Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2006   by Mike Scandiffio

Is Synthetic Automotive Oil the new Convention?

It may last longer, but customers still need to be reminded that it is no substitute for regular maintenance.

When long-time auto technician Derek Atwill oversaw the construction of the family’s new service center in Ottawa, one of the things he had to consider was how to store the more than forty brands of fluids, including motor oil, now needed for today’s cars. The growing range of oils is one of the changes his father, Rick, and he have seen over the past 35 years in business.

“We now have more than 40 types of fluids,” said Derek Atwill. “Ten years ago, there would have been six products for each car but now cars have more specifications.”

While they stock Valvoline products, Atwill said they also have to keep up with the demands of automakers such as Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz that demand specific synthetic engine oils.

Atwill added there are benefits to using synthetic oil because it can stand up longer to the demands of severe driving conditions.

“With driving that creates high heat, towing, and driving in extreme temperatures, synthetic oils are promoted and recommended,” said Atwill, whose customers come from throughout eastern Ontario, and stretch as far south as Windsor and even Texas.

But he said conventional engine oils can do the job on most cars if the owner brings it in for regular maintenance every 5,000 km, or as recommended in the owner’s manual. He added he uses conventional oil in his own truck.

Atwill reflects the opinion of most car owners. Despite advances in synthetic oils, producers are still struggling to convince consumers to pick their product.

Dispelling the myths around synthetic oil

“Synthetics make up a very small percentage of the current market,” Valvoline Canada spokesman Barry Bronson told SSGM in an email. “Conventional motor oils with the latest American Petroleum Company ratings are specified for more passenger cars and light trucks. A few makes (of cars) specify a synthetic oil, but conventional oils are still the norm in the U.S.”

Toronto-based NPD Canada tracks consumers’ purchasing of automotive parts, fluids and services. According to NPD’s AutoTrac, approximately 70 per cent of Canadians choose conventional motor oil in 2004-2005, the remaining 30 percent included those who purchased high mileage motor oils, synthetic-types and SUV and minivan motor oils.

Jasmine Sachdeva, senior manager for NPD Canada, added NPD is seeing signs of a small increase in synthetic oil sales. NPD AutoTrac also found that most consumers choose an engine oil product with which they are familiar.

Colin Cochran, a business advisor on lubricants and specialties at Imperial Oil Ltd. in Calgary, Alta. said a key strategy to increase synthetic oil sale growth will be to educate consumers and technicians, and dispel what he calls “old myths” which may deter consumers from using synthetic oils.

“The biggest myth is that you cannot convert from conventional oil to synthetic oil,” said Alan Crossley, vice-president and general manager with the Toronto-based Noco Lubricants Company, a distributor for Southern Ontario and Quebec of Esso’s mobile lubricants and the Mobile 1 synthetic oil products. “You can switch out with any oil change. Obviously there will be some trace mineral oil left in the system, but that is pretty minor. You will get all the benefits from a pure synthetic from the get-go.”

Synthetic oils are made with molecules designed to give the oil greater stability at extreme temperatures and provide better protection and cleanliness to the engine. Typically, conventional oils use naturally occurring substances whose molecules are diverse and could break down and more readily oxidize at extreme temperatures. But now, industry researchers and experts also said while synthetic oils continue to improve to meet and surpass the new engine demands and standards, conventional oils have also improved and are capable of meeting the specifications that most auto manufacturers require from engine oil.

“Ninety-eight, ninety nine per cent of cars that are being produced are quite happy with conventional engine oils,” said Clinton Smith, technical advisor on Automotive Oils with Imperial Oil. “There are some engines, the Corvette and the Viper and the Mercedes Benz and the Porsche that are filled with synthetic products at the factory. That is because these engines produce sufficient heat in their operations that conventional oils are not stable enough to survive.”

It is the base oil stocks in engine oils that provide the lubrication for the engine. The base stocks in conventional oils have now improved to the point where they are now able to deliver ILSAC GF-4 quality of oil – the latest gasoline engine oil standard set by the International Lubrication Standard and Approval Committee. Walking down the motor oil aisle at the local Canadian Tire, a vehicle owner can see that many of the conventional oils claim to meet these standards and, often at, several dollars less than the synthetic.

“Before it was pretty easy and pretty obvious to see that the synthetic oils were superior to conventional oils,” said Smith. “Conventional oils have continuously gotten better over the last number of generations and they have gotten closer to the quality of synthetic oils.

“I don’t want to imply that they are as good as synthetics because they aren’t, but the gap is narrower,” continued Smith and added that “this is where things get confusing for the consumer.”

Choosing the right oil for an engine

Lubricant researchers and developers have to continuously adapt to the new requirements brought on by auto manufacturers as they redesign and improve engines.

On the Shell Canada Ltd. Web site, Stephen Miller, Product Manager for Lubricants at Shell Canada in Calgary, Alta. said “in the search for better mileage, car makers are specifying lighter and lighter engine oils.”

The lighter oils flow easier at cold temperatures than heavier oils — something obviously beneficial in Canadian winters. But the flipside is that the lighter oils tend to evaporate at high temperatures, which leads to deposits and less lubrication for the engine.

To solve this problem, additives are designed and used to give the lighter oils higher viscosity and the stability needed at higher temperatures.

The challenge faced by oil producers of ensuring oil flow in extreme temperatures has been increased with changes to the shape of new cars and their engines. The aerodynamics of new cars which diverts air over the body of the car and less through the engine and increased horsepower in the engines are creating a “more severe environment” in which motor oil has to function, said Smith.

“Those two factors have put more stress on the oil than previously. So there was a significant improvement in oxidation quality required,” said Smith.

Doug Irvine, category manager for lubricant products for Petro-Canada in Calgary, Alta. described today’s engine oil as a “complex cocktail” of additives that are required to perform several functions.

“You have detergents and dispersants to keep your engine clean, prevent deposits and sludge from forming,” said Irvine. “You have oxidation inhibitors to keep the oil fresh and from breaking down from the effects of heat and oxygen. You have rust and corrosion inhibitors. You’ve got anti-wear additives that correct your critical engine components from wearing out you’ve got things that affect friction modifying properties. You have fuel economy control foam making it flow at colder temperatures, as well as viscosity modifiers that help maintain your viscosity at a wide range of temperatures.”

Getting customers to remember that regular oil change

The key to successful engine maintenance is the have the oil changed regularly. Motor oil producers suggest mechanics and car owners consult the owner’s manuals for guidance on when to bring a car in for an oil change. In a publication on its Mobil 1 product, Imperial said the intervals between oil changes can range from 5,000 kilometres to 25,000 for newer vehicles. On its Web site, Shell Canada recommends every 5,000 or three months as “a good rule of thumb.”

Miller added a good technician will also look at the make of the vehicle a customer brings into the shop’s bays, its age and the driving conditions the owner experiences throughout the year in order to help decide on the best oil to use. For example, if the owner lives in a part of Canada with severe winters, then the oil chosen has to be one that has good viscosity in very low temperatures so that the engine can start up safely.

“Synthetics are designed to operate under much colder temperatures than conventional motor oils and higher temperatures than conventional oils,” said Noco’s Crossley. “Synthetic oil is going to give you significantly better engine life in the long-run and better fuel efficiency because it is better at reducing friction, oxidation in the engine and slug build-up.”

The oil change intervals can also be influenced on whether the vehicle is operating under what the industry often terms normal or severe driving conditions. Severe driving conditions can include trips of less than 15 kilometres, stop-and go traffic, extended idling and pulling heavy loads.

The Valvoline /ASE Poll of the American Mechanic, taken this spring, found that 84 per cent of mechanics polled said not getting a regular oil change can cause the most problems for vehicles and 60 per cent of the ASE certified master technicians said the oil should be changed every 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometres) while 29 per cent said between 3,000-5,000 miles is acceptable.

Watching customers line up to pick up their vehicles before a hot summer weekend, Atwill said mechanics have to “train the customers.”

“We have to let the customer know why an oil change is important and what can happen to the car if they don’t,” he said. “Then they will come back and, if they come back we can catch other problems.”

While no one interviewed for this article suggested that using synthetic motor oil means that drivers can disregard recommended oil change intervals, several did say that because synthetic oil can go longer than conventional oil before breaking down, it does allow drivers some extra insurance if they do not get their oil changes within the recommended limit.

“You will find that in a lot of cases people do exceed what the owner’s manual will consider normal traffic conditions,” said Petro-Canada’s Irvine. “When you are formulating your top tier engine oil, it has much greater performance than your conventional motor oil. It gives you piece of mind knowing that you may be driving under conditions that your owner’s manual wouldn’t consider average”

Atwill agrees, saying that “if you are one of those guys who goes 500 to 1,000 kilometers over the scheduled change, then synthetic oil would be appropriate for you.”


Imperial Oil Ltd.

Noco Lubricants Company

NPD Canada


Shell Canada Ltd.

Valvoline Canada

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