Auto Academy: How Often Should You Really Change Your Oil?

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Checking oil

Using your engine’s oil dipstick to check fluid levels is just the first step in proper maintenance | iStock

When it comes to routine maintenance, a lot can be said for old-school mechanic cheats and doing your own research. Yet despite this, service protocol still remains one of the most heated topics of debate in automotive circles, right behind what the best tire manufacturer is and why.

Perhaps the most widely debated automotive maintenance topic is one that focuses on how frequently you should change your oil. For over half a century, we’ve been told that a car needs fresh oil every 3,000 miles, and with damn good reason. Since engine oil serves as both the lubricant and cooling lifeblood of a motor, having regular “blood transfusions” is crucial to the longevity of an automobile.

But as times have changed, so too have the fluids we put in our cars, the filters we attach to them, and the engines that rely on them. Today’s powertrains are more efficient than ever before, and once paired with the appropriate lubricants, can run smoother and longer on a single oil change.

Yet for whatever reason the age old question remains: How often should I change my oil? To get to the bottom of this once and for all we spoke with a few veteran mechanics and did some digging. What we discovered was that there isn’t just one answer, and change intervals are dependent upon the condition of the car, fluids used, and a few other key factors.

1. First of all, buy what you like

Mobil 1 Advanced Fuel Economy Oil | Mobil 1

Mobil 1 Advanced Fuel Economy engine oil | Mobil 1

When it comes to brand loyalty, engine oil can be a lot like craft beer. While some people may jump at whatever is new or on sale, a lot of DIY guys will remain dedicated Sierra Nevada or New Belgium drinkers their entire lives — or in this case, Castrol or Valvoline guys.

On the other hand, choosing the appropriate oil weight can be just as crucial as adding the recommended amount of fluid. Regardless of what brand you go with or how frequently changes occur, always pay attention to what weight the owner’s manual recommends for your car.

2. The new car quick change

Chrysler cars

Rows of 2017 Chrysler Pacifica mini vans wait for buyers | Chrysler

There’s an old saying that if you buy a brand new car, it’s important to change your oil at 3,000 miles in order to remove any leftover metal from the engine break-in period. While most high performance engine builders say that there’s a reason why using “break-in lubricants” is so crucial to engine longevity, that’s also the reason why we put filters on our motors.

However, according to a report by Edmunds, if an automaker recommends draining a break-in lube at a certain interval, go ahead and follow their instructions. As of now Honda is one of the few automakers to use special anti-wear additives in new cars, so if you’re interested in buying one be sure to ask your dealer about this.

3. Old school engines require special care

BMW 2002 Turbo | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The carbureted motors of yesteryear are long gone, where sludge build-up would ruin an engine in no time if an oil change wasn’t done every few months. So for all the classic car fanatics or those of you who are miraculously still running an engine from before 1985, the more frequent changes, the better.

When these motors were being developed, engine oil advancements were nowhere near what they are nowadays. Also beware: Today’s synthetics are thinner and are often engineered for efficiency over plugging leaky seals, so unless it says high mileage use the high dollar stuff at your own risk.

4. Know before you tow

2018 Ford Expedition | Ford

Regardless of whether your vehicle guzzles gas or diesel, towing puts extra stress on both the engine and the fluids inside it. New lube every 5,000 to 6,000 miles isn’t a bad idea you tow regularly, since this is kind of activity auto manufacturers refer to as “severe service.” Frequent short trips and cold engine starts also qualify as severe, so play it safe and drain regularly for safety’s sake.

5. You’re only as good as that filter

K&N filter

The inner workings of a K&N oil filter | K&N

Your car’s oil is only as effective as the filter it passes through, and picking the right strainer is a very important step. While the cheapest thing off the shelf will undoubtedly work for a time, having a poorly constructed filter poses just as much harm to your engine as not changing the oil at all.

Don’t run the risk of having a filter fall apart on you; spend the extra dollar or two and buy a top-tier filtration device every time. Remember, the more gunk you can strain out, the better your car is going to run as it tiptoes toward the next oil change.

6. Adventures in high mileage engine care

Production of Lucas Oil additives | Lucas Oil via Facebook

Production of Lucas Oil additives | Lucas Oil via Facebook

If you feel like your engine is starting to have a “mid-life crisis,” it might be time to toss a few additives at the equation. You also might want to start opting for a different oil weight in order to reflect the seasons. Just be sure to do some research first and see what other owners have found works best.

Some people have had great success with running high mileage motor oil and additives from companies like Lucas, especially when engine seals begin to leak. Others recommend changing fluids more frequently to prolong longevity. While these options won’t hurt, they aren’t cheap either. Keep that in mind as your odometer continues to climb.

7. Don’t let your dealer become a pusher

buying a car

A car dealer in California attempts to sell a customer a Chevrolet | Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Another key bit of advice is knowing when not to listen to the dealer. A report by Edmunds claims that dealerships encourage people to bring their cars in often because most Americans still rely upon an “outdated 3,000-mile oil change commandment.”

Certain dealers often use free oil changes as an opportunity to sell other services and maintenance, something entirely too many customers buy into. Recent advancements in synthetic lubrication, detergent additives, and filtration engineering contradicts this sales pitch, so when in doubt, go with what your owner’s manual recommends instead.

8. Give it the old DIY college try

DIY oil change | Valvoline USA via Facebook

If for whatever reason your car doesn’t come with complimentary maintenance service, you can always save some dough by changing your own oil. This will give you the chance to try out different synthetics from various manufacturers, find out what high-grade filters and change intervals work best, and cycle through an assortment of drain plugs. Just always be sure to use a fresh crush washer in the appropriate size, and make sure that the head on the drain bolt is not made from aluminum, which is a soft metal that’s prone to stripping.