consumer Reports car experts note that while the synthetic blend oils do not have all of the benefits of the fully synthetic oils, that the cost of blends is considerably cheaper. Synthetic oil can cost as much as four times more than regular or blended oil.

They also report that “…the 2018 National Oil and Lube News annual survey shows that more than half of car owners are choosing synthetics or synthetic blends when they get their oil changed.”

Which brings us back to the concern that an oil and filter service center might be scamming you when insisting that you should buy into switching to the synthetic oil they recommend.

According to Consumer Reports, deciding on whether to choose synthetic oil over regular motor oil really comes down to what your car’s owner’s manual recommends. And it’s not just following the recommended type, but more importantly referring to your car’s owners’ manual and find out what the time interval between oil changes is recommended along with the distance intervals---whichever occurs first is when you oil should be changed whether using traditional oil…or synthetic oil.

As it turns out, synthetic oil does have some level of the aforementioned condensation and oxidation problems that regular oil has when it sits in a practically dormant vehicle.

For an informative video from Consumer Reports about traditional motor oil versus synthetic oil, here is a Talking Cars with Consumer Reports video on YouTube where your car’s oil is discussed during the first 7 minutes of the episode.

Motor Oil 101 | Talking Cars #275

One Last Warning About Choosing Synthetic Oil

As in all things, not all brands of synthetic oil are the same. Some brands recommend you have your oil changed every 3,000 or 5,000 miles; whereas, other brands recommendations range from 7,500 to 20,000 miles.

Therefore, if you find that your car’s engine manual recommends servicing with synthetic oil, then you will want to know exactly what brand the service tech is using so that you can follow the correct oil changing intervals as well as determine whether you are really getting your money’s worth or just helping a service center pad your costs and their profits.

If you have any views on whether you have decided to switch from regular motor oil to synthetic motor oil, tell us about it and why you used one over the other in the comments section below. Your comments are appreciated.

COMING UP NEXT: Protecting your Prius from catalytic converter theft.

Timothy Boyer is Torque News automotive reporter based in Cincinnati. Experienced with early car restorations, he regularly restores older vehicles with engine modifications for improved performance. Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimBoyerWrites for daily automotive repair and maintenance news.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


Subscribe to Torque News on YouTube.


Follow Torque News on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

I generally shy away from making comments where engine oil products are concerned because it always invokes the very worst in people, much like political or religious extremism, but your very first sentence is incorrect. "Synthetic oil is basically your regular motor oil that has been processed to a greater degree..." does not reflect how high-quality synthetic oils (synthetic base + synthetic additives) are produced. There absolutely are oils deceptively marketed as "full synthetic" that are exactly as you state (usually just synthetic additives in regular dino oil), but oils that reflect the quality necessary to provide the true benefits synthetic oils are capable of are a rigorously researched and engineered product (with petroleum and non-petroleum sources) not just pumped out of the ground and refined. I have used synthetic oil in my vehicles since the 80's and to me they are 100% worth it (better mileage, less wear, and better corrosion resistance are the benefits most important to me). I do spring and fall oil changes regardless of miles driven to remove the built up acidity from combustion blow-by.
Hi, I'm glad that you did not shy away---yes, a lot of vitriolic trolling does occur too often. We try to moderate comments that are not helpful to anyone. That said, you are correct that my statement does not accurately reflect high-quality synthetic oils, but it was meant for a more general message and audience concerning whether you should let a service tech talk you into paying more for "their selection" of synthetic oil that I have real doubts about its quality and getting what you pay for...or, even some of the off-the-shelf stuff on sale at big box stores. That said, I will take your suggestion and look into the high quality motor oils and see what I can find regarding their actual processing and benefits in comparison to the less high quality oils. There should be some academic papers that make comparisons, but if funded by a particular company, the info may not be easily available. Thanks for the heads-up, hopefully I will have something in a week or so on this. BTW, do you have a recommended oil you use and can tell us why you chose it?
The oil I use I became a dealer for to both reduce my cost and allow me to provide it to others at cost, so I have no doubt my comments will be viewed as skewed, but in the 80's I was a mechanic at a Corvette specialty shop (and high performance boats) while in high school and the owner was an Amsoil dealer. It was the very first API certified synthetic oil, but I didn't know anything about the brand (had never heard of it or synthetics before despite doing oil changes since age 8 in my grandfathers Mobil gas station and fixing cars practically all of my life). All I knew about it from that time was that it was "synthetic". We actually never referred to the brand internally or with customers, just that it was synthetic and much better than regular oil. Of all the things I did in that shop, oil changes were very few and far between. We did all sorts of repair and restoration work and built many ridiculously high performance engines (for the time) from the ground up (that scared the crap out of the owners after picking up their newly repaired car), they all got synthetic oil once a year, and we never had any cars return for lubrication-related issues (which many times can mascarade as cooling system issues). I forgot all about the Amsoil brand and used many others over the years, but found a "data point" in the oil life monitor of a '91 Corvette I had when I lived in Germany for a few years (many hard Autobahn miles and it rarely saw time below 100mph). I tried the different synthetics I had access to and Castrol Syntech was the oil that would last the longest, but I found out many years later that Syntec started with a synthetic base then switched to a dino-oil base to reduce cost, so I don't know which version I was using, but it worked well. I have many anecdotal stories personally from 15 years in military aviation (using lowest-bidder synthetics in helicopter gear boxes and turbine engines with rigorous oil sampling), and from many years of connecting with others about their vehicle maintenance, but going back to the beginning of what really sold me on synthetics was an incident that happened to the owner of the Corvette shop (Bill if you're reading this, yes it's me). While coming back from the lake towing his flat-bottom circle-track racing boat (heavier than you would think) with a 454 that could turn over 9,000 RPM, his lifted 1st generation Jeep Cherokee with a stock AMC 6.6L V8 lurched and the engine started "missing" on one cylinder. He looked back and saw oil all over the nose of the boat and figured he would be stuck if he stopped so the further he got before the engine seized, the less the tow back home would cost. It was about 15-20 miles home from that point at highway speeds and he made it all the way with no oil pressure. I saw the Jeep and boat outside the next day (the boat was almost never left outside) and asked what the deal was. He told me the story then said, "Go check out the oil pan and see if it starts, and if it does then pull the boat in." The oil pan had a huge "smiley face" ripped through it (threw a rod but the piston and rod pieces stayed logged up out of the way of the crankshaft), and when I got in it started up with no hesitation at all. I drove it around, backed the boat into its parking spot and pulled the Jeep back where it normally goes. Other than the oil light and the sound of the engine missing on one cylinder, there was no indication of anything wrong. We built a very nice Chevy engine for the Jeep, and when we disassembled the AMC engine there was absolutely no indication of excessive wear on bearings, cam lobes, lifters, or anything else -- that was what sold me on synthetics. It was ironic that after I used Castrol Syntec for so many years, it wasn't until they started running the ads where they drained the oil out of running engines and showed them seizing using other oils that I recalled the incident with the Jeep and switched to using Amsoil myself.
Wow! Pretty impressive. Yeah, I think some future oil articles are in order. I will keep an eye out for some related topics. Thanks for the input. Much appreciated!
For a follow-on article, researching LSPI (Low Speed Pre-Ignition) that can occur in most new direct-injected, turbocharged engines and what oils can prevent it (or at least pass the new manufacturers testing for it) would be a good exercise in contrasting regular and synthetic oils.