Of all the maintenance work done on a vehicle, the oil change is the most common. Hundreds are done every month and it is a steady revenue generator for shops. Because most people drive North American vehicles, the range of oils needed for that regular oil change are pretty standard. But what happens when a customer comes into the shop with a new European car, a shinny, high-end BMW for example, or an Audi or Volkswagen and asks for an oil change? Do you reach for that common synthetic oil because you use it in many of your more expensive North American cars? At first blush, the answer might seem to be to go ahead and use it; but that might be a very costly mistake. What is not obvious to many drivers today, and even to some technicians, is many of these higher-end European car makers insist on very specific types of motor oils to be used, ones that follow European specifications that are different from the ones used to rate North American oils. The challenge for the technician is finding out what those ratings are, and then where to get the oils needed for that vehicle.
The great North American-European divide
To understand why the standards for motor oil are different between Europe and North America you first have to know how those standards are set. In a nutshell, Europe and North America follow two different paths for the minimum requirements for motor oil. In Europe, standards follow the guidelines set out by the Association des Constructeurs Europens d’Automobiles (ACEA), a lobbying and standards group for the automotive industry in the European Union. Its ACEA European Oil Sequences, the most recent being outlined in 2007, defines the minimum quality level of service-fill oils that ACEA members demand for use in their vehicles.
In North America, those oil standards are worked out by the American Petroleum Institute (API), a U. S.-based trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, representing about 400 corporations involved in the production, refinement and distribution in the industry. It sets the minimum standards for lubricants which makers of motors oils, for example, will follow for use in North American automobiles. And those standards are made to meet two things: one is to meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rating for average vehicle fuel economy; the other is to help vehicles reduce emissions.
Again, on the surface, the two ratings might seem the same, as both set out minimum standards. But there is an important difference. In Europe, the ACEA does not certify oils. In fact, motor oil standards are made with the input of the auto manufacturers themselves who will demand very specific formulation and blends to meet the specific performance requirements and tolerances of their engines, says Francis Bosse, a chemist and HSEQ manager with Total Lubricants Canada Inc. in Montreal.
“The OEMs will actually run very specific engine tests to make sure the oil being manufactured does the job that is needed,” he adds. “In fact, they run tests for very specifics kinds of problems and then they develop the oils to remedy those problems.”
“The European oils have specific additive packages that are designed to reduce wear in the valve trains and the camfollowers and the whole upper-end of the engine,” says Mark Reed, director of marketing with Shell Lubricants in Burlington, Ont. He adds that some European car makers will often insist on avoiding API-only rated oils because they do not believe these oils have that extra protection necessary, such as friction modifiers or viscosity index improvers.
When looking up the specifications one will often see ratings such as A1/B1, A3/B3, A3/B4 and A5/B5. A1/B1 oils are intended for use in gasoline and car or light van diesel engines specifically designed to use low friction, low viscosity oils with a high temperature/high shear rate viscosity of 2.6 to 3.5 mPa. s. A3/B3 rated oil is stable, stay-in-grade oil intended for use in high-performance gasoline and car or light van diesel engines and/ or for extended drain intervals where specified by the manufacturer and/ or for year-round use of low viscosity oils. A3/B4 is oil that is stable, stay-ingrade oil for use in high-performance gasoline and direct injection diesel engines. A5/B5 is a stable, stay-ingrade oil intended for use at extended drain intervals in high-performance gasoline and car and light van diesel engine designed to be capable of using low-friction, low-viscosity oils with high temperature/high shear rate viscosity of 2.9 to 3.5 mPa. s.
Just to confuse the technician even more, there are also ratings specifying catalyst compatible oils (C1, C2, C3 and C4) which have to be kept in mind as well. If you are really interested to find out what those mean, the ACEA Web site (www.ACEA.be) has all the ratings and their designations spelled out in great detail, right down to the kinds of engine tests run and the results.
Oh, and if the technician has for the moment thought that was not enough to learn, some auto manufacturer will demand even more technology-specific motor oil formulations for their vehicles, adds Franz Walker, product manager with Auto-Camping Ltd. in Toronto, a warehouse distributor specializing in European vehicle parts and lubricants.
“Some manufacturers say the (European) industry standards are great, but we are going to go an extra step and formulate specific oils for our engine because we have a particular kind of technology,” he says. “For example, Volkswagen has the injectors driven from the camshaft rather than the fuel pump. That gives you a really fine misting and a very good burn. Volkswagen has determined that the European standard is a starting-point so they start with an A3/B4 oil which is for direct-injection diesel and then they do a set of sludge tests, valve-train wear tests etc. and come up with a specific kind of oil needed. And BMW has its valvetronic technology and they have to have specially-formulated oils and Mercedes also has specific technologies which they have formulated oils for.”
The consequences of using the wrong oil
So what would happen if you used the wrong oil in such an engine, or mistakenly used North American oil, one not European-rated? Walker says the consequences can be rather severe, such as failure of the valve-train in a Volkswagen.
“And Volkswagen already knows that if you call in with a failed valve-train, they know it is because of the oil used,” he says. “If you use the proper oil, there will be no issues with the valve-train. As soon as you step away, even within Volkswagen-approved oils, but not for that application, you will see a failure of the valve-train. That particular application is very stringent and very sensitive, and if the product is not approved you will have problems.”
Matt Mannette, marketing manager with Irving Lubricants in Saint John, New Brunswick points to the sensitivity of many European diesel engines and the need to make sure the oil used is specific to the engine it will be used in.
“(Using the wrong oil) could be detrimental to the longevity of the engine, for protecting against sludge and deposits, or against the heat. The incompatibility of the chemistry could result in high-temperature volatility or burn-offs that will consume oil, for example. And if that vehicle is under warranty, not following the recommendations could void that warranty,” he says.
Another problem with using the wrong oil is viscosity. If the viscosity is not matched properly, the high-shearing in some engines will reduce that viscosity to the point where metal will hit metal, causing engine problems which can be severe.
So how does a technician find out which oil to use? The easiest is to take a look at the owner’s manual as it will specify the kind of oil that is to be used. Another way is to look at the vehicle manufacturer’s Web site. Often, the oils that are rated for particular vehicles and makes are listed online. For example, Mercedes-Benz lists the approved oils that can be used with its vehicles and Audi of America also has a technical service bulletin that lists the approved oils that meet its Audi Oil Quality Standards. However, not every vehicle manufacturer will freely list the oils that are approved. And there is not single site on the Web where the approved oils are listed by vehicle type or manufacturer, which is a shame as it would make the technicians’ job much easier.
The other route to take is to develop close relationships with distributors who specialize in carrying parts and lubricants for European vehicles, as they will be in contact with motor oil providers who have European-rated oils available. And if for the moment you might have though that these oils are as rare in Canada as a two-dollar paper bill, think again. For example, Irving Lubricants’ Advant motor oil is Europeanrated and is made to meet the API, SM and CF standards, including ACEA, VW 502 00 and 505 00, as well as for Mercedes-Benzes and BMW. Shell Lubricants Canada also offers its Quarker State Q Horsepower and its European Ultra formulations for European vehicles, and Auto-Camping Ltd. carries such oils as the Quartz Ineo MC3 which is formulated to work with BMW and Mercedes-Benz vehicles, and to improve the function of antipollution systems such as diesel particulate filters. Imperial Oil also carries the Mobile 1 0W-40 synthetic that is made to meet the ACEA A3, B3/B4 specifications and to be used with BMW, and Volkswagen.
While it is unfortunate that there does not exist a onestop place to find out everything a technician will need to know about European motor oils, a bit of time researching or contacting knowledgeable jobbers and distributors, or reps with the oil manufacturers will get the information needed. As well, if a shop does have some customers with these European vehicles, it is recommended that a shop keep a few bottles at-the-ready to keep those customers happy and coming back to your shop.