Monday Rant: You Don’t Need Synthetic Oil

Unrefined oil spray from Justin Pritchard

My friend Jake thought I was a monster.

“You’re putting THAT in your engine?!”

He stopped by for a grown-up beverage while I was changing the oil in my 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS: turbocharged four-cylinder, manual transmission, black in colour and a total riot to drive the bejesus out of.

“What’s wrong with this stuff?” I asked, tipping the jug of conventional oil into the funnel sticking out of the top of my engine. Normal oil. Cheap oil.

Glug. Glug. Glug.

Jake’s eyes were wide. His jaw was ajar. He was all wound up and giving me a look like I’d just murdered a kitten.

“That’s not even synthetic!” he cried. “Your ride’s got a turbo and all that. You’re probably going to ruin your engine.”

Let me tell you about Jake. He drives a Nissan Sylvia. Similar setup to my MR2: turbo four-cylinder, manual, gets driven hard. But Jake only puts really expensive oil into his engine. The most expensive stuff he can find. He figures his 200 horsepower Nissan needs protection designed for track-going Lamborghinis, and that if he used anything but fifteen-bucks-a-bottle luxury engine oil, his powerplant would sludge up, puff smoke, and send rod number three out the side of the block while he tried to peel out of the Timmies drive-thru.

The question of which of us is “right” on oil selection is an ongoing debate.

Synthetic oil is great. If you live in a place where it hits forty below, it’s better for protection when you start your ride first thing in the morning. (I don’t drive my MR2 in the winter, and Jake’s Sylvia gets parked at the first sign of a leaf changing colour in the fall, too).

It might help you get better mileage. It might offer more protection. It might make your engine last longer.

Might, might, might.

My logic is simpler, and backed up by numerous mechanic pals. I use the cheap, and I figure, nearly just-as-good stuff, change it often, and never have a worry. I ran conventional oil in my MR2 for years, lapping it on weekends and enjoying its turbocharger and redline as often as possible, with no issue.

Is synthetic oil better? I’m sure it is. Is it worth two or three times the price to use in a vehicle that’ll never start up in the cold? Personally, I don’t think so.

I’m of the belief that conventional engine oil isn’t junk. Heck, today, it’s better than ever. Car engines, even really powerful ones, have run conventional oil through their veins for ages. Synthetic oil has its place in the engines of extreme-performance cars engineered for massive levels of heat and compression and internal component speeds – though for the average driver of the average car, or even a little sporty one, I think its overkill. Plus, I’m a fan of saving money.

So I disagree with Jake’s logic. He figures he’s a pretty sporty driver, often spouts on about how he drives his Silvia pretty hard, and figures he needs top-notch oil and nothing less, because his sporty driving will instantly disintegrate the conventional stuff that I use and leave his engine ruined.

Have you seen how they torture-test engines? Or how they torture-test engine oils? We’re talking operation at or beyond redline and maximum load for hours on end, extreme repeated cold starts, and other nasty and abusive conditions simulated, over and over again. For hours on end. Even days.

So, sporty driver or not, I don’t figure that occasional, or even frequent visits to redline in first and second gear while you come out of a traffic light is putting the engine oil in your ride through any sort of serious strain. Simply, synthetic oil is designed to defend against heat and stress and wear that you’re just not generating if you drive only on the street, even like a maniac.

So, I’ll keep using the cheap stuff, changing it regularly, and putting the extra cash in my pocket.