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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Does My Car Need Synthetic Oil?

If your car’s owner’s manual says it does, you do.

For many consumers, whether to spend extra money for synthetic oil for an oil change is a difficult question to answer.

Manufacturers of synthetic oil promise more miles and better performance when compared with conventional motor oil, but it comes at a higher cost — sometimes twice as much per oil change. Is it worth the extra money?

Typically, high-performance vehicles will be more likely to require synthetic oil, as will vehicles that have a turbocharged or supercharged engine. However, if your vehicle does not require synthetic oil, the choice is trickier – and there is no clear answer.

Synthetic oil generally resists breaking down for longer than conventional motor oil (typically 7,500 miles to 10,000 miles, sometimes up to 15,000 miles, as opposed to 3,000 miles to 7,500 miles for conventional oil). That makes the extra cost a wash, if you have half the number of oil changes, but each one costs you twice as much. Other touted benefits include cleaner engines, better flow in cold temperatures, better protection when it’s hot outside and better performance with turbocharged engines.

There are also synthetic blends. As the name implies, these are blends of synthetic and conventional oils. They straddle a middle ground — they cost more than conventional oils but less than full synthetics, and are said to last longer than conventional oils but not quite as long as synthetics — but again, that’s a hard number to pin down since manufacturers are vague with their claims. An independent testing lab we spoke with said that synthetics often didn’t perform much better than conventional oils do.

Still, older engines may benefit from synthetics because it is less likely to form sludge.

If your car doesn’t require synthetic oil you should perform a cost/benefit analysis, but that can be difficult to do due to vague claims made by manufacturers. There may be no reason to spend more on synthetic oil, except for peace of mind.

What Do You Need to Know About Oil Changes

Oil-change intervals vary by manufacturer and engines, so consult your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule to see how often to change the oil in your vehicle and what type of oil to use. You may be surprised. We were surprised to learn that a Camry’s 2.5-liter engine requires 0W-20 synthetic oil, for instance. Manufacturers suggest you change oil more often for “severe” driving conditions, such as frequent trailer towing, extensive stop-and-go driving or idling in traffic, driving in extreme heat or cold, or frequent short-distance driving in which the engine doesn’t reach full operating temperature.

How do I know when it’s time for an oil change?
Time and mileage intervals vary by vehicle manufacturer and whether an engine requires synthetic oil (which is meant to last longer). Use the guidelines in your owner’s manual, including whether most of your driving qualifies as happening in “severe” conditions, such as frequent short trips and stop-and-go driving. Under those conditions, you should change the oil more frequently.

How often should I replace my oil?
You should change the oil at least as often as is recommended by the vehicle manufacturer (the information is in your owner’s manual). These days, that’s every 7,500 to 10,000 miles on many vehicles. Many mechanics recommend doing it more often, such as every 5,000 to 6,000 miles or every six months, whichever comes first. If you do mainly short trips and/or stop-and-go driving, you should change the oil more often. How about every 3,000 miles? Though that’s overkill, it can’t hurt, and it might extend the life of your engine.

Why do I need to change my oil?
Oil is the lifeblood of an engine; it lubricates and cleans moving parts and performs a vital cooling function as it circulates. Over time and repeated exposure to cold starts, short trips and engine heat, oil gets dirty, becomes thicker and loses its ability to prevent sludge and deposits from forming. Mechanics often say that changing the oil is the best preventive medicine for extending engine life.

How much should I pay?
The cost of repairs can depend on where you are as much as it does on what you need fixed. To get an estimate for your repair, go to our estimator, plug in your car’s year, make and model information, add your ZIP code, and choose the repair you need. We’ll give you a range for what your repairs should cost in your area.

Why Are My Brakes Squealing?

If you’re lucky, the squealing (or squeaking) noise that your brakes make when you first drive your car in the morning, particularly after rain or snow, is just surface rust being scraped off the rotors by the pads the first few times you apply the brake pedal, or the result of moisture and dirt that collects on the rotors, including from condensation caused by high humidity. If it goes away after a few brake applications, no worries.

If the noise persists most times or every time you apply the brakes or stays on continuously while you’re driving, the cause is more serious — and the fix will be more expensive.

A continuous high-pitched squeal while you’re driving is usually the sound of a built-in wear indicator telling you that it’s time for new pads. As the pads wear down and get thinner, a small metal tab contacts the rotor like a needle on a vinyl record to warn you it’s time for new pads. (Some wear indicators may work differently and engage only when you apply the brakes.)

Other squeals and squeaks will require a brake inspection to diagnose, and may require cleaning, lubrication or adjustment, and possibly new parts. Most brake noise is caused by worn or loose parts.

For example, an unevenly worn rotor (often referred to as “warped”) won’t let the brake pads press flat against the rotor when you apply the brakes, and that can create vibrations that generate noise. Likewise, an unevenly worn pad won’t press tightly against the rotor and may chirp. Another possibility is that the pads are loosely mounted, or the shims that hold them in place have corroded or become loose.

And then there are the pads themselves. Some mechanics warn that bargain-bin pads are more likely to be noisier than higher-quality, more-expensive pads. In addition, loose or sticking calipers can contribute noise.

Because there are several possibilities, and because brakes are a crucial safety feature, it is best to have a pro diagnose noise.

A grinding sound usually means that the pads have worn away, and now the backing plates on which they were mounted are being squeezed against the rotor. This metal-to-metal contact means that you will need to replace the rotor as well — and that you probably ignored some earlier warning signs of brake wear.

Oil Life Monitoring Systems

Until recently, the question of when to change your oil was usually answered by your local garage, which had a vested interest in servicing your car every 3,000 miles. Your alternative was to crack the owner’s manual to see whether your driving habits fell into the “severe” or “normal” category. And then you’d let the listed interval be your frequency guide.

But increasingly, the change-interval question is being answered by a vehicle’s oil life monitoring system, which signals the driver through the instrument panel. This alert usually arrives anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 miles.

So how does the system know when it’s time for a change? Electronic sensors throughout the drivetrain send information about engine revolutions, temperature and driving time to the car’s computer. The data is run through a mathematical algorithm that predicts when the oil will begin to degrade. The light comes on well in advance, giving the owner time to get the car serviced.

Oil life monitoring systems have been around for several decades. They were introduced in General Motors vehicles in the late 1980s and have been phased in slowly, said Matt Snider, project engineer in GM’s Fuels and Lubricants Group. “We are very confident in the accuracy of the system,” he said. The average recommendation from the system for GM vehicles is 8,500 miles, Snider said. He said that the longest oil change interval he was personally aware of was 17,000 miles in a colleague’s car. For 2010 vehicles, 14 of 35 manufacturers use oil life monitoring systems.

Real-World Evidence
The oil life monitoring system in a 2007 Honda Fit Sport owned by an editor signaled for an oil change at 5,500 miles, due to a lot of around-town driving. Later, under highway conditions, the system (which Honda calls a “maintenance minder”) came on at 7,600 miles. Clearly, the system had detected different driving conditions and adjusted accordingly.

When we had the oil changed, we captured a sample and sent it to Blackstone Laboratories. Showing the conservative nature of the oil life sensors, the analysis showed the oil had at least 2,000 miles of life left in it.

A long-term 2008 Pontiac G8 GT driven by Edmunds went 13,000 miles before the monitoring system indicated the need for an oil change. We also sent a sample of that oil to a lab for analysis. The result: The oil could actually have safely delivered at least another 2,000 miles of service. “With an oil life system, we can use the software to tailor an oil drain interval to the behavior of a certain customer,” Snider said.

Freed From the Schedules
Perhaps the best thing about oil life monitoring systems is that they free car owners from the confusing exercise of slotting themselves in the normal or severe driving schedules listed in the owner’s manual. Severe conditions are described differently by various carmakers, but some “severe” conditions that they frequently cite are driving in stop-and-go traffic, towing, excessive idling and driving in the mountains.

In many cases, quick-oil-change outlets and dealerships’ service departments encourage frequent oil changes by claiming that every driver falls in the severe category. This begs the question: Why have a normal category at all? Oil life monitoring systems put an end to the debate by reacting to how you actually drive.

Using an Oil Life Monitoring System
If your car has an oil life monitoring system, read your owner’s manual to get a feel for how it’s going to communicate with you. In general, the systems are designed to be easily understood and used. Some systems will display the percentage of oil life left so you can schedule a service visit. The systems factor in plenty of extra time for the driver who procrastinates. For additional motivation, however, some systems will display a negative number to show just how overdue the oil change is.

When a technician changes the oil, he resets the monitoring system. Do-it-yourselfers can easily do the reset, too, just by using a series of commands found in the owner’s manual.