How to read an oil can label

Download the original article that appeared in SA4x4 (PDF)

That’s not as stupid as it sounds. Know the codes and know how to check that your 4×4 service agent is putting your interests first.

I hope that this series of articles on what seems to be the simple subject of oil has proved that when it comes to technology, our world has changed forever. This final article on the subject of automotive lubricants aims to summarise how to read and understand the label on an oil can. That’s because brand and specification, if chosen correctly, will affect our vehicle’s service life, reliability, ongoing maintenance costs and fuel consumption, and help ensure the safety of all those whom we transport. In other words, make our lives more convenient.

One of my favourite writers, Isaac Asimov, had this pertinent comment to make: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” This has a direct bearing on the subject of motor oils: a very difficult topic to comprehend. Most people in the industry (including respected mechanics) think that they are experts in this field, but very few actually understand or have any idea of the complexity of  engine oils. In fact, some of them will never be able to understand the theory.

So, when we look at a can of oil before making the important decision to purchase it and place it in our vehicle, are we basing our decision on what feels right, a friend’s recommendation, the spares shop assistant’s endorsement, an advertisement, the brand our father used, the mostly marketing drivel on the can itself… or is our decision based on knowing something about oil?

Here then, is an easy opportunity to gather wisdom and know something about oil. What’s written on an oil can – or, in many cases, what is not written – will provide you with the answers you need. Besides the brand and product name, the packaging of all automotive lubricants should mention the purpose for which it is intended – such as motor oil, manual or automatic transmission oil, differential oil, etc.

The base oil type should be shown on the can: mineral, semi-synthetic, synthetic technology or fully synthetic. The viscosity should be shown clearly: 20w/50 or 5w/40 etc. for engine oils, and 75w/90 or 85w/140 etc. for gear oils.

All engines are not the same, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that oils are not the same, either. With this in mind, we should be able to see the performance specification, including those of the API (American Petroleum Institute) and ACEA (or Association des Constructeurs Européens d’Automobiles, in French). The API’s engine-oil quality marks (specifically the API Service Symbol “Donut” and Certification Mark “Starburst”) help consumers identify to quality engine oils for their petrol and diesel-powered vehicles.

API’s Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (EOLCS) is a cooperative effort between the oil industry, and the vehicle- and engine manufacturers of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, and the Engine Manufacturers Association. Performance requirements, test methods and limits are co-operatively established by vehicle- and engine manufacturers, technical societies like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and industry associations like the American Chemistry Council and API. Oils meeting these requirements are recommended by vehicle manufacturers. An oil marketer that displays these marks on its oil containers has complied with the licensing and certification program in order to display these marks. API’s Engine Oil program is backed by an ongoing monitoring and enforcement program to ensure that licensees adhere to industry technical specifications.

Also, on a can of oil we expect to see OEM approvals like MB 229.5, Porsche A40, RENAULT RN0710, BMW Longlife-98, VW 502 00, etc. Working together, the oil companies and car manufacturers have developed a series of engine tests and performance specifications for engine oils, in order to ensure their compatibility with the latest engine technologies and service schedules. Many car manufacturers (like Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, Porsche, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Fiat, Renault and Ford) develop their own engine-oil specifications.

It is also important to be aware that OEMs like Volkswagen introduced their own specifications in the mid-1990s. This means that certain VW specifications listed on a can of oil, such as VW 500.00 (applicable to engines built before model year 2000, up to August 1999) or VW 501.01 (VW engines built before 2000) are considered “old” oil specification by VW and would definitely not be suitable for use in the latest TDI motors. Do not be misled into thinking that you are purchasing high quality motor oil just because it has a VW specification on the label. Remember that we need to ignore all the marketing bumf found on the label and look beyond the claims. Beware of words like “high-performance” and “reduces engine wear by 50%”. Also, be wary of packaging that does not say whether the oil is mineral, synthetic or semi-synthetic. I would like to quote a few of these false and misleading claims by oil companies, but I am a chronic sufferer of liticaphobia – a fear of lawsuits.

Your vehicle’s handbook includes information about the specification(s) of engine oil that are suitable for your engine. ACEA/API specifications will be marked clearly on an oil-can label. If the oil specifications and oil viscosity listed in your car’s manual do not appear on the can of oil you are considering purchasing, it is the incorrect lubricant for your vehicle and will compromise your vehicle’s engine.

Never try to cut costs by using either a mineral or a semi-synthetic oil in an engine where synthetic is specified. Act with due diligence; take an interest! If the workshop where your car is being serviced uses oils that do not comply with those recommended in your manual, find a workshop that does; or supply your own lubricants.

Many workshops have a “one-engineoil-fits-all” philosophy, and this is simply not possible. If you think the agents are going to be any better, think again. A customer recently shared the following experience with us. He purchased engine oil from Ravenol for the service of his 4×4 at the dealership, while his 4×4 was still under a maintenance plan. He wanted to ensure that the correct OEM-approved oil was used for the service. When he arrived at the workshop, he was told by a service adviser that he was not allowed to use his own oil as it would not have the correct specifications. After a brief argument, and despite the fact that he’d shown the service adviser that the oil had the correct OEM approval and specification (shown on the oil can), the workshop manager was called.

The workshop manager’s comment was, “How can you have the correct specified oil? We don’t even have it.” After seeing that it was Ravenol, all he said was, “Yes, Ravenol is a good oil; you may use it.” In another encounter with the dealership/ agents, we attempted to confirm the specification of automatic transmission fluid used in a Ford Territory. This led to 10 phone calls to 10 separate dealerships, and resulted in 10 different answers.

We started with a quote from Isaac Asimov, so let’s end with another: “Self education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” Take the time to learn something about the lubricants specified for your vehicle. Make certain that they are used in your vehicle, and check the oil level of your vehicle regularly. It’s the only way you can expect to reach 300 000 kilometres without any major work, and so gain the full benefit of all the hard-earned cash spent on what is often our second-most expensive asset, our motor vehicle.

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