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Need to Know


Passenger car engine oils account for an estimated 28 percent of the lubricant sold in the United States by volume, and roughly 35 percent of the value. These lubricants go into vintage Model Ts and MGs, high-performance muscle cars like the GTO and Camaro, and workhorse pickups such as the F150 and Ram 1500. They also lubricate high-price rides like the Maybach 62 S, Rolls-Royce Phantom and Ferrari 599. In most cases, however, engine oil goes into far less nostalgic or prestigious vehicles. This is because most PCEO sold in the United States lands in the sumps of close to 225 million Fords, Toyotas, GMs, Chryslers, Hondas and other more common vehicles.

The performance and quality of the oil required for use in virtually all of these vehicles – whether old or new – is made known by a logo and two-letter code licensed by the American Petroleum Institute, and a viscosity grade defined by SAE Standard J300, Engine Oil Viscosity Classification. What do these codes and grades tell drivers about lubricant performance and quality? I decided to be a consumer for a day and go shop for the right engine oil for a do-it-yourself oil change for a 2001 Mercedes E320 4-Matic.

First stop was Pep Boys. Pep Boys is one of the leading auto-parts chains in the country. They sell a boatload of engine oil, and must know what a quality lubricant is and what should go into my fantasy vehicle.

When it was clear the clerk at Pep Boys was not of much help, a 30-year vet of DIY who was buying oil for himself and listening in stepped up to offer some advice. Its really all about the additives, he said. He avoids buying the cheap stuff, doesnt waste money on the expensive stuff, and selects from the mid-priced lubricants. With that, I grabbed a bottle of mid-priced oil and asked him what the API letters SM meant. This helpful expert responded, I really dont know, but the important thing to consider is price and to change oil every 3,000 miles. Off he went with five quarts of Pennzoil.

Since I struck out at Pep Boys, I decided to give NAPA a try. They too are a leading auto-parts chain and national warehouse distributor. Surely they must know what the best oil is for my vehicle. Unfortunately there was no one on the floor to ask, so I had to wait in line to speak with the person behind the counter. He checked the computer and said I needed a 5W-40 synthetic and that my best bet would be Valvoline. But there was no 5W-40 of any brand, let alone Valvoline, on the shelves and I was told, after waiting in line again, We must be out. When asked what API SM meant, the clerk said, I forget, but I think its some kind of certification.

Okay, no problem. Now that I know whats needed, Ill run to Wal-Mart and get it there, cheap. But just to be sure, I ask the person in the auto service area at Wal-Mart what the best oil is for the car. They must know; Wal-Mart sells far more oil than any other U.S. Retailer.

Although I had to wait 15 minutes to speak with the department manager, because the person in front of me was getting four new tires, the manager was very helpful. He took me over to the oil aisle and explained that in his personal experience Quaker State is the best. This is because he has never had any problems with it. He did add, however, that he used Castrol when he raced because most say Castrol is best for racing. I grabbed a bottle of Quaker State Higher Mileage engine oil (with no API donut) and asked if this was best for the Mercedes. He asked how many miles on the car and when told 150,000, he said, Yep, this is very good oil for your car. But he too had no idea what API stood for or what SM meant. Not a clue.

Still unsure, I decided to follow the instructions on the back of many oil bottles advising I read my owners manual to determine the manufacturers recommendations for viscosity grade and API Service Category. And there it was, on page 313 of the operators manual: a reference to the Factory Approved Service Products Pamphlet, one of many documents in the 2.5-inch binder that comes with the car. This pamphlet says, Mercedes recommends the use of MB approved engine oil listed in the Mercedes-Benz oil specification sheet 229.1 or 229.3 which also meets ACEA and/or API classifications listed in the chart below. If a MB approved or ACEA quality engine oil is not available, then an API quality engine oil meeting the below listed API classification can be used.

Since sheets 229.1 or 229.3 were not included with the owners manual, I was still not sure what the best PCEO for this $60,000 buggy is. So I decided to put off the DIY experience, and instead buy an ink cartridge for a six-year-old HP 500 PSC printer I bought on eBay for $75. The clerk at Staples asked if I needed color or just the black ink cartridge. I said color. He said you need No. 23. To be sure, I read the label on the cartridge. Sure enough, there was my printer – HP 500 PSC.

Im not sure if I got the highest quality ink, but I am sure I got the right ink for my printer. And whether its ink or oil, quality starts with using the right fluid for the application.

As we ponder how to deal with low-quality lubricants in the marketplace, we also might want to consider improving the quality of how we communicate engine oil performance to the customer.

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