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The Crowded World of Engine Oils


The Crowded World of Engine Oils

Fifty years ago, motor oil options were limited, and bottles of SAE 10W-40, SAE 10W-30 and SAE 20W-50 had room to breathe on store shelves. Although synthetics existed, they took up a slim cut of retail space in a limited number of stores, and many consumers were not even aware of them.

Today, the market is far more crowded. Bottles of conventional passenger car engine oils bump up against synthetic blends, high mileage oils, oils marketed as being environmentally friendly, and numerous full synthetic oils. In the past few years, the premium motor oil segment has proliferated with brands and split into many different categories. (See Page 34 for an illustration.) Both basic and synthetic high mileage engine oils are available, and full synthetic brands have basic and premium versions. While premium products were once the domain of well-advertised major brands, private label brands now offer good value. Consumers eyes may glaze over even before viscosity comes into consideration, ranging from monogrades to the latest ultra-low-viscosity oils.

Quality level is also a key consideration, with original equipment manufacturers calling for products that meet American Petroleum Institute or International Lubricant Standardization and Advisory Committee specifications. Some OEMs have their own standards, such as GMs Dexos and BMWs Longlife, as well as Daimler and Volkswagen specifications, to name just a few.

More Mileage

Marketers have always looked at imaginative ways to create value propositions that appeal to the end consumer. One such inspiration came along toward the turn of the century when high mileage motor oils were introduced by Valvoline and then Quaker State. The idea of a high mileage motor oil came from discussions between Sam Mitchell, now Valvolines CEO, and Fran Lockwood, now the companys chief technical officer. They realized that most motor oil development was based on new engines and questioned whether the needs of high mileage engines-those with 75,000 miles or more on the odometer-differed.

Valvoline engineers and mechanics examined many high mileage engines at the lube makers engine test lab in Ashland, Kentucky. According to Lockwood, It was determined that high mileage engines suffered from high oil consumption, primarily due to leaking seals, and were at greater risk of excessive wear and deposit buildup than new engines. Valvoline chemists developed engine oil formulations to address these specific issues, incorporating seal conditioners, supplemental non-phosphorus containing antiwear agents and additional cleaning agents.

The first oil designed specifically for high mileage engines, branded as MaxLife motor oil, was introduced to the market in 2000. Four years later, Valvoline added a synthetic oil to the product line. Heidi Matheys, Valvolines chief marketing officer, noted, Over the years, engine technology has changed, but the need to address the unique requirements of high mileage vehicles has continued.

Curt Knapp, chief operating officer – sales and supply with Warren Distribution, one of the largest independent lube marketers, commented that private label brands have seen growth in demand for high mileage PCMO. Warren produces synthetic blend high mileage oils in SAE 5W-20, SAE 5W-30, SAE 10W-30 and SAE 10W-40 viscosities. The only viscosity that has really flat-lined is SAE 10W-40, which is to be expected, Knapp noted. In the fall of 2018, we will introduce a full synthetic high mileage [oil], as weve seen a significant increase in demand for this product from our retail customers and others. Sources note that this segment now represents about 7 to 8 percent of all passenger car engine oil in North America, with many brands in the game.

Snowballing Synthetics

Full synthetic engine oils have been around since the 1970s, but for many years there were relatively few options. Though seen in just a handful of applications at first, many engines now require a full synthetic lubricant, and it has become essential for most marketers to have at least some premium options. Many key brands offer options that go beyond basic standards, as numerous applications require performance beyond minimum industry standards.

The shelves are packed with a multitude of consumer choices from marketers including ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Royal Purple, not to mention private label options. Amsoil, which has been marketing full synthetic premium products since the 1970s, is still on the shelves as well as online.

Benjamin Pinkert, passenger vehicle lubricants brand supervisor for ExxonMobil Fuels & Lubricants, listed the companys extensive offering of synthetic products. Mobil 1 Advanced full synthetic motor oil is the brands catch-all, meant for vehicles of all ages and for all driving conditions. According to Pinkert, more than 70 performance vehicle models use the oil for factory fill, including multiple Chevrolet Corvette models, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche. The company guarantees its Annual Protection oil for drain intervals up to 20,000 miles or one year. The high mileage oil helps extend engine life and prevent leaks in older vehicles, and Mobil 1 ESP is the first and only Dexos2-approved motor oil, developed specifically for Chevrolet Corvettes, Pinkert said.

The brand even differentiates its racing oil by viscosity. Mobil 1 Racing helps maximize horsepower and reduce friction during race conditions, and the SAE 0W-30 grade is specifically recommended for highly loaded flat tappet designs such as NASCAR Cup engines, Pinkert explained.

Valvoline recently launched a new product called Valvoline Modern Engine full synthetic, designed specifically for vehicle model years 2012 and newer, which are prone to excessive carbon buildup and low-speed pre-ignition. Valvoline Modern Engine captures key learnings from extensive research on how motor oil formulation-namely oil properties and additive composition-not only influence but can help prevent formation of carbon deposits in the newest engine models, said Lockwood.

As OEMs have changed engine designs during the past few years in response to demands for improved fuel economy, increased engine power density and reduced emissions, Warren Distribution has added many new synthetic oil formulations to meet the worldwide demand and proliferation of OEM requirements and recommendations, Knapp reported. In the U.S., GM Dexos1 has certainly driven synthetic formulations. Plus, Asian and European OEMs are recommending more synthetic oils. So today in our PCMO product line, we produce little conventional oil and sell more and more synthetic blend and full synthetic formulas that meet requirements of European, North American and Asian OEMs.

The entire automotive industry is in a deep transition to synthetic motor oil, Pinkert noted. Passenger car synthetic motor oil usage in North America grew more than 15 percent annually from 2015 to 2017 and has grown 17 percent in 2018 through April. As a result, full synthetic formulations have taken a sizeable slice of the market, accounting for 37 percent of the PCMO sold in 2017, according to ExxonMobils estimates.

Knapp concurred: In the past five years, our volume of synthetic engine oils has probably increased even more than whats seen in the industry-wide trends. In most channels, weve seen a really significant increase in our synthetic engine oil volume. Plus the growth of Dexos1 and SAE 0W-20 grades has contributed to the overall growth of our synthetic oil demand and production.

Oil drain intervals have been steadily increasing over the years. Three-thousand-mile oil drain intervals were once the norm, but the average interval has been steadily widening. Many OEMs allow oil drains at 10,000 miles and use oil life monitors, which can adjust the interval for driving habits. It seems clear that the growing availability of premium lubricants has enabled these extensions. Pinkert said consumer research found extended drain intervals to be an important consideration and a main reason why we introduced Mobil 1 Annual Protection motor oil.

Valvoline, on the other hand, has never been a big proponent of using synthetic oils to extend oil drains, said Thom Smith, vice president of lubricant technology. We believe consumers purchase synthetic oils to obtain superior performance and help extend the life of their engine. While using a high-quality synthetic does provide consumers with some extra engine protection if they are a little late on an oil change, regularly extending oil drain intervals can defeat the purpose of the synthetic oil. Furthermore, todays high power, smaller engines often require synthetic for normal oil drains.

Burgeoning Bottles

The increase in product choices creates a dilemma for distributors, marketers and service providers, which do not have endless shelf space, room for many bulk tanks or limitless capital to tie up in inventory. Thus, marketing and selling products that meet the needs of most customers is a key consideration.

The fragmentation and proliferation of engine and driveline products to meet OEM requirements is a growing concern and a problem for the industry, increasing the cost to develop products and manage the inventory of additional lubricants, commented Knapp. Hopefully OEMs will work with additive suppliers, lubricants manufacturers and other groups to reach consensus on optimizing the balance of new requirements and new lubricant formulations, along with the cost, simplification and education that will help consumers protect engines and drivelines.

From a consumer perspective, getting the best protection is the priority. We believe that new products that deliver on a true technical need are positive for consumers and engine performance, Valvolines Matheys stated. The company pointed out that increasingly complex lubricant specifications and approval processes make it more difficult for oil marketers to come out with major innovations, like products designed specifically for new engine technologies or for high mileage engines.

The trend toward lighter-viscosity grades, most marketed as full synthetic oils, will undoubtedly continue. SAE 0W-20 will see the most significant growth over the next several years. Newer viscosity grades such as SAE 0W-16 will also see growth while more conventional SAE 5W-30 and SAE 5W-20 volumes shrink. Some products will be eliminated or become harder to find, such as SAE 10W-40, SAE 20W-50 and even SAE 10W-30, as service providers and retailers optimize their inventories.

Service providers and dealers will also find value in products meeting numerous specifications that can be carried in bulk. Already, observation shows that the vast majority of SAE 0W-20 oils meet the GM Dexos1 specification, which exceeds the latest API SN Plus passenger car motor oil specification, with more stringent volatility requirements. Although it costs more to formulate, having a product that can meet the needs of GM, Toyota and Honda makes more sense than carrying multiple oils of the same viscosity.

One thing is clear: Despite the challenges inherent in an increasingly complicated market, oil formulators will continue to meet the needs of both automakers and consumers.

Steve Haffner is president of SGH Consulting LLC. He has over 40 years of experience in the chemical industry, primarily with Exxon Chemicals Paramins and Infineum USA. He specializes in engine oil formulation and marketing. Contact him at or 908-672-8012.

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