The Sea of Specs: Why It’s Important to Use the Oil Recommended by the OEM

We’ve all been there: A customer pulls up to have his oil changed. The service writer looks and sees that the vehicle in question isn’t an American-made product and immediately starts thinking, “What oil does this one require?” Not too many years ago, the answer would have been the bulk oil in the right viscosity grade. A safe bet would have been an SAE 5W-30 or SAE 10W-30.

Today, that’s not a sure bet. It isn’t even a good idea; at least without going to the book to find out what the vehicle manufacturer recommends. However, that’s not easy since there are so many auto makers out there and more and more each is going their own way. For example, General Motors now recommends their dexos brand of engine oil. The European automakers all seem to have their own set of oil specifications that convolutes the problem even more. The Japanese have their “Genuine” oils, which are formulated by the OEMs themselves and are specific to their brand. Add to that the shop’s desire to sell up versus the basic product, and you have a pretty complex situation. The need for a simplified recommendation system is more important than ever.

There’s another factor to consider as well — what does your customer want? There are several types of customers, and which one is the person to whom you’re speaking? About 5 percent of the folks coming into your shop could be classified as those who want the best no matter the cost. Another 25 percent or so are brand loyal (maybe two or three brands). About 50 percent would like a reasonable product at a good price, and the remaining 20 percent want it cheap, cheap and cheap. To provide for all of these buying types, a “good,” “better,” “best” set of oils is important. The simplest way to handle that is with products based on conventional, semi-synthetic and full-synthetic base oils.

The system should be able to identify the proper performance recommendation, a secondary recommendation in case your shop doesn’t carry an appropriate product, the desired viscosities and, of course, the vehicle in question. That makes it a three-dimensional system. It gets complex pretty quickly.

Here’s an illustration of just how complex it can get. Recently, API introduced a new oil category, API SN-Plus, and its fuel-efficient version, API SN-Plus Resource Conserving. These categories are needed for the newer designs based on direct injection, turbocharged, gasoline fueled engines. The leader in this effort is Ford. Because of the API backward compatibility requirement, this category of engine oil is suitable for all earlier engines, not only at Ford, but for all domestic (except GM) and Japanese engines. However, the European OEMs are a different breed and are reluctant to recommend oils other than their specification oils. Europe has a system similar to, but more complex than, the API categories, known as the ACEA Oil Sequences.

Here is an example of the complexity of oil selection for a fast oil change operation.

Ford

Ford owner’s manual states that these are the preferred oils for their engines.

  • Motorcraft Synthetic Blend Oils meet ILSAC GF-5 SN Plus and API certification requirements.
  • Motorcraft Full Synthetic Oils provide the highest level of performance for Ford Motor Company vehicles.
Oil BrandApplicationViscosity, SAEPerformance
Motorcraft Synthetic BlendAll Ford Engines0W-20, 0W-30, 5W-30API SN Plus RC
Motorcraft Full SyntheticAll Ford Engines0W-20, 0W-30, 5W-30API SN Plus RC
Pennzoil  or any other oil marketerAll Ford Engines0W-20, 0W-30, 5W-30API SN Plus RC

Viscosity grades are SAE 0W-20, SAE 0W-30 and SAE 5W-30. These are all viscosity grades of the API SN Plus RC and API/ILSAC GF-5. Ford has an SAE 10W-30, but is not recommended for the latest applications — a very straight-forward recommendation. This says that Ford has decided to use the same oil for all their vehicles and only use the conventional, semi- and full-synthetic base oil for product differentiation. This is similar to most North American and Japanese automakers. General Motors is the only dissenter with their dexos products.

Let’s look at another vehicle, BMW. This is a European product and uses ACEA specifications, as well as API categories. It is much more complex but doesn’t actually identify approved brands — only their products plus the performance categories met.

BMW Brands

Oil BrandApplicationViscosityPerformance
TwinTurbo LL-01 FEStreet TurboSAE 0W-30API SN ACEA A5/B5
TwinTurbo (being replaced by 0W-30)Street TurboSAE 5W-30API SN ACEA A5/B5
TwinPower Turbo M LL-01’01 to ’13 M enginesSAE 10W-60API SN ACEA A5/B5
TwinPower Turbo M SyntheticTurbo DieselsSAE 0W-40API SN ACEA A3/B4
TwinTurboDiesel EnginesSAE 5W-30API SN ACEA A5/B5
Genuine BMW FE+SULEVSAE 0W-20API SN-RC ACEA A5/B5

Competitive Brands

Oil BrandApplicationViscosityPerformance
Red Line SyntheticStreet TurboSAE 0W-30API SN ACEA A5/B5
Red Line SyntheticStreet TurboSAE 5W-30API SN ACEA A5/B5
Castrol Syntec European FormulaTurbo DieselsSAE 0W-40API SN ACEA A3/B4
Pennzoil Platinum European FormulaTurbo DieselsSAE 5W-40API SN ACEA A3/B4
Mobil 1Street TurboSAE 0W-40API SN ACEA A3/B4

VW/Audi

VW/Audi is very specific about what oils can be used in their engines. Their recommendations are made based on the specification, and only oils approved on that list may be used. The following is their statement on their specification pages.

  • Oil Quality: Audi engines must always use engine oils that conform to the applicable Audi oil quality standard. No other engine oils may be used (this also applies when the engine oil is topped off between services).
  • Recommendation for Customers: The customer should always have a spare quart of engine oil in case the engine oil needs topping off while on the road. The spare quart of oil should be stored in its original container, securely closed and stowed in the vehicle luggage compartment.
  • Note: Use of the wrong oil may damage the engine. Damage caused when the wrong oil is used will not be covered by the applicable vehicle warranties.
  • Approved Engine Oils: Below are the lists of engine oils available in North America that currently meet Audi oil quality standards (VW 501 01, 502 00, 504 00, 505 00, 505 01, 507 00, 508 00, 509 00).

What follows are eight pages of oils known to VW/Audi as meeting their various oil specifications. Castrol products are preferred. Here’s a sample from their specification pages.

Audi Oil Quality Std.ManufacturerOil TypeViscosity, SAE
VW 502.00CastrolEdge Professional G E521671QDSP5W-40
VW 502.00ChevronHavoline Ultra5W-40
VW 502.00MobilMobil 10W-40
VW  502.00PennzoilPennzoil Platinum European Formulation5W-40
VW 505.01CastrolEdge Professional G E521671QDSP5W-40
VW 505.01ChevronHavoline Ultra S5W-40
VW 505.01MobilMobil Syst S Special V5W-30
VW 505.01PennzoilPennzoil Platinum Low SAPS5W-30

Navigating the Sea of Specs

From all of the above, it is apparent that carrying a complete line of engine oils is impossible. The complexity of specifications, viscosity grades, country of origin and other factors puts a fast oil change shop in a real quandary.

One approach that makes a lot of sense is to carry the one or two oils in bulk that satisfy the largest percentage of your customers. Have one or two oils that may meet some of the exotics that you may expect to come into your shop. The golden rule of oil changes is read the owner’s manual if you don’t know for sure! Often there will be a recommendation such as that found in GM vehicles:

“Selecting the right engine oil depends on both the proper oil specification and viscosity grade. See Recommended Fluids and Lubricants Specification. Ask for and use engine oils that meet the dexos1 specification. Engine oils that have been approved by GM as meeting the dexos1 specification are marked with the dexos1 approved logo.”

In addition, GM as well as other manufacturers state the following:

“Caution — Failure to use the recommended engine oil or equivalent can result in engine damage not covered by the vehicle warranty.”

A major project for the industry would be to collect the engine oil recommendations for each manufacturer/engine and identify suppliers, brand names, viscosity grades and part numbers where appropriate. Otherwise, you’ll need a good contact with your primary oil supplier who knows the ins and outs of the oil specifications game.

Steve Swedberg

STEVE SWEDBERG has over 50 years of experience in the oil industry. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and graduate work in business administration. He also has extensive training in petroleum products technical service as well as total quality management. His work experience includes lubricants research and development with ARCO and UNOCAL, oil additive marketing at Edwin Cooper (now Afton) and Chevron Oronite and lubricants marketing with Pennzoil. He managed technical groups related to oil marketing, product quality and technical services. Swedberg has also been involved with several industry organizations including STLE, NLGI, ASTM and, most notably, SAE, where he was Technical Committee 1 (Engine Oils) chairman from 1992 to 1996. While in that position, he was able to help influence industry direction as well as make many valuable industry contacts. Swedberg is currently consulting on lubricating products and additives and is a technical writer.