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Revving Up


Phuc Nguyen depends on motorcycle engine oils to help keep his business running. A resident of Ho Chi Minh City, he co-owns Orient Tours, a small firm offering two-wheeler tours throughout Vietnam to foreign travelers. Nguyen, who also owns a small repair shop, does maintenance for the companys fleet – a mix of Honda Dreams and Belarusian Minsks. He said he uses Castrol oil because it is foreign-made and because British soccer star David Beckham promotes it. He seems pleased with its performance.

It is number one in price and quality, he said.

But Japanese manufacturers, including the one that built some of Orient Tours vehicles, are not so satisfied with the quality of oils generally available to the millions of motorcycle owners throughout Asia. They contend the quality of products is low and advancing too slowly, and they are now in the midst of a decade-long campaign to raise up the market. At the same time, they are coping with problems caused by a growing split between engine oil needs of cars and motorcycles.

These OEMs are hoping that recommendations to use better oils will convince Asian riders to do so. But they are also counting on oil marketers to offer higher quality products – without charging much more for them. Industry sources say it is uncertain whether that will happen.

The 2-wheeled Tide

Unlike North America and Europe, motorcycles rule the road in Asia. Its not just that Asia has fewer cars; it also has a lot more two-wheelers. Asians buy 23 million new motorcycles every year, 85 percent of worldwide production (see chart page 25). China is by far the biggest market, claiming 11.7 million sales by itself. India and Vietnam follow, with sales of 4.1 million and 2.1 million, respectively.

With a combined market share of 90 percent, Japanese manufacturers have the biggest stake in the region, and they are generally dissatisfied with the quality of engine oils available. Most oils used in Asia only meet the requirements of API SE or SF. By comparison, SJ and SL – or their equivalents – prevail in North America, Europe and Japan. Japanese OEMs are doubly concerned about Asia because the quality gap is growing as the frequency of upgrades in developed regions speeds.

In 2000, the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) undertook to investigate motorcycle engine oil trends in Asia and to improve its quality over a 10-year period. The campaign began with formation of the Motorcycle Working Group, led by representatives of Japans four big motorcycle makers – Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. Other members represent four oil and two additive companies.

The groups strategy depends largely on promotion of an oil standard – an approach believed to have helped improve two-stroke motorcycle oils. In 1993, the Japanese Automobile Standards Organization launched its JASO Two-stroke Oil Standard, which consists of three chemical tests and four engine tests. The specification defines three grades of oil – FA, FB and FC. (The organization plans this year to define an upgraded category, FD, and to eliminate FA.) Oil marketers self-certify their products and register them with the specifications administrator, the JASO Oil Standard Implementation Panel (JOSIP).

Members of JAMAs working group say the two-stroke standard helped raise the quality of oils used in Asia. A survey by the Japanese Lubricating Oil Society found the spec had gained widespread international recognition from motorcycle manufacturers and dealers, as well as lube producers and distributors by 1998. Then, between March 2001 and January of this year, the number of two-stroke oils registered by Asia marketers grew 64 percent, to 267 products.

The societys survey also concluded that numbers of equipment problems dropped significantly after the standard was adopted. Frequency of engine seizures, early wear and deterioration of bike performance decreased by half, as did occurrence of muffler clogging and emissions problems.

The [two-stroke] standard is internationally recognized, widely adopted, and extremely effective in reducing engine trouble, Yamahas Yoshinobo Yashiro, a member of the working group, said during its April meeting in India.

The gains for two-stroke oils are muted, though, by the motorcycle markets shift to four-stroke engines. In the 1990s, production of four-stroke bikes rose steadily, while sales of two-strokes remained flat. In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, four-stroke bikes accounted for approximately 80 percent of new sales by 2000. In Thailand, four-strokes began the decade accounting for one-tenth of sales and ended with more than half. Two-strokes remain popular with many riders – their simpler design makes them easier to maintain and repair – and they still make up half of Asias motorcycle fleet, said working group member Masatoshi Akagi, of Honda. But more than 80 percent of new bikes sold in the region have four-stroke engines.

New Oil for New Engines

Two- and four-stroke engines have different oil requirements due to a fundamental design difference: In two-stroke engines, the oil is mixed with the fuel and is consumed in a single pass through the engine compartment, whereas four-stroke engines, like cars, are lubricated by repeated circulation of oil pumped from a crankcase.

Two-stroke oils need solvents in order to mix with the fuel, and must use ashless detergents and dispersants to ensure the mixture burns cleanly. It is also more important that two-stroke oils not contain materials likely to stick to rings. Four-stroke oils, because they are used longer, need oxidative stability, anti-foaming agents and anti-wear performance that two-stroke oils do not.

In 1998, Japanese OEMs christened a specification for four-stroke oils, JASO T 903, consisting of four chemical and physical properties and one test for clutch capacity. The chemical and physical limits – covering viscosity, volatility, shear stability, sulfated ash content and foaming tendency – are identical to those included in API SH and its European equivalent, ACEA A-2. JASO also included a clutch test to take into account design differences between cars and four-stroke motorcycles. Unlike cars, a motorcycles crankshaft and clutch are contained in the crankcase and therefore are also lubricated by the motor oil. Although its main job is to lubricate, the oil must afford enough friction for the clutch to function properly. To gauge for this, T 903 includes SAE No. 2, a friction test commonly used for automatic transmission fluids.

Like the two-stroke specification, T 903 is administered by JOSIP with self-certification. The four-stroke standard has also been gaining popularity, with the number of products certified rising from 136 to 320 world-wide during the past three years. The number certified from Asia jumped from 31 to 87.

But T 903 has its problems – at both ends of the quality spectrum. First of all, it includes SE and SF oils, the very grades that vehicle manufacturers now are trying to get away from.

When we started developing the JASO standard in 1997, although API SH oils had already been launched on the market, most performance grades for motorcycle genuine oils were SE or SF, Yamahas Yashiro explained. And these oils were, of course, suited to motorcycles.

Veering Off Course

Thats not so anymore. PCMO specs on which T 903 has piggybacked are becoming less suited for motorcycles. Since American and Japanese automakers launched the ILSAC GF series of specifications in 1992, and because of efforts to improve fuel economy, the viscosity of oils recommended for most new cars has been decreasing. Thinner 5W-30 and 5W-20 oils may work in cars, but JAMA members say they offer inadequate protection against gear pitting in motorcycles, which generate higher engine speeds and power output ratios. The association concluded that oils with high-temperature high-shear values less than 2.9 – this includes 5W-30 and 5W-20 oils – should not be used in motorcycles.

Of course, higher quality, energy-conserving oils are not yet common in Asia. Most of the products used in the region are still SG or lower, and T 903 is still based on SH – two generations behind the American Petroleum Institutes new SM category, which it will begin licensing next month. Still, JAMA members say newer specifications will eventually spread to Asia and when they do, additive companies will stop supplying packages for SH formulas.

Diverging requirements for cars and motorcycles raises the question of whether four-stroke two-wheelers should depend less on PCMO specifications. A separate standard would probably include engine sequence tests, because T 903 – unlike PCMO specs and JASOs two-stroke standard – has none of its own.

Holding Down Costs

JAMA this year reconfirmed its choice to leave engine tests out of T 903. Members said the group seeks a balance between having a specification that defines need for motorcycle engines and holding down costs for oil marketers.

We wanted to avoid heavy efforts to conduct various engine tests, Yashiro said. Oil marketers can [meet] the standard with minimum development cost.

For the moment, Japanese OEMs are relying on recommendations – and help – from oil marketers to raise the quality of four-stroke oils in Asia. Manufacturers pledged this year to change their genuine oils to products meeting SH or better. They added that they will rewrite owners manuals to recommend the same and direct service shops to do likewise. But before that can happen, they said, the oil and additive industries must develop and offer products that meet those standards and are also inexpensive. Members warned that prices charged for these products in more developed regions may not fit budgets of Asian drivers.

We need to have inexpensive high-grade oils so that people in Asia can use them, said Hondas Akagi.

Representatives of oil and additive companies cautioned, though, that OEMs may not get their wish.

Ideally, yes, the market would supply higher quality oils at inexpensive prices, said Lubrizol Japans Kenji Takagi, a member of JAMAs working group. However, high quality lube oil is high cost.

If better oils do cost more, the success of JAMAs campaign may depend on the degree to which customers follow OEM recommendations. Riders like Anil Puthalat, of Mumbai, India, seem inclined to listen. Owner of a Yamaha four-stroke, the auto mechanic knows little about service categories and is not particular about which brand he uses. He is dedicated, though, about using genuine oils branded by the cycle manufacturers themselves.

On the other side are riders like Martin Gino, a member of the club Motorcycle Philippines. Gino, who lives in Manila and works as a marketing assistant, owns six scooters and motorcycles, including a Yamaha Zeal that he uses to get to work and for trips that log about 200 kilometers per weekend. While considering himself more serious than most about motorcycles, he is cost-conscious in choosing oils for his various bikes. He said, I basically use these oils because they are low-priced in the market and my cousin carries them in his shop.

Japans motorcycle manufacturers may have their work cut out for them.

(LubesnGreases Contributing Editor Hutokshi Rustomfram also contributed to this story.)

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