I can give you my cars make and model and the conditions that I drive in, but I'm looking for a general guide to selecting the right oil for a car. I'm not really knowledgable when it comes to cars so it needs to be simple. I need to know when and why selecting a synth oil is prefered. What are the differences between the different grades? (5/30 10/30 5/20 15/40 10/40) And anything else that goes into selecting an oil for a car.

Please don't give answers like "__ brand is the best".

  • I think you asked a whole bunch of questions at once. You might think about breaking them out into individuals.
    – Bob Cross
    Jun 6, 2011 at 21:31
  • Not answer worthy, but you can also find the oil type on many cars printed on either the dipstick (or dipstick handle) or on the oil fill cap.
    – Wulfhart
    Jun 15, 2011 at 20:38

3 Answers 3


Look in your owner's manual for the vehicle. It should have a good recommendation on the grade and whether synthetic oil is required. In fact some vehicle mfg. will recommend a brand because that brand meets certain requirements.

  • Just to add a quick note about synthetics. While in theory adding synthetic seems like the right thing to do for your engine, in some cases the manual will specifically say to avoid synthetic or blend oils. I'm not sure how common it is, but I've known some people who had that scenario with regular non-performance engines/cars.
    – theonlylos
    Sep 30, 2011 at 19:27

I echo jzd's answer. The car's owner's manual should tell you what you need.

To answer some more of your question: numbers like "5W30" are viscosity ratings. They indicate how viscous ("thick") the oil is. Most oils are "multi-viscosity," quoting a range of weights (e.g., 5W30 instead of 30W) to indicate how they behave at different temperatures. The "W" stands for "Winter" and indicates how the oil performs at cold temperatures. For example, 10W30 oil is engineered to be as thin as straight 10 when cold but as thick as straight 30 when hot.

Viscosity matters because too-thin oil won't lubricate the engine well enough, and too-thick oil will reduce engine efficiency, make it difficult to start in cold weather, and increase the engine wear caused by cold starts. Oil gets thinner as it gets hotter; your owner's manual may recommend different weights depending on the temperature where you live. Also, your engine will have been built to expect a certain thickness of oil between its moving parts.

The other thing-on-the-label you might watch for is the quality rating. Any oil will have an American Petroleum Institute standard printed somewhere on the label; the oil you buy must meet or exceed the standard given in your owner's manual. You shouldn't have to worry about this unless your owner's manual goes out of the way to mention a minimum standard. Some manufacturers (such as Volkswagen) publish their own oil quality standards, in which case you'll want to do a little bit of Web searching to see if a particular variety of oil meets the automaker's standard.

Synthetic oil is generally considered better than conventional oil because it's more durable. Oil breaks down with time and use and becomes less effective as a lubricant. Synthetic holds up longer than conventional. Your engine ought to last longer if you use synthetic, but I don't know of any publicly-available hard evidence showing how much longer.

Provided you change your oil on schedule, however, you won't be doing anything wrong by buying conventional (non-synthetic) oil. As a middle ground, there are some "synthetic blends" available, which are a mix of conventional and synthetic oil. They cost less than "full synthetic" oil. (This is what I use.)

But the short answer is: do what it says in the owner's manual, and you'll be fine. You can read even more nitty-gritty details here if you're curious:


  • 2
    your answer is contradictory - you say "Your engine will last longer if you use synthetic" and in the next paragraph "Provided you change your oil on schedule, you won't be doing anything wrong by buying conventional oil." My understanding aligns with your latter quote that mineral (conventional) oil is fine as long as it is changed often enough. With that said I just purchased a 95 land cruiser and will be using Mobile1 0W40 (fully synthetic) - and yes it's expensive at $9 per quart (and i need 8 of them per oil change!).
    – Tone
    Jun 7, 2011 at 11:49
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    @Tone What I was trying to get across was that one won't hurt anything by using conventional oil, even though synthetic oil might be better. Sort of like replacing tires; a set of good performance tires offers more grip (ergo, more safety), but there's nothing wrong or harmful about buying inexpensive tires (provided you replace them on time). There's a cost/benefit tradeoff involved that's hard to calculate finely. I was trying to indicate the general contour of the tradeoff. I've edited a bit to make my thoughts clear; I'm open to more suggestions. Jun 7, 2011 at 13:20
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    I've heard that synthetic oil can damage older engines. Is there any truth to this? Should it be a separate question?
    – endolith
    Jun 14, 2011 at 1:22
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    @endolith I've heard the notion that synthetic oil can leak past older oil seals, but not that it could damage the engine. I'd say that's a separate but related question. Jun 14, 2011 at 13:56

Your owners manual will tell you if synthetic oil or a synthetic blend is required. You can use it even if it's not, but you may be wasting your money. If you've got an oil cooler, it's probably overkill. Well, except if the vehicle sits in a garage during the winter. I use a full synthetic in my garage queen even though it has an oil cooler, the theory being that the synthetic is less likely to cause problems due to moisture contamination while sitting.

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