Pouring fresh motor oil

How often does a car really need an oil change, and what’s the best oil to use?

If you’re confused about what kind of oil to use in your car — and how often you need to get an oil change — here are some tips to help.

Get oiled

This may sound like a silly idea, but stick with me: Open your glovebox, dig under the napkins and the 5 years’ worth of expired insurance and registration slips, and pull out the owner’s manual. Look under “Oil” in the index. Should be in there.

Yeah, well, you probably could figure that out — but even Car and Driver agrees that’s the best place to begin.

Motor oil bottles

Still, the manual is just one of many options. If your car is a little older, the “best” choice may have changed as oil technology has improved.

For example, BMW originally shipped my friend’s old (1998) car from the factory with 15w40 (check out this link for more info on how to decipher those numbers), but now recommends 5w30 or 5w40.

Does that mean following the manual is bad? No, of course not. But how to find out what’s best?

Here are some ideas:

Check out your vehicle manufacturers’ site for car maintenance schedules. Here are a few: Ford, Chevrolet (Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Ram), Hyundai, Audi, Honda, BMW.

  • Call the dealer. Ask their service department what they recommend for your car, in your climate, based on its mileage. These folks are factory-trained, and see nothing but your brand of car day in and day out.
  • Ask the internet. Find an enthusiast forum for your particular car by searching Google for your car make and model plus words like owner and forum. These days, everything from Ferrari to Kia has at least one active community. On these community boards, you can get feedback from real people with real world experience.
  • If you’re more geeky/techy/mechanically obsessive, check out Bob Is The Oil Guy. There’s a huge wealth of information here, both in articles on the site and in the forums, which are full of knowledgeable folks.

The most important thing — no matter what exact weight of oil you choose — is to use a quality, name brand oil and filter, and change them both regularly.

Changing the oil in a car
Photo by NomadSoul1/Envato

How often do you need to change your oil?

But changing them every 3000 miles? Probably not. Car and Driver says that the 7500-to-10,000-mile range is fine for most modern cars in average driving — and you might even be able to go a little longer, depending on things like how and where you drive. Here’s what they said:

There’s a lot of nonsense floating around about when to change your synthetic oil. If your vehicle runs synthetics — and most do these days—the best place to find the correct oil-change interval is the owner’s manual.

Manufacturers’ recommended synthetic-oil change intervals vary greatly. For the vehicles in Car and Driver’s long-term test fleet, those intervals range from 6000 to 16,000 miles (and almost always include oil-filter changes).

Edmunds’ advice backs that up:

Oil chemistry and engine technology have evolved tremendously in recent years, but you’d never know it from the quick-change behavior of American car owners…

After interviews with oil experts, mechanics and automakers, one thing is clear: The 3,000-mile oil change is a myth that should be laid to rest. Failing to heed the service interval in your owner’s manual wastes oil and money, while compounding the environmental impact of illicit waste-oil dumping.

Bottom line: This isn’t your grandpa’s oil change schedule anymore — and they’re not the same oils, either.

So regardless of what you’ve done in the past, you can start now to get your oil changes at logically-chosen intervals, using the type of oil that your car’s maker suggests based on your driving habits.

That, along with other regular maintenance, is sure to keep you motoring happily for many years, lower your costs, and keep excess used motor oil out of the environment.

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