Motor oils are ever-evolving, changing to meet the requirements of new engine technologies. Many of today’s engines are made to exacting tolerances that are very sensitive to such things as oil and lubricant contamination. Some foreign nameplate engines are so demanding that only very specific formulations of engine oils can be used. Anything else is likely to cause problems, in some cases warranty-ending damage.
Then there is the growing number of hybrid motor vehicles travelling the roads. The way these systems operate, with the combination of gasoline and electric/battery motors, often raise a host of questions for technicians as to which motor oils to use to ensure their proper performance and maintain a high mileage.
The hybrid challenge -not as difficult as one might think
What was once a rather exotic type of vehicle when first introduced in 1997 with the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, the hybrid car is now an established part of today’s motor vehicle fleet, with Ford rolling out its Escape Hybrid, Audi with the Avant and Honda with the Civic hybrid, for example. Like any new vehicle, many of these hybrid cars are now coming off of their original warranties and owners are turning to independents to maintain and repair them, with the most common maintenance work being the scheduled oil change.
Certainly, the way a hybrid car operates — where the vehicle switches between a conventional gasoline motor and a battery/electrical motor system — puts some unique strains on motor oils. Franz Walker, product manager with Auto-Camping Ltd., a warehouse distributor which specializes in European parts and lubricants, including oils, says the switching between the gasoline engine and the electrical battery means the motor oil is not constantly flowing in the engine. As well, because the engine will shut off when the vehicle operates on its electrical drive system, the engine will naturally begin to cool down only to suddenly heat up again when it kicks once more, which puts further stress on the motor oil.
Walker says this environment requires oil that is very robust, one that is able to maintain its alkalinity to control acid-build up caused by the start-stop operation of the gasoline engine, so as to protect the vulnerable soft metal parts.
So does this mean that a technician has to ask for exotic motor oil? Taking a look through any number of online forums devoted to hybrid maintenance, there is often a great deal of confusion as to which motor oil to use. In fact, even though hybrids do operate differently from traditional gasoline-only vehicles, popular electric-gasoline hybrids do not require any special, hard-to-find exotic motor oil.
“The Toyota hybrids and the Lexus hybrids, for example, will often recommend high-quality 5W-30 motor oil,” says Mark Ferner, team leader with Shell Lubricants, one of the company’s leading experts in lubricants and motor oils. “Even the popular Prius will ask for 5W-30 ILSAC-rated motor oil; so even that vehicle has no particular requirements above and beyond many of Toyota’s other vehicles.”
According to Ferner, what is most important to remember is the viscosity grade, as making the wrong choice could cause some engine trouble and decrease fuel-efficiency, which is the selling point of the vehicle.
“Our standard answer is that one should always use what is recommended in the vehicle’s owner’s manual,” says Dennis Favaro, marketing manager with Valvoline Canada Ltd. “Because of the vehicle’s technology, you are seeing more [manufacturers] recommending 5W-30 oil and on some it is recommended that you use a 0W-20 oil. And there are a growing number of synthetics that are coming out in that range.”
Craig Van Batenburg, CEO of the Automotive Career Development Center ( www.auto-careers.org/index.html)and a well-known North American expert on hybrid vehicles says more hybrids are now moving to using 0W-20 oils.
“It used to be exclusive to Honda which started using 0W-20 and it was only available at dealerships,” Van Battenburg says. “But when it comes to engine oils, there is nothing special for the hybrids, and the oil frequency change is the same as on a non-hybrid. It is really all about fuel economy. If you have lighter-weight oil you will have less friction and the engine will be able to spin faster as opposed to using thicker oil.”
Foreign-nameplate cars need tender loving care, oil
Amanda Li, marketing manager with Shell Canada Ltd., says foreign name plate vehicles are the one bright spot in today’s automotive marketplace. Where other vehicle makes have taken a beating in vehicle sales with the downturn in the world economy, high-end vehicle sales still remain relatively strong.
“We see the high-end vehicle market growing,” Li says. “We’ve seen studies that show that the European luxury market here is showing quite positive numbers, compared to the overall vehicle trends right now.”
With this market, Li adds, techni cians need to be especially cognizant that many of these higher-end vehicles require very specialized oils and it is crucial that the oils and vehicles are matched correctly. Mismatching motor oil to a vehicle can have various consequences.
Last year, SSGM Magazine took a closer look at the subtle kinds of chemistry and blending needed for the oils recommended for foreign nameplate, luxury vehicles (SSGM August 2008). It is not necessary to repeat all that information here once more, but it is critical to remember why motor oil and vehicle manufacturers spend so much time blending these special grades for specific vehicles. Simply the engines on these vehicles -and it should be stressed on many higher-end North American vehicles as well -are made to exacting tolerances, both to meet fuel and emissions requirements mandated by governments, but also to perform optimally as well. In Europe, car makers and lubricant producers work hand-in- hand to get to the final motor oil product to market when these vehicles hit the road.
“Modern automotive lubricants are complex mixtures of base stocks and additives that must control wear, protect against deposits and rust, and remove heat,” says Chris May, research advisor with Imperial Oil Ltd. “Regarding oil quality levels, some OEMs only require oils that are licensed against API service classifications, for example, API SM or GF-4 for gasoline engines. These can be identified by looking for the API service symbol ‘donut’ or certification symbol ‘starburst’ on the container. These gasoline engine classifications are backwards serviceable, meaning that an older car calling for an API SJ lubricant can use the ‘SM’ licensed oil. Other manufacturers have determined that additional performance requirements are necessary for proper operation with their engines as defined by their specifications, for example, GM 6094M, Ford WSSM2C930A, Chrysler MS-6395, MB 229.5, etc. Some European models may call for ACEA specifications (e. g. A1/B1-04, etc). To meet these additional requirements, the oil may need special additives and/or base stocks such as synthetics.”
Valvoline’s Favaro relates one specific instance where mismatching a motor oil to a vehicle caused significant and expensive problems.
“I have a friend in Europe and he sees people coming to him with diesel engines that have their turbos fried because people mismatched the oils and other lubricants for that vehicle,” he says.
There are various other examples, Favaro says, but it is important to remember that oil companies have now created a range of educational materials, specification sheets and online resources that will prevent these kinds of costly mistakes from happening.
One such resource is provided by Imperial Oil for its Pennzoil line of oils and lubricants, an oil selector program ( http://ew5.earlweb.com/search.php?site=52) which allows technicians to match oils to vehicle makes. Other oil manufactures provide updated spec sheets and vehicle manufacturers regularly provide updates on what oils and lubricants can be used with their vehicles.