Do I Have To Use the Manufacturer's Oil?

What You Need To Know About Factory-Branded Oils


  • Acura Oil Picture

    Acura Oil Picture

    Factory-branded oil is available in the parts department of your dealership. | July 25, 2011

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Ten or 15 years ago, choosing the oil for your car was simple. All you needed to know was the viscosity — 5W-30, for example — and you could get a few bottles at the local auto parts store. But this simplicity is starting to go away.

General Motors' transition to a new oil specification for all its 2011 and newer vehicles is bringing new attention to the issue of manufacturer oil specifications. GM isn't the first to require such a specification, but its move signals a change in the car-maintenance landscape.

A manufacturer's oil specification is a unique blend that an automaker creates and mandates for use in its vehicles. GM's new oil product, Dexos, consolidates its five prior recommended oil specifications into two blends: Dexos1 for gasoline-powered vehicles and Dexos2 for diesels.

GM and other automakers warn that failure to use their factory-specified oils could void a car's warranty. These new oil specifications can also create confusion and cost issues for consumers who change the oil themselves or take their cars to local mechanics who may not be aware of the changes.

Oil Has Changed
The oil inside a modern engine might look just like it did a decade ago, but it actually is far more advanced. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and the International Lubricants Standardization and Approval Committee (ILSAC) have set the standards for oil for the past 60 years and have changed the specifications roughly every five years. Oil needs to change to meet increasing emissions regulations, offer better protection against sludge and improve fuel economy.

"There has been a significant increase in lubricant quality in the past 20 years," says Robert Sutherland, principal scientist for Pennzoil passenger-car engine lubricants. "But there has also been a significant increase in the stress that the engines put on the lubricant."

Sutherland says it's a game of leapfrog. As the hardware moves forward, the oil specifications must also change to handle the additional heat and properly lubricate the engine. He adds that the tolerances in a modern engine are closer and tighter, which means that the oil's ability to keep critical engine parts clean is more important than it used to be.

Automakers' Own Recipes
The API and ILSAC standards are the baseline, says Timothy Miranda, senior engineer for race oil and field testing for Castrol Lubricants, which manufactures oil for automakers such as Audi, BMW and Volkswagen. Automakers are free to improve upon the standards as long as they meet the minimum requirements.

"They may choose to have their own specifications because of a unique aspect of their engine design," Miranda says. For example, if a car is turbocharged, it might require synthetic oil rather than conventional oil.

This manufacturer standard is more common among the German automakers, thanks to more stringent European oil specifications, Miranda says. Rather than have numerous blends for different regions, each automaker created one specification for its vehicles. They have brought those standards to the U.S., as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen all have their own oil formulations.

According to Miranda, most American and Japanese automakers have tended to stick with the API guidelines. This means that they recommend any oil with the API "starburst" or "donut" symbol on its label.

GM distanced itself from the API guidelines with the introduction of Dexos. According to GM, the Dexos oil specification will decrease harmful piston deposits by up to 28 percent and improve fuel efficiency by up to 0.3 percent compared to the older ILSAC GF-4 specifications.

GM licenses the Dexos certification to motor oil manufacturers that can then choose to offer a full-synthetic variation, as long as it meets the requirements. Since Dexos-certified oil is compatible with older cars, the specification will also affect owners of pre-2011 GM vehicles who get their cars serviced at dealerships. Though Dexos isn't being mandated retroactively, chances are dealers will fill their bulk tanks with it to consolidate their oil inventory.

What This Means for the Consumer
More expensive maintenance: "The OEMs are looking for protection and the customer wants longevity," Miranda says. This protection comes at a cost. As manufacturer oil specifications become more common, the auto industry moves farther away from conventional oil and toward synthetic blends or fully synthetic oil. While these newer oils offer better protection and longer intervals between oil changes, they also have a higher price tag.

This price bump can be offset by the automakers who offer free maintenance programs. But when the coverage runs out, a customer who is not used to paying for a synthetic oil change could experience some sticker shock when faced with a $90 oil change.

Potential warranty problems: The language in some owner's manuals suggests that using an oil other than the one specified by the manufacturer will void the car's warranty. This is not the case, says Thom Smith, Valvoline's vice president of branded lubricant technology.

According to the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act, the onus would be on GM or another automaker to prove that a non-manufacturer oil damaged the engine. If dealers deny the warranty claim without first investigating it, they are in violation of the act, Smith says.

Consumers just need to make sure that any alternate oil they use is comparable in quality to the automaker's specified oil. Many oil manufacturers, including Valvoline, are so confident of their product that they offer their own warranty against engine damage that their products might be alleged to have caused.

If talk of voided warranties and engine damage makes you nervous, just use the manufacturer's specified oil for the duration of the warranty. Keep in mind that a vehicle's engine falls under the drivetrain warranty (also known as the powertrain warranty). In most cases, this is longer than the traditional bumper-to-bumper warranty.

Your local mechanic or quick-lube facility may not be aware of your car's specific oil requirements. You can still go to these places, but be sure to ask ahead of time what kind of oil they will use. Or bring your own oil to avoid any confusion.

Required manual reading: Not all cars require a manufacturer-specified oil. They do have a recommended viscosity, such as 0W-20, however. Check the owner's manual for any mention of a required brand or specification. If the manual doesn't name one, you can save money by buying oil at an auto parts store. Make sure it's the correct viscosity.

There are money-saving opportunities to be had even if your vehicle does call for a manufacturer-specified oil. For example, GM has a Web site that lists the approved Dexos oil manufacturers. Most of their products are available online or at auto parts stores and may cost less than at the dealership.

In some situations, the manufacturer-specified oil may not be in stores or it might cost more than you want to spend. Your vehicle's owner's manual will usually list the specifications for an equivalent oil that meets the automaker's standard. Does that mean it's just as good as a manufacturer-specified oil such as Dexos? There's controversy on this point.

Flack from the oil wars: Tom Read, a spokesperson for GM's powertrain technology group, warns that using an alternative oil might diminish performance.

"If a customer uses a non-licensed engine oil that is simply ILSAC GF-5 quality, they will not enjoy the benefits of using a Dexos-licensed product," Read says. Those benefits could include better low-temperature performance, cleaner pistons and better aeration performance, he says. "This could be especially important as the engine oil ages."

Read's case for Dexos sounds compelling, but Valvoline's Smith isn't buying it.

"Our SynPower 5W-20, 5W-30 and DuraBlend 5W-30 went through all the Dexos testing and passed all the requirements," Smith says. "But we felt that carrying the Dexos name was not providing the consumer with any value."

Rather than raise the price of its oil to offset the cost of licensing the Dexos name, Valvoline chose to forgo the license and keep the prices lower, he says.

Smith says that GM's engine-performance warnings are part of its goal to drive consumers to dealerships for their maintenance. "We feel that they are taking choice away from the consumer," he says.

Focus on the Oil Basics
Setting aside the claims and counter-claims of manufacturer-specified oil superiority, here's all you have to remember: As long as you follow the oil specifications shown in your owner's manual, you have nothing to worry about.

In the event that the dealership tries to void your warranty over the use of non-manufacturer oil, know that the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act will protect you. If your vehicle doesn't have an oil specification, you have more flexibility in choosing your product. Finally, make sure you know the proper viscosity for your car and change the oil at the proper interval.

Comments

  • There are several other issues that must also be considered as to why the manufacturers specific oil must be used with today's cars. One of which is emissions warranties are getting to be longer and longer. A PZEV can have portions of its emissions system such as the catalytic converters warranted for 150,000 miles. That's good news for the consumer who understands the details and takes proper care of their car. So what does that have to do with engine oil? Some of the additives that make the oil pass it's initial testing if not fully formulated can flash off and be picked up by the PCV system and end up passing through the exhaust. SAPS which is Sulfated Ash, Phosphorus, and Sulfur need to be controlled as they can degrade both O2 sensors and catalytic convertors when they make it into the exhaust stream. Lowering SAPS concentrations which means reducing useage of ZDP, and ZDDP for example in favor of Molybdenum, and Borate compounds can greatly enhance a motor oils ability to protect the engine, while reducing the vehicles lifetime contamination of important emissions components. ZDP however is much less expensive for the oil companies to use than those other alternatives. Overlooked in the article is that manufacture specific requirements are not new, Ford has had manufacturer specific requirements since 2004. To meet a GM or Ford approval, an oil has to be thinner than an API/ILSAC requirement at very low temperatures to ensure that it flows quickly to vital components. Meanwhile any oil that meets many of the European specifcations have to be much thicker at high temperatures than what API/ILSAC account for. To put this another way, it takes at least three different 5W30 oils to meet each of those groups of requirements, and in reality there are even more. This is where ACEA, and of course manufacturer specific requirements come into play. As far as the Magnuson Moss act goes, it requires the customer to use products that meet the specifications that the manufacturer requires in order to be protected under the warranty. However true value in vehicle ownership doesn't end when the vehicle arrives at the end of it's warranty. It is found in the years of quality useage that come after the payment book and warranty have both long disappeared. There are far too many articles that claim to have the consumers best interests at heart that fail to truly look at the big picture. The true cost of ownership falls dramatically with each passing year when a vehicle is properly maintained. Simply realizing that not having that $400-$600 a month payment for ten or more years could allow a consumer to put a lot of money into some type of a savings or other investment and that results in a huge lift in their personal financial situation. As an auto technician I coach my customers to adopt the following strategy. Once their car is paid off, they need to open a savings account and keep making that "car payment" to themselves. The only time they are to touch that money is if their present car requires a significant repair (which we do everything possible to avoid) or when the day comes that the need or desire to own a new car becomes unavoidable. Remember it's their money, they do whatever they want with it. We have customers who now keep their cars fifteen or more years, and get between 200K-300K miles on them and they have the cash in the bank to go buy a brand new model any day that they choose to. The best part is several will have a significant amount left over, and get the biggest kick out of the fact that their present car still serves their needs perfectly. So change your oil when it is called for, and be sure to use the O.E. specified product. It's not about getting into a situation about fighting who's at fault in a warranty situation, it's about reducing your costs for transporation which is something your local professional automotive technician practices everyday.

  • Here is an example of advertising that is twisting the facts and only serving to confuse the issue instead of properly educate the consumer. http://www.amsoil.lube-direct.com/2011/04/dexos-1-amsoil-has-it/ A couple of quick details expose the flaws. Chryslers spec mentioned MS6395N was the 2004 specification, and has been superceeded by 6395P, 6395Q and 6395R, with S ready to become the new standard. The dexos specification exceeds Chryslers specifications in a number of areas. Again as mentioned above to get GM approval, a 5W oil needs to be much thinner than an API 5W which Chrysler does accept. Any oil that meets Chryslers specification would actually be to thick to meet GM's. Another major problem with that article is that none of the comments made by technicians correctly placed in contradiction to the errors on that page were permitted to be posted by the moderator. One of the biggest attempts to mislead the readers is found where the comments about the FTC not permitting brands of oil to be required by the O.E. The writer purposely worded that as to suggest dexos is a brand being required by GM, in fact it's not a brand, dexos it is a specification hence the lowercase "d". Even a comment about that simple fact was "censored" by the moderator on that site. That's something that should cause consumers to question the sites motives. JHMO.

  • bobcat825 bobcat825 Posts:

    I have been using American Made Synthetic Oil for 34 years,going 25,000 miles or one year between changes,with Oil Analysis ! Have only had Superior results and longivity ,driving most all vehicles over 200,000 miles ,and a1966 Ford 850 Super Duty Bobtail Truck with a 534 cu. inch Engine that has 381,454 miles, and the heads have never been off. I have a 3-Stacker FRANTZ TOILET PAPER BY-PASS OIL FILTER,and change the 3 elements, and also the Full Flow Oil Filter at 15,000 miles,or according to Oil Analysis!

  • Very interesting reading what Thom Smith of Valvoline had to say about all this. I agree with him that if a manufacturer states you HAVE to use a certain brand of oil, especially if it is a car company brand of oil, you should see right through that. I do wish that somebody would tell us who it is that manufacturers each of the car maker's Oil. I've always been told that GM Goodwrench oil is Mobil Oil and that Ford Motorcraft was Texaco Havoline. It would be interesting to know for sure what brands the car manufacturers are using and if car companies routinely switch the brand of oil they offer. I was also surprised to read Smith said that Valvoline didn't think carrying the Dexos name on their bottles was worth it. Personally, I use AMALIE Motor Oil in everything I own. From transmission fluid to brake fluid to power steering fluid...nothing but AMALIE for me. Always have had great performance from Amalie.

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