Monday Rant: You Don’t Need Synthetic Oil

Mobil Engine Oils

Unrefined oil spray from Justin Pritchard

My friend Jake thought I was a monster.

“You’re putting THAT in your engine?!”

He stopped by for a grown-up beverage while I was changing the oil in my 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS: turbocharged four-cylinder, manual transmission, black in colour and a total riot to drive the bejesus out of.

“What’s wrong with this stuff?” I asked, tipping the jug of conventional oil into the funnel sticking out of the top of my engine. Normal oil. Cheap oil.

Glug. Glug. Glug.

Jake’s eyes were wide. His jaw was ajar. He was all wound up and giving me a look like I’d just murdered a kitten.

“That’s not even synthetic!” he cried. “Your ride’s got a turbo and all that. You’re probably going to ruin your engine.”

Let me tell you about Jake. He drives a Nissan Sylvia. Similar setup to my MR2: turbo four-cylinder, manual, gets driven hard. But Jake only puts really expensive oil into his engine. The most expensive stuff he can find. He figures his 200 horsepower Nissan needs protection designed for track-going Lamborghinis, and that if he used anything but fifteen-bucks-a-bottle luxury engine oil, his powerplant would sludge up, puff smoke, and send rod number three out the side of the block while he tried to peel out of the Timmies drive-thru.

The question of which of us is “right” on oil selection is an ongoing debate.

Synthetic oil is great. If you live in a place where it hits forty below, it’s better for protection when you start your ride first thing in the morning. (I don’t drive my MR2 in the winter, and Jake’s Sylvia gets parked at the first sign of a leaf changing colour in the fall, too).

It might help you get better mileage. It might offer more protection. It might make your engine last longer.

Might, might, might.

My logic is simpler, and backed up by numerous mechanic pals. I use the cheap, and I figure, nearly just-as-good stuff, change it often, and never have a worry. I ran conventional oil in my MR2 for years, lapping it on weekends and enjoying its turbocharger and redline as often as possible, with no issue.

Is synthetic oil better? I’m sure it is. Is it worth two or three times the price to use in a vehicle that’ll never start up in the cold? Personally, I don’t think so.

I’m of the belief that conventional engine oil isn’t junk. Heck, today, it’s better than ever. Car engines, even really powerful ones, have run conventional oil through their veins for ages. Synthetic oil has its place in the engines of extreme-performance cars engineered for massive levels of heat and compression and internal component speeds – though for the average driver of the average car, or even a little sporty one, I think its overkill. Plus, I’m a fan of saving money.

So I disagree with Jake’s logic. He figures he’s a pretty sporty driver, often spouts on about how he drives his Silvia pretty hard, and figures he needs top-notch oil and nothing less, because his sporty driving will instantly disintegrate the conventional stuff that I use and leave his engine ruined.

Have you seen how they torture-test engines? Or how they torture-test engine oils? We’re talking operation at or beyond redline and maximum load for hours on end, extreme repeated cold starts, and other nasty and abusive conditions simulated, over and over again. For hours on end. Even days.

So, sporty driver or not, I don’t figure that occasional, or even frequent visits to redline in first and second gear while you come out of a traffic light is putting the engine oil in your ride through any sort of serious strain. Simply, synthetic oil is designed to defend against heat and stress and wear that you’re just not generating if you drive only on the street, even like a maniac.

So, I’ll keep using the cheap stuff, changing it regularly, and putting the extra cash in my pocket.

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Justin Pritchard
Justin Pritchard is a native of Windsor, Ontario – though he’s called Sudbury his home for the past 20 years. Justin is a full-time auto writer, consultant and presenter of EastLink TV’s AutoPilot. His work can be seen weekly in numerous outlets across the country. When not writing about the latest new models and industry trends, you’ll probably find him fixing his 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS.
Justin Pritchard

Latest posts by Justin Pritchard (see all)

  • Phook Gooogle

    I love people that write these types of articles. Not a clue about the subject. I run a small shop and it is with undying gratitude that I thank you. Please keep writing about automotive subjects. It is people like you that allow me to make a nice living. I won’t get into the debate about which oil to use on a regular car or how to check it. I need to make a living and advice to people other than my customers is bad for business. However, there seems to be some intelligent replies here so here is a golden rule. Synthetic oil won’t coke the turbo. If you have half a clue about automotive, you will realize what a huge statement that is. As for some of the replies, please keep giving advice. Again, my shop loves you.

  • Honesty Counts

    Hi Justin: You are 100% correct. I use synthetic all the time, but the only reason I do that is because I like the fact that even though the oil cost twice as much, I can change the oil half as often, so it balances out in the end. I park my car indoors so I don’t need the cold-fighting ability of synthetic. The one thing that synthetic IS GOOD FOR, something that you missed out on was this: ‘SHORT TRIPS’. When a soccer mom gets into her van, drives 2 miles to get some milk, then later in the day drives 3 miles to pick up the kids at school, none of that driving warms up the oil hot enough to burn off the water vapor created from the combustion. With conventional oil this water mixes in with the oil creating a ‘foam’ that later turns to a form of sludge, while with synthetic oil it does not. However, a synthetic oil will still form ‘varnish’ like deposits just like regular oil does, and I’ve even noticed that in my 2006 Corolla with 200,000 miles on it, so I’ve just started using something called “Sludge Away”, a ‘cleaner’ that you add to your oil, as well as something called ‘Lucas Oil Stabilizer’ to ‘thicken’ the oil. I’ve noticed lately that the engine has developed a bit of hydraulic lifter ‘tapping’ noises only when it has been stopped for 15 to 30 minutes while the engine is hot. So for some reason either the oil pump cannot create enough oil pressure to re-fill the lifters, and that might be due to sludge buildups or a faulty oil pump, or a faulty lifter, and the oil thickener should fix that, and if its sludge (as I suspect) then the ‘Sludge Away’ should fix that in about 20,000 miles. You add 1 liter of both to the engine oil and just leave them until the next oil change. I’ll find out in a few months if the engine is fixed, but so far the noise does seem to be slowly going away, so its probably sludge. I read that even synthetic oil sludges up, and I do a lot of short distance driving also, so that’s probably my problem = sludge.

  • NorthVanCan

    The oil may last twice as long but it still gets dirty just as fast as regular oil, so you shouldn’t wait to change it.

  • Myworkisdonehere


  • Colin Fox

    My 91 Miata runs just fine on plain old 10W-30. And has for some time. Not a single puff of blue smoke.

  • shawngr

    As a shop owner, I thank you for spreading more misinformation. It’s great for business.

  • Mawbs

    Not true. You are wrong!

  • Ottoknut

    Turbochargers build up a tremendous amount of heat in the engine compartment, and it doesn’t take much neglect to let oil coke up in the turbo’s bearings. Synthetic oils can take much higher temps than mineral oils, and can mean the difference between a long-lived turbo and an expensive rebuild. Also, synthetic oils reduce friction, which means a few freed up horsepower.

  • Leon Marks

    Justin, i totally agree. I am a tech and have been working on cars since i was 12. What nobody hear has said that they have researched what synthetic oil is. All of this so called synthetic oil is petroleum based. Like all oils it has a quality additive package and is slightly more refined, although oil companies are vague on this. There is no 100% synthetic oil on the market. The key i have found to longevity is to use a name brand oil and filter and change on a regular basis. I go every 10,000 kms and have never had a problem. One thing people neglect is the cooling system. Note on turbo engines, on cold start do not rev engine until oil pressure comes up and to let the turbo idle down befoe u shut the engie down.

  • Leon Marks

    Most people don’t really understand turbo’s. The only reason a turbo “cokes” is because the engine is burning excessive oi The tolerances on a turbo are very small. Don’t forget the turbo is exhaust driven……..

  • Leon Marks

    The one quality of oil is to keep the dirt in suspension. The filter only filters up to a certain micron. There are higher quality filters on the market now. I always recommend oil and filter changes. Extend your changes, but always do both

  • Honesty Counts

    = Yes, you are correct, it does pick up all that combustion crap just as fast as regular oil. The oil makers say that its okay, that this synthetic oil is not affected by those combustion by-products the way conventional oil would be, so you can still leave it in for 10,000 kms and it won’t damage your engine, even though it looks just horrible. Then there is ‘EXTENDED PERFORMANCE’ synthetic oils that are not recommended for 20,000 km oil changes. I’ve been using that for the past 3 years now and my 2006 Corolla has just over 300,000 kms (200,000 miles) on it with no problems, changing the oil every 20,000 kms. Is the oil black? LIKE TAR ! Any engine problems? NOPE. So as you can see, just use it and ignore how the engine oil gets dark, its designed to operated that way.

  • Mick

    It’s important in turbo cars to prevent coking. Synthetic is good for high heat.