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How Much of a Scam Is Synthetic Oil?

Sure, it’s a scam — as long as you drive a car you don’t care about, and exclusively in 72-degree weather

If the modern automobile had a status on Facebook, it would undoubtedly be “It’s complicated.” With their computer-controlled fuel-injection systems, continuously variable transmissions and three-phase four-pole AC induction motors, the days when every Tom, Dick or Harry could wrench on their ride seem long gone. So let us help — especially with the seemingly mundane stuff that if not done properly, your dad and/or his favorite mechanic vowed would ruin your car forever. Because when it comes to cars — and this column — no question is too dumb.

I’m going in to get my oil changed this weekend, and I’m curious: Do I really need synthetic oil? It always seems like mechanics are telling me it’s way better than the regular stuff, but I can’t help but notice it’s like double the price. Am I screwing up my engine if I don’t get synthetic?
I’m aware that this is probably the last thing you want to hear, but annoyingly, the answer is it all depends. Some cars require synthetic oil, some don’t, and the key to knowing when to reach for it is reading the signs — specifically the ones in the sky and the one in your owner’s manual. 

But before I get into any of that, let’s talk about what the heck synthetic oil even is, and what makes it so different from the conventional stuff.

You’d be excused if you assumed that synthetic oil was space-age goop dreamt up in some DuPont or Dow Chemical lab, while conventional oil comes from underneath the Persian Gulf (and Texas) and is super basic. In fact, both originate from the same place — i.e., they’re what happens when you take barrels of crude oil and refine them. The only real differences, chemically speaking, are that synthetic is refined further than conventional oil, making it purer, and it has special additives that help it break down slower, prevent wear and tear on your engine and provide lubrication to that engine no matter the temperature (e.g., 110 degrees or 10 degrees).

Does that mean, though, it’s something you — a guy who just wants to commute to work and back without spending a ton of cash on fancy oil — need? 

Again, it depends. For starters, do you live where it snows? Do you live where it gets super hot, like the desert? Do you drive a high-performance car, or own your car and plan on keeping it for a while? If you answered yes to any of these questions, absolutely, buy synthetic — not doing so might turn your engine into an oversized paperweight.

But if you live somewhere warm but not too hot and lease your car with no plans of buying it when the lease is up, getting conventional oil won’t kill you or your car. Then again, most manufacturers say you need to change conventional oil more often than synthetic — like 5,000 miles versus 15,000 miles. So if you need to pay for three times the amount of oil changes, you’re not really saving money anyway. 

Wait, is there actually any reason to buy conventional?!?!?

Ahh, screw it — just buy synthetic.