With the emerging popularity of import nameplates on our roads, it was only a matter of time before effects were felt in virtually every corner of the aftermarket, and the motor oil business is no different.
Import vehicle manufacturers, particularly those based on Europe, have a different attitude about service and parts from many North America-based automakers. The trend in much of Europe has been toward much longer service intervals than have been customary in much of North America, particularly regarding fluids. Lifetime fill transmissions bowed in several years ago, and while there has not been the same level of progress in the engine lubricant business, sophisticated oil monitoring systems have extended oil change intervals to as much as 30,000 km (although 15,000 km is more common).
The reasons for this are varied, but include environmental imperatives that tilt the balance in favour of fewer oil changes to reduce waste handling, as well as the desire by European drivers for fewer service occasions, even if those individual stops are more costly.
Along with engineering pressure to create oils that meet these demands are special requirements put on lubricants by light duty diesel engines used in passenger cars, which are much more prevalent in Europe than in North America.
To meet these needs and other engineering targets, European motor oils formulated for use in these extended drain applications have taken a different route from oils customarily produced for North American use. Of course, the automakers in Europe don’t go it alone when it comes to producing standards any more than they do in North America.
In North America, ILSAC represents domestic and Japanese automobile manufacturers, while the American Petroleum Institute is what oil manufacturers work through for specifications and testing requirements.
Together these organizations have created the specifications that have been tagged with a succession of two letter identifiers, the latest being API SM, which closely aligns with the ILSAC GF-4.
“In Europe a similar system exists,” says Sven Hooijer, until recently Valvoline’s European tech manager and now technical services manager at Valvoline World Headquarters in Lexington, Ky.
This is under the Association des Constructeurs Europeans Automobiles, translated as the Association of European Automobile Manufacturers, and known commonly as ACEA. Formed in February 1991, ACEA is engaged in a broad range of activities including safety and environmental concerns and any regulations that have a direct impact on the European automobile industry. ACEA members comprise all the European motor vehicle manufacturers including Ford Europe, GM Europe, VW, Scania, and Volvo. At present, only Peugeot is not a member of ACEA, but cooperates with the association in the field of lubricating oils and fuels.
“ACEA represents European OEMs. However the European OEMs, in addition to their common ACEA specification, also have their individual oil specifications,” says Hooijer.
“Most of the European OEM specs use the ACEA standards as their starting point,” says Barbara Dennis of BP Castrol. “They then add on their individual engine tests to cover their particular performance needs, over and above ACEA. For instance, VW recommends different service fill specifications for gasoline engines depending on oil drain interval.”
A label check of a motor oil that meets these standards reveals a set of numbers and letters that may seem unfamiliar to those used to focusing on the API donut and the ILSAC starburst: ACEA: A3, B3, B4. VW 502 00, 505 00, 503 01. BMW Longlife-01. MB 229.1, 229.3.
And it’s not just about different numbers and letters.
“There are real differences between the U.S. and European specifications, due to different engine designs, base oil availability, emission requirements, driving patterns and consumer practices.”
Mark Reed, director of marketing for Pennzoil-Quaker State Company of Canada, says that one of the key differences, from a technical standpoint, is the importance placed on high-shear stability versus fuel economy.
“There are a lot of different issues, but in Europe you have a high shear range of 3.5, whereas in North America the number is 2.6. This means the oil doesn’t break down, but you don’t get the same fuel economy,” says Reed.
The importance of this additional robustness cannot be underestimated.
Volkswagen of America had a major engine sludge problem that was at least partially blamed on the assumption that it would be acceptable to use the commonly available API oils.
How much of a problem? VW either repaired or replaced engines on Passats with 1.8-litre turbos. The company sold 329,090 Passat vehicles from model year 1998 through 2004 in the U.S. Today, VW has made repairs or replaced engines on about 0.9% of them. While only about 25% of that number have been engine replacements, it is still a huge financial issue, enough for VW to start insisting that oils used by its dealer network directly meet specific VW specifications.
While VW is not the only automaker to have sludge problems, the problem is most often blamed on poor consumer maintenance. When it comes to the European engines, and the demands they and the long service intervals can place on motor oils, the latest API and ILSAC specifications just don’t cut it. It’s not even enough just to go with a full synthetic.
“European OEM specifications, in general, are of a higher performance than GF-4,” says Dennis. “This is not to say that GF-4 is not a robust spec; it is. The oxidation test in GF-4 is a very severe test, which considerably raises the oxidation protection offered by these oils. GF-4 also includes stringent fuel economy and fuel economy retention limits, which are not found in the OEM specifications.”
What it boils down to is a close-but-no-cigar situation.
Take Mercedes-Benz, for example. Information obtained indicates the following equivalencies:
But there are caveats, an important one being that ACEA or API oils should only be used if one meeting the MB standard is not available.
Furthermore, information actually recommends against certain 0W30, 5W30, and 10W30 oils, high-end synthetics at that, because they do not meet the high-temperature, high-shear specification.
“The fact that a product is synthetic is not enough,” says Valvoline’s Hooijer. “The performance of engine oils is based on the base fluids used and the additive chemistry required to meet the specific requirements within a specification.”
The whole situation can be confusing and is very definitely one that requires attention to detail.
Certainly, those motor oil producers with global connections have been putting those to use to provide lubricants that meet those standards, even if they do so in familiar brands as opposed to the names that might be offered to the European consumer.
“There is a huge education of your driving public,” says Reed. “Canadians are more import-oriented than they are in the U.S. We need to have these products. We think there is a profit piece to having these and we actively talk about the European oil with our installers.
“It’s not just stick in the 15W40 anymore. Fluids are so much more sophisticated, as is the rest of the car. You really have to understand what to put in that vehicle. And Canada is a unique market. There is a demand out there.”
Popular European Motor Oil Specifications
These are the latest specifications in the market for the main OEMs selling in North America.
Gasoline and Diesel
229.1, 229.3–long drain intervals
229.5–longer drain intervals
229.31–as 229.3 with low emission requirements (compatible with latest emission technology)
229.51–as 229.5 with low emission requirements (compatible with latest emission technology)