Synthetic Oils are the Wave of the Future for Passenger Cars

by on May 3, 2017 8 Comments

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As today’s modern engines are put under more stress, automakers worldwide are moving towards ever thinner viscosity grades to support achieving higher mandated fuel economy requirements.

This path is leading to a dramatic increase in the use of full synthetic oils in newer cars, pickups, SUVs and working vans – a trend that has been underway.

What is Synthetic?

Just what do we mean by “synthetic?” Perhaps it’s an unfortunate term, because it implies the opposite of “real” – which is definitely not the case with motor oils. Synthetic engine oils are made with a variety of performance additives and synthetic base oil.  Unlike mineral base oils, synthetic base oils are engineered with molecules of uniform shape and size and are optimized to consistently perform better than mineral base oils*.

This brings many advantages for newer and advanced engines. Synthetic oils don’t break down as easily as mineral oils, which means they protect the engine longer from excessive metal-to-metal contact that causes wear. Synthetic engine oils also function better in extreme hot and cold temperature conditions.  In cold weather, synthetic oils flow to all vital engine parts more quickly than mineral-based oil.  In hotter temperatures, synthetics exhibit greater oxidation stability than mineral-based oils and don’t evaporate as quickly, both of which add up to better, longer lasting engine protection.

Full synthetic motor oils have become more important as automakers explore new engine technologies – most notably, turbocharging and engine downsizing. Synthetic oil is what makes these new technologies work optimally.

The Impact of Turbocharged Engines

For example, turbocharged engines help with fuel economy while maintaining power, but are tougher on engine oil than non-turbo engines. Today’s turbocharged cars require engine oils to lubricate the turbo shaft with a thin layer of oil while withstanding the punishing effects of the shaft spinning as much as 200,000 revolutions per minute.  Full synthetics are better able to withstand the high heat that turbos produce and control deposit formation, which is critical to keep the shaft spinning smoothly and the oil flowing properly to all moving parts †.

The Advantages of Synthetics

Synthetics are making possible the next generation of engine technology. One example is how General Motors looked to motor oil with their dexos1™ Gen 2 specification to help provide low speed pre-ignition (LSPI) protection particularly for small displacement turbo-charged engines. With the overall move toward lower viscosity oils, achieving newer grades such as 0W-20, 0W-30 and still to come 0W-16, require the use of synthetics. They cannot use mineral oils exclusively. OEMs are exploring even lower viscosities – for example 0W-8, which is expected to be a fully synthetic formulation. Japanese cars have used 0W-20 grade for several years, and their US and European counterparts are now following suit. When the new ILSAC GF-6 specification becomes active (all indications are pointing to 2019), synthetics are expected to play a more prominent role.

The trend toward synthetics is generally good news. In concert with new engine technologies, synthetic oils should help keep passenger car engines from wearing out and keep them running longer. Click here for more information on synthetic oils.

*Source: Lubricant Additives Chemistry and Applications p.542: “Synthetic basestocks tend to be more resistant to chemical and thermal degradation than mineral base stocks.”

† Supporting Evidence: MachineLubrication.com, “Turbochargers and Related Problems

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About the Author ()

Dave has over a decade of lubricants experience in Research, Product Development, and technical workshop training. He has a passion for science, and Dave has held various technical positions as a scientist from Greases to Passenger Car and Motorcycle Engine Oils. He loves to talk oils and science, and has been involved in several training workshops giving reason to why people should be excited and care about oils and additives. He’s currently the Consumer Brand Technical and OEM Manager where he’ll be developing the Havoline Engine Oils and Aftermarket Fuel Additives product strategy for the globe. Dave will interface with technology, business colleagues, and customers in support of Consumer Brands. Dave has a Ph. D. in Chemistry, Patents on lubricant composition and manufacture, and extensive engine oil formulation experience.

Comments (8)

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  1. Doran_family@comcast.net' Mark Doran says:

    As we see the advancement of oil technology over the last 50 years and all benefits that synthetic brings, oil filtration has not advanced at the same levels. We are still using inefficient media inside that operates in the bypass mode over 50% of the time. There is new filter technology that is reusable and could extend oil life further .

  2. c-57-l@msn.com' Carl says:

    I bought some expensive (25,000 mile oil and matching filter) changed it at 10,000 miles . The filter looked bad on the inside. I’m interested in new and advanced products.

  3. dputman@mchsi.com' Jim says:

    The new oils still will be contaminated with the combustion process by products, which are not good for engine life. I think the conventional oils, changed on a much more frequent basis, to drain out the combustion by products are more susceptible to longer engine life, than the synthetics are with the contamination build-up in them. As has been stated, the oil filtration process has not kept pace with the newer blends and longer life of oils.

  4. dwendt44@ameritech.net' Dennis Wendt says:

    The trend to smaller and smaller oil filters makes filtration an ever more compromise. TOO efficient media might restrict oil flow.

  5. doran_family@comcast.net' Mark Doran says:

    Too efficient media? let’s look at what is in a traditional oil filter. Can oil flow through paper? If so, at what micron level? without stripping out the important additives.

    Oil flow is critical along with capturing the contaminates without recycling them through the engine again. Most traditional filters operate in by pass mode over 50% of the time. That means no filtering!!

    There is filter technology that is available. But at significant cost. Example. Car 1 at 100,000 miles uses a filter every 5000 miles . That is 20 oil filters at 9 dollars. Versus a reusable oil filter that flows 4x factory filters and is cleanable.

    Where do the old filters go?

  6. klmillender@austin.rr.com' Kent Millender says:

    For decades most of us have pulled the dip stick to check the oil level and color. Usually the more miles between changes the darker the oil is. Right? I bought a new 2016 Tacoma and it’s redesigned engine uses 0-20w synthetic that Toyota recommends changing every 10,000 miles. Around 9500 I pulled the stick and noticed the oil had not changed color at if that means anything.

    • David Lee says:

      Thanks Kent for the comments! It is true that color change can provide some indication of a chemical process or reaction. However, I wouldn’t make any guesses on remaining life or quality of the oil just based on color alone. New and unused additives and base oils that make up engine oil can range in colors from water white to amber to dark brown. In addition, even after the oil has been used, there is no guarantee of any dramatic changes in color either. Auto manufacturers have carefully selected the engine oil best suited for the vehicle, along with the recommended oil change interval that will keep the engine running smoothly and properly. On a side a note, I’m glad to hear that you’re checking the dipstick! Always remember to keep your engine oil at the proper fluid level to keep all your precious metal protected!

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