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To Use or Not to Use: Synthetic Oil and Your New Car

Jul 16, 2008
People often wonder if they should be using synthetic oil in their new vehicles. Synthetic oil is better than regular oil for many different reasons: it's a better lubricant; maintains integrity at high temperatures; is fairly pure; and rarely turns into sludge, even when it's abused. To many people, the obvious benefits of synthetic oil lead them to conclude they should start using it ASAP. However, despite synthetic oil's benefits, it really depends on how you take care of your car.

First of all, consider how regular you are with changing your oil. You car's oil needs to be replaced every 3 to 5K miles, before it breaks down and potentially damages your engine. Synthetic oil is a great option for drivers who tend to forget or delay oil changes, since it is breakdown resistant, even after extended use. Drivers who dutifully change their oil on schedule, however, will probably never get any benefits from synthetic oil's longer lifespan because it'll never be used long enough to make a difference.

One of synthetic oil's biggest perks is that it doesn't deteriorate until after a long time. Regular oil starts to break down after 6 months, and all oils should be replaced after 5K miles. If you're someone who drives less than 5K every 6 months, then mileage-wise, you're replacing your oil more often than you need to. Using synthetic oil will let you change your oil less frequently, so you can get greater mileage out of each oil change. This might save you some money, and definitely will save you on time.

Other than synthetic's breakdown resistance and long life, there's one other common reason you should consider using synthetic. As natural oil gets hot, it starts to breakdown. The longer it stays hot, the worse the breakdown. So if you regularly operate your vehicle in such a way that the engine temperature is always high, you should run synthetic. Letting your vehicle idle for hours at a time, such as on a jobsite, will overheat the engine. So will driving in high ambient temperatures, like in the desert, or altitudes of over 10k feet. As a rule, high temperature desert air doesn't cool your engine very well, and neither does "thin" mountain air. If you live in these areas, consider running synthetic oil. Finally, synthetic oil is often used in high performance vehicles. If you are utilizing your vehicle like a high-performance car (high speeds, fast turns, you know who you are) then synthetic is a smart choice.

Synthetic oil is often recommended even to people who don't especially need it. Synthetic is recommended for people driving in stop-and-go traffic, but that's everyone at some point in time. The recommendation should only really apply to those who drive everyday in stop-and-go traffic for long enough for the car engine's cooling fan to turn on. Drivers who only use their cars only for short trips are also advised to use synthetic oil in order to protect. However, short trips will be bad for your engine no matter what oil you decide to do, since your engine was really designed to run for at least 20 minutes at a time. Using synthetic instead of regular oil in this situation might make a difference, but it'll be a very minor change.

If you've recognized yourself in one of the above situations and have decided to opt for synthetic oil, be careful when you go to make the purchase. You may be offered a synthetic "blend" instead of pure synthetic oil to save money. However, you probably won't know exactly what's in that blend. It could be equal amounts of synthetic and regular, or you might even be getting almost entirely regular oil with a splash of synthetic. If you're going to go synthetic, it's best to go all out and get the real thing, or not do it at all. Of course, if the blend is provided and produced by your vehicle's manufacturer, then it's probably safe to use - but that's the exception.

Last but not least, what do auto manufacturers have to say about synthetics? Most state that "any oil that meets API standard specifications can be used in your vehicle." That means normal oil is just fine. For most people, new cars will operate for a very long time without the benefit of synthetic oil so long as they are properly maintained and used normally.
About the Author
Author Jason Lancaster, a car business veteran, developed AccurateAutoAdvice.com. You'll find accurate car advice and tips for buying a car.
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