Synthetic OilDear Ole Mechanic:

I have been seeing more and more ads for synthetic motor oils.  The other day I was in an auto parts store and was shocked at the price of synthetic oil.  Is it really that great?  Why is it so high priced?  What good would it do in my 2008 Ford F150? 

I know that this is a lot of questions, but is synthetic oil really that good or is it just snake-oil hype?

Questioning Oil


Dear Questioning Oil;

Yes, that is a lot of questions but they are honest and legitimate ones, so I will try to answer all of them. 

When jet and turbine engines were first coming into use, they had lubrication problems.  They ran at such high temperatures that regular mineral oil would cook down into asphalt and the bearings would fail.  Petroleum engineers got to work and by chemically modifying certain special parts of regular mineral oil, they came up with a synthetic oil that could withstand a lot more heat.  All of that special refining to isolate the special parts of the oil and then the chemical modification was very costly--over $100 a gallon--but nothing but the best was needed for our military.  As jets and turbines became more popula,r more synthetic oil was needed.  The increased volume meant more capacity was needed.  With more volume, the price started coming down.  Since automotive racing engines run very, hot it wasn’t long until racing engineers began experimenting with synthetic oils in their cars.  The racing engineers immediately noticed several advantages with synthetic oil.  The engines ran a little cooler, used a less fuel, lasted longer and produced more HORSEPOWER.  It didn’t take too long for the automobile manufacturers to pick up on the ‘used a little less fuel’ and the ‘more horsepower’ advantages and began using synthetic oils to help them meet the government-mandated gas mileage requirements.  That was when they stumbled onto a little problem.  The synthetic oil lubricated so well that a new engine wouldn’t ‘break in’.  The engine would burn oil because the piston rings would not seat properly.  The manufacturers began recommending a break-in procedure in which conventional mineral oil was used for the first two or three oil changes before switching to synthetic oil.

How well does it work?  A few years ago, a NASCAR racer had a malfunction with an oil cooler.  A 400 mile race had just started when the driver noticed that the oil temperature had risen to over 300 degrees.  Regular mineral oil starts cooking down into asphalt at about 275 degrees.  The engine ran the full 400 miles, finished in the top fifteen, was on the lead lap and was running fine at the finish.  By the way, the oil in your pickup runs hotter than your coolant temperature--preferably around 235 degrees. 

Now to your specific questions.  So why is synthetic oil more expensive?  Extra refining and chemical modifications are needed.  Is synthetic oil that great?  Yes, your engine will run a little cooler and last a lot longer--especially during hot Texas summers.  What good would it do in your 2008 Ford?  Again, it would run a little cooler, get a little better fuel mileage and last a little longer.  There is one thing that I need to caution you about.  If you switch to a synthetic oil, watch your oil level carefully.  Sometimes a ‘broken-in’ engine that is switched from regular mineral oil to a synthetic oil will start using oil.  If that happens, just switch back to your regular oil and the oil consumption will go back to what it was before you switched to the synthetic.

Now for the question that you didn’t ask.  Will you get enough better fuel mileage and extra engine life to pay for the more expensive synthetic oil?  The fuel mileage won’t increase much more than one mile per gallon.  As for engine life, it won’t pay out if you trade trucks every two or three years; however, if you drive it untill the wheels fall off, then yes, it would probably pay to use the more expensive synthetic oil.  If you do change to a synthetic oil, go with a name brand such as Mobil, Pennzoil, Casteroil or Valvoline.  Why?  Because there are snake oil peddlers out there.

Herr Professor Nuzanbolts