Maybe you don’t like synthetic cheese. Maybe you just can’t get past that day-glow orange hue. Or maybe you’re still freaked out about how you can use it, in a pinch, for window putty. Or maybe you’re just skeptical about any food product that can be shot out of an aerosol can.
But that shouldn’t colour your appreciation for all things synthetic — because synthetic engine oil is the best thing since sliced organic bread.
Refined crude oil (or mineral oil) is, and always has been, a great lubricant for engines; it’s 98 per cent of what makes up conventional, or regular, motor oil.
But there also has always been ongoing work on finding lubrication alternatives. These alternatives have the properties of mineral oil, but are a “synthesis” of many chemicals.
The Germans were the first to make mass amounts of the stuff, when they faced petroleum shortages during the Second World War.
It was used in the aerospace industry for many years, but the American Petroleum Institute (API) didn’t approve it for passenger car use until the late 1960s.
It outperforms regular engine oil in all parameters, mostly because it’s molecule chains are more uniform. Picture a synthetic oil molecule as group of identical marbles. Throw them together and these groups slide against each other very easily.
The molecule groups in conventional oil, however, are comprised of more diverse elements. The marbles are of different sizes, and some aren’t even round (which technically wouldn’t make them marbles, but I need you to work with me here people). When these groups slide against each other, sharp edges can find other sharp edges to create log jams, and these edges are more vulnerable to being chopped off and/or destroyed by heat and friction.
Through years of testing and years of use, the advantages of synthetic oils have become obvious: Way better flow in cold temperatures and start-up; more durable so less oil changes are needed; more slippery so better protection; less likely to sludge up; better fuel economy; more horsepower.
Not surprisingly, synthetic oil use is going steadily up.
I guess the biggest indication that the synthetic wave will eventually wash over the entire market, is more and more cars are filled with synthetic oil at the factory, and are required to use the stuff (by the factory) forever and evermore.
Basically, the only thing going against synthetics, and tempering its upward pace, is price — currently a litre is two to three times the price of a litre of mineral oil. And note that conventional oils continue to stay in the game because their additive packages (the non-mineral oil components) are quite high-tech these days, and make them quite robust for their price.
Price becomes less a factor, however, when you consider what you’ll save in fuel mileage and fewer oil changes — which also make it better for the environment.
So it when comes to lubrication, synthetic is, ironically, the real deal, the genuine article, the natural choice, etc.
Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.