Lately, we've seen a proliferation of cars in our test program that require extra-thin 0W-20-weight synthetic oil. And while this was pretty exotic engine lubricant just a couple of years ago, the cars requiring this expensive synthetic oil are often much less than exotic.
This point hit home recently when I was driving our Subaru Impreza test car on the highway and the low oil warning light came on.
Some digging through the owner's manual revealed the small sedan requires SAE 0W-20 synthetic oil. Driving around checking service stations in our Impreza late on a Saturday night revealed no such motor oil on local store shelves. It's possible that these stores tend to stock oil for older cars that are more likely to have developed leaks or begun burning oil. Later, we found that some stores that car this thin oil only sell it in gallon jugs, rather than by the quart--not much help if you're running low.
In checking various sources online, we could find no 0W-20-weight oil that wasn't synthetic. What we did find cost $7.17 to $8.79 a quart. (Buying 10 quarts at a time could bring the price down to as little as $5.87.) That compares to a range of $3.99 to $6.29 a quart for very slightly thicker, non-synthetic 5W-20. This cost is similar to that of other synthetic oils.
James Linden, chairman of the SAE Fuels and Lubricants Council, says that while oil companies could theoretically make 0W-20 non-synthetic oil, in practical terms it requires a synthetic process to make the oil meet all the relevant standards automakers require.
While such low-viscosity oil had been limited to high-end and European cars just a few years ago, Linden says Japanese automakers have recently approved the use of ultra-thin motor oils, spreading the requirement to more popular cars. Even still, 0W-20 currently makes up less than 1 percent of oil sales according to George Morvey, an energy project manager at Kline consulting, up from almost nothing three years ago.
Our own challenges finding 0W-20 led us to wonder how hard it is for owners of these cars to find it when they need to have their oil changed. So we also called Jiffy Lube, the largest independent instant oil change franchise in America.
Spokeswoman Michele Herskowitz says most of the chain's franchises do stock 0W-20. Pricing varies by store, but we called around and found oil changes for a car that requires 0W-20 cost $30 to $40 more than for one that takes conventional oil, or about twice the cost. For a typical owner, that adds $60-$100 in maintenance cost per year.
The good news is that modern cars, those that require synthetic oil as well as those that don't, can go almost twice as far between oil changes as older cars. Herskowitz says Jiffy Lube has begun recommending oil change intervals based on automakers' owners' manual recommendations, which can range from 5,000 to 7,500 miles between oil changes. In addition, Linden points out that many new cars include oil-life monitors to take the guesswork out of oil change timing.
But what's behind so many makers of ordinary cars requiring expensive synthetic oil in the first place? Linden says automakers can save between 0.5 and 1 percent on EPA fuel economy tests compared with 5W-20 motor oil. The tests are run starting with a cold engine, so the lower viscosity reduces friction until the engine warms up.
Indeed, when Honda first presented us with details about the 2012 CR-V, company engineers emphasized that they had gained 2 mpg in EPA fuel economy ratings mainly by reducing friction in the engine and other mechanical components, not by introducing new technologies like direct fuel injection or continuously variable transmissions.
We generally support any technology that can improve fuel economy. But in this case, we wonder whether some consumers who purchase new cars may feel blindsided by the increased cost of their oil changes. And since 0W-20 mainly only improves fuel economy for the first few seconds of driving, we question whether the fuel economy gains are really worth the added costs for consumers over the life of the car.
Regardless, it is quite possible that your next new car will require ultra-thin, synthetic 0W-20 motor oil. That is, until new standards come along. Linden says SAE is already working on standards for 0W-16 and 0W-12 blends, as well as what to even call thinner oils. No word yet on how much those will cost the consumer.