How much do you value the engine in your car? Think about it, because the life of your engine depends in no small part on the quality of the oil you put in it – oil is the lifeblood of your car’s engine. From the mid 80’s for 8 or 9 years there was a veritable revolution in car engine oil. All oils were no longer the same thanks to the popularity of hot hatches, 16-valve engines and turbos as the tuner scene started to rise. Combined with the devastating problems of black death (see below), the days of one oil catering for everyone were over.
Take Castrol for example. They led the field for years with GTX. This was surpassed a few years back by semi-synthetic and fully synthetic oils, including GTX2 and GTX3 Lightec. Now, that’s been surpassed by Formula SLX which can cost upwards of £50 ($75) for 5 litres. And most recently, Castrol GTX Magnatec which is muscling in on the hitherto separate world of friction reducers (and we’ll deal with them later, on the additives page).
What does my oil actually do?
The point of engine oil is primarily to stop all the metal surfaces in your engine from grinding together and tearing themselves apart from friction whilst transferring heat away from the combustion cycle. Engine oil must also be able to hold all the nasty by-products of combustion, such as silica (silicon oxide) and acids in suspension. It cleans the engine of these chemicals and build-ups, and keeps the moving parts coated in oil. Finally, engine oil minimises the exposure to oxygen and thus oxidation at higher temperatures. It does all of these things under tremendous heat and pressure.
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How do I read the numbers around the ‘W’? For example 5W40?
Single grade oils get too thin when hot for most modern engines which is where multigrade oil comes in. The idea is simple – use science and physics to prevent the base oil from getting as thin as it would normally do when it gets hot. There’s more detail on this later in the page under both viscosity, and SAE ratings. But as a quick primer – the number before the ‘W’ is the ‘cold’ viscosity rating of the oil, and the number after the ‘W’ is the ‘hot’ viscosity rating. So a 5W40 oil is one which behaves like a 5-rated single grade oil when cold, but doesn’t thin any more than a 40-rated single grade oil when hot. The lower the ‘winter’ number (hence the ‘W’), the easier the engine will turn over when starting in cold climates.