Buying motor oil presents a staggering number of choices: organic, synthetic, semi-synthetic, tons of brands, and even different weights. It can all get pretty overwhelming, and every car enthusiast you talk to has five different opinions on the topic.
We're here to simplify the process for you. Read on for our guide to buying and changing motor oil.
Which Motor Oil Should You Buy?
Let's answer this question right away: you should use whichever oil your owner's manual says you should. That is, the manual will likely tell you which oil weight to buy — possibly a winter weight and a summer weight. It might also recommend either synthetic or organic oil.
If you don't have a copy of your owner's manual, your dealership — or eBay or Amazon — will gladly sell you one. Nobody knows your car's engine like the engineers who designed it, and you should listen to them.
In Case of Panic, Anything Will Do
If you find yourself low on oil and you're panicking in a gas station, you can safely pick up a bottle of 5W-20 — or, really, any other multigrade automotive oil. Add it until your dipstick indicates the oil level is in the appropriate range. (Learn more about checking your oil here.) In an emergency, having "enough" oil is more important than getting the "right" kind of oil.
Figure out why your car is losing oil as soon as you can — and get an oil change promptly.
Exception: Don't do this if you're riding a scooter, motorcycle, or motorcycle-based trike. Motorcycle engines and transmissions often share the same oil, and the anti-friction additives in most automotive motor oils will ruin your bike's clutch.
What's the Number on the Label?
Oil is measured primarily by "weight," which is the number you see on the bottle. So in "5W-20," the first number tells you how viscous the oil is during cold starts, the "W" stands for "winter," and the second number tells you about the oil's viscosity at 100°C — which is (roughly) operating temperature.
SEE ALSO: How Often Should You Do Car Maintenance?
Some manufacturers recommend using thicker oils during exceptionally hot summers or thinner oils in exceptionally cold conditions; others don't. You should — all together now! — use what your manufacturer recommends.
Some owners like to switch to thicker oils when their cars start making noises, especially the "tick, tick, tick" of valve noise.
Thicker oils can mask engine noises, but if your car's engine starts ticking, you need to do maintenance, not hide the problem. Solve the issue before it becomes catastrophic. Make sure your car isn't low on oil, then take it to a professional, possibly for a valve adjustment.
Synthetic vs. Organic
The synthetic/organic debate is decades old. Plenty of car enthusiasts and professionals alike swear by synthetic oil, which promises extended oil life and better engine protection for an increased cost. Penny-pinchers say organic oils are just as good within their service intervals.
Generally, they're both right. Synthetic oil will break down more slowly and protect your engine at a wider range of conditions than most organic oils. Theoretically, this could mean you'll need to change your oil less often.
This mostly matters if you're exceeding your recommended oil change intervals, or using your car in extreme conditions — like frequent starts in subzero weather, or heavy towing.
Of course, if your manufacturer recommends synthetic oil, use synthetic oil. If it doesn't, consider saving a few bucks with organic. It's worth noting that the people at Blackstone Laboratories (a respected oil analysis lab) "generally use regular petroleum-based oil," according to the company's website.
Changing Your Oil
How often should you change your oil? Once again: as often as your manufacturer recommends!
SEE ALSO: 3 Ways to Save on Your Next Car Repair
Here's what you probably don't need to do: change your oil every 3,000 miles. The overwhelming majority of modern cars call for oil changes every 5,000 miles — and the recommended interval is often higher. Plenty of modern cars even track your driving habits and recommend oil changes based on your usage.
Changing your own oil will likely save you a few bucks, and it'll also give you the opportunity to get familiar with your car's engine. If you've got the time and space, give it a try! You might enjoy it.
Once you're done changing your oil and oil filter, you'll need to get rid of the old oil and filter. Don't pour it down the drain or into the sewer! Any major parts store nearby should take your used oil and recycle it.
How to Get More From Your Oil
If you feel like pushing the limits, you can send your used engine oil to an oil analysis lab like Blackstone Laboratories. A lab will analyze your oil and tell you how much life was left in it, allowing you to make informed decisions about when to change your oil.
Additionally, their reports will alert you to the presence of any foreign substances in your oil that might indicate imminent engine failure, such as coolant or metal particles.
Even if you don't intend to extend your oil change intervals, oil analysis can give you a good handle on any upcoming problems you might encounter, and repeated analyses will give you a record of your engine's health over time.
Which Brand Should You Buy?
In short: It doesn't really matter. Pick between organic or synthetic, get the right weight, and then buy whatever's on sale at your local auto parts store.
All the brands you're likely to run into in the U.S. meet or exceed performance standards set by the American Petroleum Institute, or API. Therefore, any oil you buy will at least meet the standards required by your manufacturer.
SEE ALSO: 5 Ways to Prepare Your Car for Winter
Many enthusiasts stand by the use of super-premium oils like Red Line, Royal Purple, or Amsoil. Super-premium oils claim vastly improved performance, with a breathtaking price point to match. Amsoil even comes with a multilevel marketing distribution model.
High-cost oils won't hurt your car, but even Ferrari recommends Pennzoil. If it's good enough for Ferrari, it's probably good enough for your Honda Civic.
Readers, how do you handle oil changes in your cars? Got any favorite brands, tips, or tricks? Let us know in the comments!