Synthetic Motor Oil Gets All New Semantics
(first published in Nov., 2000 issue of Car and
Driver by Patrick Bedard)
that the meaning if "is" has gotten so slippery you
need to grab it with both hands, we'd better keep an
eye on longer words, too.
already got so squirmy on us- "synthetic," as in
synthetic motor oil.
guys know two things about synthetic oils. First,
the price is three to four times that of
conventional oils. Second, they're not real oil,
not made from crude.
flash: Scratch that second part. Now motor oils
derived from crude may be labeled "synthetic." But
they still cost over four bucks a quart.
and switch? That's the obvious conclusion. Except
in this case the advertising ethics people have
given their approval.
Here's what happened, according to a detailed
account published in the trade magazine Lubricants
World. Late in 1997, Castrol changed the formula of
its Syntec "full synthetic motor oil", eliminating
the polyalphaolefins (PAO) base stock (that's the
"synthetic" part, which makes up about 70% by volume
of what's in the bottle) and replacing it with a "hydroisomerized"
petroleum base stock.
Oil Corporation, maker of Mobil 1, "Worlds Leading
Synthetic Motor Oil," said no fair and took its
complaint to the National Advertising Division (NAD)
of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. NAD
often arbitrates between feuding advertisers on
their conflicting claims.
notion behind synthetic motor oils as we've known
them is an elegant one. Instead of relying on the
cocktail of hydrocarbons contained in crude oil, why
not go into the laboratory and build the perfect
base stock from scratch, molecule by molecule, and
builds it till it gets 10-carbon molecules, then
combines three of those to form PAO. The result is
a fluid more stable than the usual base oils derived
from crude. It keeps flowing at low temperatures.
It's more resistant to boiling off, and more
resistant to oxidation, which causes thickening with
prolonged exposure to high temperatures.
Still, there's more than one road to the point B of
improved stability. Petroleum refiners in recent
years have learned how to break apart certain
undesirable molecules - wax, for example, which
causes thickening of oil at low temperatures- and
transform them by chemical reaction into helpful
molecules. These new hydroisomerized base oils, in
the view of some industry participants provided
properties similar to PAO's but only cost half as
much," Lubricants World reported.
argument before NAD tiptoed around the obvious- does
the consumer get four bucks' worth of value from
each quart of synthetic oil?- and plunged straight
into deep semantics. Mobil's experts said
"synthetic" traditionally meant big molecules built
up from small ones. Castrol's side held out for a
looser description, defining "synthetic" as "the
product of an intended chemical reaction."
do unbiased sources say? It turns out that the
Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the
American Petroleum Institute (API) both have
technical standards covering motor oils, and both of
these organizations in the '90's backed away from
their old definitions of "synthetic," leaving lots
of room for new interpretations.
the end, NAD decided that the evidence constitutes a
reasonable basis for the claim that Castrol Syntec,
as currently formulated, is a synthetic motor oil,
said Lubricants World.
obvious question now: Has the term "synthetic motor
oil" been opened up to the point that it no longer
means anything? Maybe. But here's a better
question: Did synthetic ever mean what we thought
"Great oil" is what most guys think it means. "At
that price, it's gotta be great stuff!"
but how great? Your cars manual tells what motor
oil you should use, and with few exceptions, that
description will consist of only two
specifications. One is for viscosity, such as
10W-30; and the other is for the API service grade,
SJ being the current one for gasoline passenger
buck-a-quart multi-grades meet these standards, as
do the synthetics.
synthetics, on the back label, claim compliance with
more standards, but even if you know what they mean,
they seem beside the point for U.S. passenger cars.
For example, should you care about diesels if you
drive a gasoline burner? API service CF is the
oldest of the current specs for light-duty diesels;
some synthetics list that one. Synthetics may also
list ACEA A1 and B1, which are European specs
roughly equivalent to API gasoline and diesel
specs. The Europeans grad their oils by level of
performance, so that A2 and A3 are tougher specs
than A1. Same for diesels. Usually the date of the
spec is omitted, but A1-98 is newer than A1-96.
Completely absent is the one performance claim that
would have some real meaning for all of us- some
indication of longer oil life. (except for AMSOIL
which clearly states 25,000 miles/1-year or 35,000
miles/1-year for their Severe Service 0W-30
synthetic). Automakers hold synthetics to the
same oil change intervals as conventional oils. And
the oil companies, promise even less. "To give
added protection and life to your engine, change
your oil every 3000 miles." This same language
appears on the back of both Pennzoil Synthetic and
conventional oils. Valvoline synthetic makes a
similar recommendation. (commentary: Since 1972
AMSOIL is the ONLY synthetic oil manufacturer in the
world to guarantee 25,000 miles or 35,000 mile oil
change intervals and utilizing full PAO synthetic
Synthetics do get one unambiguous endorsement:
Corvettes, Porsches, Vipers, and all AMG models from
Mercedes-Benz come with Mobil 1 as the factory fill.
synthetics mention GM 4718M in their list of claims;
that's the unique spec created by General Motors for
Corvette oil. It's a high-temperature requirement
that tolerates less oxidation (thickening) and
volatility (boil-off) on a standard engine test
called Sequence 111E according to engineer Bob Olree
of GM Power train. (note: AMSOIL 0W-30 far surpasses
GM's 4718M spec).
don't expect to learn such details on any label
(again, except for AMSOIL which clearly states test
results on the back of every bottle of Series 2000
0W-30 and 20W-50 synthetic). Mobil 1 at least uses
straight forward declarative sentences. Most of the
others read as though they were written by a lawyer
looking for an escape clause. Why else would the
following claim be so rubbery? "Pennzoil Synthetic
motor oil is recommended for use in all engines
requiring ILSACGF-1, GF-2, API SJ, SH, or SG, and in
engines requiring oils meeting GM 4718M." Okay, but
does it actually pass those standards?
says James Newsom, Pennzoil's motor-oil product
Castrol Syntec, on its label, "exceeds" every
standard it mentions. Hmm. Now that the meaning of
"is" is in play, I have to wonder, does Syntec meet
those standards as well?
does" says Castrol's Julie Ann Oberg. While I have
her on the phone, I ask if there will be a Syntec
price reduction now that the lower-cost base stock
has been substituted for the old synthetic. She says
after reading that why would anybody in their right
mind want to spend their hard-earned money on
Castrol Syntec, Pennzoil Synthetic, Valvoline
Synthetic or any of the other "synthetics" when what
your getting is not even a true 100% full PAO
synthetic? Even Mobil 1 Tri-Synthetic uses multiple
base-stock technology by blending other synthetic
molecules with the PAO base-stocks and then they
come up with a catchy name of Tri-Synthetic. Pretty
sneaky huh? AMSOIL moved away from multiple
base-stock technology over 20 years ago!, yet Mobil
makes it sound like their Tri-Synthetic technology
is some new earth-shattering technology. What a
not skip all the hype and deception of these other
manufacturers and just use AMSOIL? AMSOIL uses
only 100% full synthetic PAO technology in
each and everyone of its motor oils and is the
undisputed leader in synthetic engine oil
technology as well as the leader in synthetic
gear lubes, transmission fluid, greases, two-cycle
oil and many other lubricants and hydraulic fluids.
Today, virtually every other motor oil manufacturer
has recognized the superiority of synthetic
lubricants and has followed the AMSOIL lead with
introductions of "synthetic" motor oils of their
spend millions of dollars advertising their "new"
and "revolutionary" products. No one, however, can
match AMSOIL experience and technological know-how.
And no one delivers products like AMSOIL. Accept no
substitutes- AMSOIL is the "First in Synthetics