Whether you use synthetic oil or the conventional stuff, one of the most important ways to keep your car healthy is to change it on a regular basis. The oil helps reduce friction between engine components, and it cleans and cools the engine. But oil breaks down after a while, losing its effectiveness. If you wait too long between changes, you’ll notice the results in your daily driving. Your car’s performance and fuel efficiency will suffer. Eventually, you could be in for a catastrophic engine failure.
You can do more to protect your engine than changing the oil at the right interval. You can make sure you pick the right oil in the first place. The general rule for newer cars is simple. You should follow the automaker’s recommendations. Yet there are specific differences between conventional and synthetic oils that could affect your decision-making process. Those are what we’ll look at today.
What’s the Difference between Conventional Engine Oil and Synthetic Oil?
Traditional engine oil is just a more refined version of the crude oil that’s pumped out of the ground. Companies also mix the refined “base oil” with chemicals that help it do its job. For example, some additives clean the surfaces of key engine components. Others make sure that the dirt particles and impurities stay suspended in the oil. That way, they don’t clot together to form sludge. (Getting rid of that dirt and gunk is another reason for changing your oil.)
To make synthetic oil, the same kind of additives are blended with different types of base oils. These base oils have been changed on the molecular level as compared to their traditional counterparts. In conventional base oil, there are normal variations in the molecules. That’s because the crude oil it’s made from is a natural product. There are unavoidable impurities in the oil for the same reason. Both lead to minor inconsistencies in the molecular makeup of traditional engine oil. And that leads to inconsistent performance.
In synthetic oil, the base-oil molecules are created so they’re nearly identical. This can be done by “building” the base-oil molecules from synthetic sources. However, certain synthetic engine oils still start with naturally occurring materials. They use things such as crude oil or compressed natural gas for their base oil. But they rely on an extra step to modify those base oils for better molecular consistency and fewer impurities.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Synthetic Oil?
Synthetic oil is engineered on a molecular level to promote healthy engines. As a result, it has clear performance advantages over conventional oil in three vital areas. With fewer impurities, synthetic oil can keep engines cleaner. This helps prevent sludge and engine deposits from forming. Since synthetic oil doesn’t break down as quickly as conventional oil, it can protect engine parts from wear and tear for longer periods. Also, thanks to molecular engineering, synthetic oil maintains its benefits in extreme conditions. It keeps flowing smoothly in frigid temperatures and continues protecting your engine in hot weather. The heat resistance can be especially helpful in today’s turbocharged engines. These units can see higher operating temperatures than naturally aspirated engines because of the high-speed parts and increased pressures inside the turbochargers.
The downside of synthetic oil? It’s much more expensive. According to AAA, the average cost for a typical oil change with synthetic oil is about $70. You’ll pay about half that price, $38, for a conventional oil change.
What Happens If I Use the Wrong Kind of Oil in My Engine?
Each company designs their engines to work best with a specific kind of oil. You’ll see optimum performance with that product. But what if you accidentally use regular oil instead of synthetic oil? Experts say that switching oil types for a given change shouldn’t affect your engine in daily driving. If you need to top off the oil between changes, you should stick to the same type. You can otherwise wait for the next full change to go back to synthetic.
Many oil companies also report that if you use their synthetic products in a car designed for traditional ones, you’ll enjoy all the advantages we already mentioned.
Older cars can be a bit of a special case. When vehicles get old enough, engine sludge actually can be helping to close off seals and gaskets. With the extra cleaning power of synthetic oil, those deposits may be eliminated. You could end up with an oil leak. But you could also end up with improvements in performance that make the switch worth the effort. As is often the case with cars and petroleum products, your exact results may vary.