How do you know if motor oil brand ‘A’ is better than brand ‘B’?

For a very long time I have always wondered if one brand of oil was any better than the other. But if you ever wondered about this and actually tried to do research to find the best brand, you would most likely stumble upon some sort of phony demonstration done by a small oil company. My favorite is when they have some sort of play off the old Timken bearing wear test, which simply spins a wheel in an oil bath against a piece of metal (just skip ahead to the test):

Any bystander seeing this test would think that its makes perfect sense, but the problem is this test doesn’t simulate engine conditions or the types of loading inside an engine at all! Therefore, the results on motor oil are completely irrelevant. It’s also easy to get really good results in this test by adding high pressure additives in the oil, but these types of additives are not found in motor oil because they cause problems like corrosion. Usually, this test is used in late night demonstrations of some sort of snake oil product. But it has been used by unknowing 3rd parties to ‘test’ oil, and has been used by some unscrupulous marketing departments.

So how do you know if your oil is one of the better ones out there? Well, this is kind of a trick question because there really isn’t a best. If you really want the best, you should start out with a high quality synthetic. But after that,  you really have to send out a used oil sample for analysis to see which oil brand works best with your engine. This struck me as strange at first, because every engine is constructed in a similar fashion with similar alloys in the bearings and such. But there seems to be enough variance that the oil formulation from one brand to another really does make a difference. So one brand may be superior in a Honda b18, while that same brand does not perform as well in a Ford Z-tec.

This is all proven in the report returned from the lab which looks something like this:

With a report like this, we can see exactly what’s wearing in the engine. Things such as bearings and cylinder rings are made up of specific elements; and if we see an unusually high concentration of these elements in the oil, we know that part is wearing too quickly. This is how you can tell how well your oil is performing; the better the oil, the lower the concentration of these elements. It does take a trained individual to properly interpret this report; and a good lab should already have experience with your engine and should advise you on what’s going on. But after seeing a few of these reports for your engine, you can learn what’s normal and what’s not.

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