What Kind of Oil Does My Car Take?

Published on:

strickand brothers employee smiling at camera with arms crossed

Choosing the right motor oil for your vehicle is a decision that affects the performance, longevity, and efficiency of your engine. It’s not a one-size-fits-all matter, as different vehicles require different types of oils based on numerous factors. This comprehensive guide explores everything from what motor oil is and why we use it to the various types of motor oils, their characteristics, and how to select the perfect oil for your vehicle’s specific needs. Whether you’re looking for information about conventional or synthetic motor oils, the API symbol, or tips on switching oil types, this article will guide you in making an informed decision.

What is Motor Oil, and Why Do We Use It?

Motor oil, also known as engine oil or engine lubricant, is used to lubricate the internal combustion engines of cars, motorcycles, lawnmowers, engine-generators, and many other machines. It is a mixture of base oils and additives that lubricate engine parts, reduce friction, clean, cool, and protect the engine. The main function of motor oil is to reduce friction and wear on moving parts and to clean the engine from sludge — and brings to light what happens if you don’t get your oil changed regularly.  

Here are some of the reasons why we use motor oil:

  • Lubrication: Motor oil lubricates the many moving parts of an engine, which helps avoid damage and keeps your engine running smoothly.
  • Reduction of friction: Motor oil reduces friction between the moving parts of an engine, which helps to improve engine performance and efficiency.
  • Cleaning: Motor oil helps to clean the engine by removing sludge and varnish that can build up over time.
  • Cooling: Motor oil helps to cool the engine by transferring and releasing heat through the lubrication circuit.
  • Protection: Motor oil protects the engine from excessive wear and tear, which can lead to lower efficiency and degradation of the engine.

So why do you need an oil change? Regular oil changes are vital to maintaining the efficiency and longevity of your vehicle’s engine. Over time, motor oil can break down and become contaminated with dust, dirt, and debris from the engine and the environment. This degradation can reduce the oil’s effectiveness in lubrication, cleaning, cooling, and protection — ultimately leading to increased friction, wear, overheating, and potential engine damage. Scheduling regular oil changes with a trusted service provider ensures that the engine continues to operate at its best, that you’re never changing oil without changing the filter, that you’re maximizing performance and fuel efficiency, and, ultimately, minimizing long-term costs and potential mechanical problems.

What Information Does the API Symbol or Donut Provide

The API donut is a symbol used by the American Petroleum Institute (API) to identify motor oils that meet current API engine oil standards. It is displayed on the motor oil label and provides important information about the oil’s viscosity grade, API standards met, and other performance parameters.

The API donut is part of API’s Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (EOLCS), a voluntary program that authorizes engine oil marketers who meet API requirements to display the API quality marks. These marks help consumers easily identify oils that meet the API standards and provide the desired level of performance and protection for your vehicle.

When choosing oil for a vehicle, it is recommended to look for API-licensed oil and check for the API motor oil quality marks, including the API Service Symbol “Donut” and the Certification Mark “Starburst.” These marks indicate that the oil meets the API standards and has been tested for quality and performance.

The API donut is an important reference for consumers as it ensures that the oil you are purchasing meets the necessary standards for your vehicle’s engine. It helps to ensure that the oil provides the required level of protection and performance based on the specific API standards and viscosity grade indicated on the donut. You’ll find it on products used and sold by many service providers, so just search for a 10-minute oil change near me, and you’ll be able to track some down. 

Types of Motor Oil Explained

Conventional Motor Oil

Conventional motor oil, also called regular motor oil, has been a staple in engine care for decades. Originally a simple mixture of base oil and additives, it was designed to lubricate, reduce friction, clean, cool, and protect the engine. This traditional oil is derived from crude oil, refined and processed to eliminate impurities, forming the most fundamental type of motor oil used in vehicles.

Suitable for drivers engaging in everyday driving without excessive strain on the engine, conventional motor oil is a practical choice. It’s often less expensive than synthetic options and fits the needs of most vehicles that don’t demand high-performance oils. This oil type has proven reliable over time, especially for those looking for a cost-effective solution for routine driving conditions. Searching for a drive-thru oil change near me is all that’s needed to find a nearby service center with conventional oil on hand. 

High-mileage Motor Oil

High-mileage motor oil emerged in the 1990s as a tailored solution for older vehicles that have racked up significant mileage. Given the name, some might wonder do oil changes help gas mileage when performed with certain motor oils. The answer to that question is maybe — but it’s not quite what high-mileage oil is about. It’s specifically crafted for cars with over 75,000 miles on the odometer and formulated from synthetic and conventional base oils. This unique blend is enriched with additives that aid in reducing oil consumption and preventing leaks, meeting the specific needs of aging vehicles.

For drivers with seasoned cars, high-mileage motor oil is an excellent choice to prolong the engine’s life. Its specialized composition helps to curb oil consumption and fend off leaks that older engines are prone to. Utilizing high-mileage motor oil can be a critical factor in extending the engine’s lifespan, providing added support and care to the seasoned components of your vehicle.

Synthetic Blend Motor Oil

Synthetic blend motor oil debuted in the 1960s, bridging the gap between conventional and full synthetic oils. Created by merging both synthetic and conventional base oils, synthetic blend motor oil is enhanced with additives designed to amplify performance and safeguard the engine. This blend was carefully developed to offer an intermediate option that capitalizes on the virtues of both conventional and synthetic oils.

Ideal for drivers seeking the advantages of synthetic oil without the higher price tag, syn blends deliver a balanced approach. They provide superior performance and protection compared to conventional oil but come at a cost that’s more manageable than full synthetic oil. If you’re looking for a middle ground that combines efficiency, protection, and value, synthetic blend motor oil might be the right choice for your vehicle.

Full Synthetic Motor Oil

Introduced in the 1970s by Shell’s Pennzoil brand, fully synthetic motor oil marked a significant advancement in engine lubrication. This innovation was crafted from a sophisticated blend of synthetic base oils and specially formulated additives. The first synthetic motor oil made from natural gas set new standards for engine performance and protection.

Full synthetic motor oil is the go-to choice for drivers demanding the pinnacle of performance and defense for their engines, especially under extreme temperatures and rigorous conditions. Outperforming both conventional and synthetic blend oils, full synthetic motor oil stands apart for its superior characteristics. Whether you’re faced with sweltering heat or freezing cold, full synthetic motor oil offers a level of assurance that keeps your engine running at its best, justifying its premium price for those who accept no compromise.

About Engine Oil Viscosity

Oil viscosity refers to how easily motor oil flows through the engine. It’s an essential factor in choosing the right oil for your vehicle. Oil becomes thicker and more resistant to flow at low temperatures, whereas it becomes thinner at high temperatures.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) grades motor oils based on viscosity. Common grades like 5W-30 and 10W-30 indicate specific properties of the oil at different temperatures. The viscosity index measures the oil’s ability to resist thinning at higher temperatures, while HTHS (high temperature, high shear) values provide additional information for specific conditions.

The first number refers to the low-temperature viscosity, which means how easily the oil flows at low temperatures, such as when the engine first starts up. In the examples above, The “W” stands for winter, and the lower the number, the better the oil flows in cold temperatures. The second number (30) refers to the high-temperature viscosity, which means how easily the oil flows at high temperatures. 5W-30 is the most common viscosity grade for passenger cars and light trucks, while 10W-30 is also often seen, especially in warmer climates. But it’s good to be aware that others do exist. 

There are also single-grade oils, a type of motor oil with a consistent viscosity throughout a wide range of temperatures, typically designed for specific temperature ranges. Unlike multigrade oils, which have different flow characteristics at different temperatures, single-grade oils maintain a consistent viscosity regardless of temperature. They are often designated by a single viscosity grade, such as SAE 30 or SAE 50. 

Choosing the right viscosity is vital for your car’s performance and depends on factors such as environmental conditions and driving habits. The information on the oil container, coupled with your vehicle’s manual, will guide you in selecting the appropriate oil. It’s not just jargon—understanding viscosity ensures your engine runs smoothly and efficiently.

The Best Oil for Cars: Making the Right Choice

Manufacturer’s Recommendations

The manufacturer’s recommendations are the starting point for choosing the right oil for your car. Your vehicle manual details the viscosity and efficiency requirements of the oil tailored for your make and model. Unsure? Call or email the manufacturer directly. Sticking to these guidelines ensures you use the oil specifically designed for your vehicle, optimizing performance and protection.

Type of Vehicle

Your car’s engine determines the oil it needs. For example, diesel engines have different oil requirements compared to gasoline ones. Picking the right oil suited for your specific type of vehicle is not just a preference—it’s a necessity. If you have a diesel engine, it is important to consider the specific requirements for diesel engine oil. Seeking advice from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and considering the operating conditions can help you select the right oil for your diesel engine.


The climate in which you drive your vehicle can affect the performance of the oil. In colder environments, the oil needs to flow easily during frosty starts, so a lower-viscosity oil like 5W-30 is often recommended. Conversely, a thicker oil that can withstand higher temperatures, such as 10W-40, becomes suitable in hot climates. Remember, the numbers and letters in these oil grades aren’t arbitrary—they correspond to specific temperatures and conditions. Always consider the typical weather patterns of your region when selecting motor oil, and when in doubt, refer to your vehicle’s manual or consult a professional to make an informed decision.

Age of Vehicle

Classic cars and vehicles, typically from the 1950s or earlier, may have different oil requirements than newer vehicles. For example, some may benefit from using conventional, single-grade oils (SAE 30 to SAE 50) because they were designed to run on the lubricants available at the time. And this is when single-grade oils were commonly used. It is important to consider the specific needs of your older vehicle when selecting the oil.

Driving Habits

Certain types of driving, such as towing heavy loads, can put more stress on your engine and require a different type of oil. For example, if you’re frequently towing or hauling, you may need a high-performance oil that provides better protection under heavy loads. Likewise, aggressive driving, such as frequent acceleration and hard braking, can increase engine stress and heat generation. This may require a more robust oil that can withstand higher temperatures and provide better protection against wear and deposits.

Engine Performance Requirements

If you have a high-performance engine, you may need to use a synthetic oil that is specifically designed for it. A high-performance engine typically has more horsepower and torque than standard engines, allowing the car to accelerate quickly and reach high speeds. However, it’s good to remember there is no specific age or make/model of a car that determines whether it has a high-performance engine. Some cars that are considered high-performance include exotic sport coupes, convertibles, and sports versions of mainstream vehicles.

Mileage of the Vehicle

Your vehicle’s mileage isn’t just a number on the dashboard—it’s a key factor in determining the oil best suited for your engine. Vehicles that have clocked over 75,000 miles have different needs compared to newer ones. High-mileage oils, formulated specifically for such vehicles, cater to the demands of an engine that’s been around the block a few times. Choosing an oil that aligns with your vehicle’s mileage ensures it continues running smoothly, providing protection and performance tailored to its life stage.

Budget Constraints

While the price tag on motor oil may catch your eye, it’s a consideration that must be balanced with both the quality and the specific requirements of your vehicle. Investing in the right oil is an investment in your vehicle’s longevity and performance. While cost-effective options exist, ensuring that the oil meets the manufacturer’s recommendations and suits the engine’s needs is essential. Skimping on quality to save a few dollars today might lead to costly repairs down the road. The right decision aligns budget considerations with your vehicle’s optimal care and maintenance.

Previous Oil Usage

If you’re contemplating switching to a different type of oil, your vehicle’s previous oil usage should be part of the process. Not all oils mix well, and a hasty switch could lead to performance issues. In some cases, a complete oil change will be necessary to ensure there are no issues with the new oil type. If you need help with what to do, it might be time to consult a local oil change specialist. They’ll understand your vehicle’s needs and can recommend the appropriate product or service. Don’t hesitate to search for oil change near me services to keep your vehicle running smoothly and efficiently.

Wrapping Up: Making an Informed Decision on Motor Oil

Selecting the proper motor oil is a nuanced decision that significantly affects your vehicle’s performance and lifespan. The right choice involves understanding various oil types, recognizing the importance of the API symbol, and evaluating individual factors such as climate, mileage, driving habits, and budget. By aligning these considerations with the manufacturer’s recommendations, you can make an informed choice, ensuring optimal engine function and protection. When in doubt, professional consultation, such as searching for local drive-thru oil change services, can further tailor the selection to the vehicle’s unique requirements.


Related Articles