How much do you value the engine in your car? The life of your engine depends in no small part on the quality of the oil you put in it - oil is its lifeblood. People never used to pay a huge amount of attention to their oil but thanks to the popularity during the 80's and 90's of hot hatches, 16-valve engines and turbos (and as the tuner scene started to rise) engine oils underwent something of a revolution. Combined with the devastating problems of black death the days of one oil catering for everyone were over. Take Castrol for example. They led the field for years with their GTX mineral oil. This was eventually surpassed by semi-synthetic and fully synthetic oils, including GTX2 and GTX3 Lightec. Those were surpassed by Formula SLX which can cost upwards of £50 ($75) for 5 litres, and most recently, Castrol GTX Magnatec which is muscling in on the hitherto separate world of friction reducers (and we'll deal with them later, on the additives page). That's just a slice of one manufacturers products. There are thousands. What does my motor oil actually do? What does my oil actually do? Your engine oil does two things. Primarily it stops all the metal surfaces in your engine from grinding together and tearing themselves apart from friction, but it also transfers heat away from the combustion cycle. Engine oil must also be able to hold in suspension all the nasty by-products of combustion such as silica (silicon oxide) and acids. Finally, engine oil minimises the exposure to oxygen and thus oxidation at higher temperatures. It does all of these things under tremendous heat and pressure. If your Mustang heads are in need of repair, check out AmericanMuscle.com How do I read the numbers around the 'W'? For example 5W40? As oils heat up, they generally get thinner. Single grade oils get too thin when hot for most modern engines which is where multigrade oil comes in. The idea is simple - use science and physics to prevent the base oil from getting as thin as it would normally do when it gets hot. There's more detail on this later in the page under both viscosity, and SAE ratings. But as a quick primer - the number before the 'W' is the 'cold' viscosity rating of the oil, and the number after the 'W' is the 'hot' viscosity rating. So a 5W40 oil is one which behaves like a 5-rated single grade oil when cold, but doesn't thin any more than a 40-rated single grade oil when hot. The lower the 'winter' number (hence the 'W'), the easier the engine will turn over when starting in cold climates. A quick guide to the different grades of oil. Fully SyntheticCharacteristics[TD="bgcolor: #D7DBDE"]0W-30 0W-40 5W-40[/TD][TD="bgcolor: #D7DBDE"]Fuel economy savings Enhances engine performance and power Ensures engine is protected from wear and deposit build-up Ensures good cold starting and quick circulation in freezing temperatures Gets to moving parts of the engine quickly[/TD]Semi-syntheticCharacteristics [TD="bgcolor: #99CCCE"]5W-30 10W-40 15W-40[/TD][TD="bgcolor: #99CCCE"]Better protection Good protection within the first 10 minutes after starting out Roughly three times better at reducing engine wear Increased oil change intervals - don't need to change it quite so often[/TD] MineralCharacteristics[TD="bgcolor: #5270AE"]10W-4015W-40[/TD][TD="bgcolor: #5270AE"]Basic protection for a variety of engines Oil needs to be changed more often[/TD] What the heck was Black Death? Black Death first appeared in the early 80's when a horrible sticky black substance was found to be the cause of many engine seizures in Europe. It was extremely frustrating for vehicle owners because dealers and mechanics had no idea what was going on. Black Death just wasn't covered under insurance - if your engine had it, you paid to fix it yourself. Many engines were affected but Ford and Vauxhall (GM) suffered the most. Faster roads, higher under-hood temperatures, tighter engineering tolerances and overworked engine oils turned out to be contributors to the problem. The oils just couldn't handle it and changed their chemical makeup under pressure into a sort of tar-like glue. This blocked all the oil channels in the engines, starved them of lubrication and caused them to seize. I don't recommend this but you can reproduce the effect with a frying pan, cooking oil and a blowtorch. The cooking oil will heat up far quicker than it's designed to and will turn to a sticky black tar in your pan. Either that or it will set fire to your kitchen, which is why I said "don't do this". Anyway, burning kitchens aside, Black Death was the catalyst for the production of newer higher quality oils, many of them man-made rather than mineral-based. Black death for the 21[SUP]st[/SUP] century There's a snappy new moniker for Black Death now, and it's called sludge. The cause is the same as Black Death and it seems to be regardless of maintenance or mileage. The chemical compounds in engine oils break down over time due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures and poor maintenance habits. When the oil oxidises, the additives separate from it and begin to chemically break down and solidify, leading to the baked-on oil deposits turning gelatinous, and that nasty compound is what is lovingly referred to nowadays as sludge. It's like black yoghurt. What doesn't help is that modern engines, due to packaging, have smaller sumps than in the "good old days" and so hold less oil. This means that the oil that is present in the engine can't hold as much crap (for want of a better word) and that can lead to earlier chemical breakdown. The most common factor in sludge buildup is a combination of mineral oils, a lack of maintenance by the car owner and harsh driving conditions. Although this isn't true in all cases. A 2005 Consumer Reports article discovered that for some reason, some engines from Audi, Chrysler, Saab, Toyota, and Volkswagen appear prone to sludge almost no matter how often the oil is changed. What does sludge look like? I was contacted by a BMW driver who had been having a particularly harsh time with sludge and was discussing it on the Bimmerfest forums. He posted some images of his problem and other readers posted similarly-framed images of the same engine components in "normal" condition. Here are two of those photos. On the left is what the cam case should look like in a well maintained engine when photographed through the oil filler cap. On the right is what the same type of engine looks like when suffering sludge buildup. In this example, the consensus was that the sludge buildup was caused by an overheating engine, oil that hadn't been changed for 20,000 miles of stop-go city driving, a lot of cold starts and a period of about 12 months in storage without an oil change. Picture credit: Ketchup at the Bimmerfest forums Curing sludge There are no hard and fast rules for curing an engine of sludge buildup. If it's really bad, flushing the engine might be the only cure, but that could also cause even more problems. If flushing the engine results in bits of sludge getting lodged where they can do more damage, you're actually worse off. It's interesting to note that some race techs have reported sludge buildup in race engines as a result of aftermarket additives being used in conjunction with the regular oil. The chemical composition of the additives isn't as neutral as some companies would lead us to believe, and combined with particular types of oil and high-stress driving, they can cause oil breakdown and sludge to appear. The lesson from them appears to be "don't use additives". When is sludge not sludge? Easy; when it's an oil and water emulsion from a leaking or blown head gasket. If this happens, you get a whitish cream coloured sludge on the inside of the oil filler cap. It's typically cooler than the rest of the cam case and so the oil/water mix tends to condense there. If it off and the underside of it looks like it's covered in vanilla yoghurt or mayonnaise, you've got a blown head gasket. A surefire way to confirm this is if your oil level is going up and your coolant level is going down. The coolant is getting through the breaks in the head gasket and mixing with the oil. When it gets to the sump it separates out and the oil floats on top. A slightly more accurate way to check for this condition is to use a combustion leak tester, or block tester. If you're in America, NAPA sell them for about $45 (part #BK 7001006). If you're in England, Sealey sell them for about £70 (model number VS0061). Combustion leak testers are basically a turkey baster filled with PH liquid, with a non-return valve at the bottom. To use one, run your engine for a few minutes until its warm (not hot) then turn it off. Use a protective glove (like an oven glove) and take the radiator or reservoir cap off. Plug the bottom of the combustion leak tester into the hole and squeeze the rubber bulb on top. It will suck air from the top of the coolant through the non-return valve and bubble it through the PH liquid. If the liquid changes colour (normally blue to yellow), it means there is combustion gas in the coolant which means a head gasket leak. Note: There is one other possible cause for the mayonnaise: a blocked scavenger hose. Most engines have a hose that comes off the cam cover and returns to the engine block somewhere via a vacuum line. This is the scavenger hose that scavenges oil vapour and gasses that build up in the cam cover. If it's blocked you can end up with a buildup of condensation inside the cam cover, which can manifest itself as the yellow goop inside the filler cap. VW / Audi sludge problems While the the 1.8T engines in Audi A4's, Audi TT, VW Passat, Jetta, Golf, New Bettle, are all very prone to sludge build-up, Audi/VW does not have an extended warranty for them from the factory. The factory warranty is 4 year/50,000 miles but it can be extended if purchased. Although Audi/VW now has 10,000 mile service intervals, oil changes can be done between "services", and should be done if the vehicle is driven in heavy traffic, offroad, and non-highway use. Also, Audi/ VW will only warrant an engine if the customer has proof of all their oil changes. As of 2004 I belive all 1.8T engines must use synthetic oil. So if you own one of these sludge-prone engines, what can you do? Obviously, Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) recommends that you use only VW/Audi recommended oil. You should also keep up on your oil changes, making them more frequent if you drive hard or haul a lot of cargo. The most important thing for the VW or Audi owner is this: if the oil light comes on and beeps the high pitch beep that almost everyone ignores, pull over and shut the engine down immediately. Many VAG engines can be saved by this procedure. Have the vehicled towed to a VAG dealer. Their standard procedure is to inspect the cam bearings; if they're not scored, the oil pan will be removed and cleaned out and all the crankcase breather hoses and the oil pickup tube will be replaced. They'll do an oil pressure test with a mechanical gauge, and hopefully will also replace the turbo lines. Finally, the turbo will be checked for bearing free-play. The VAG turbos run really hot even with proper oil and coolant supply - that's why you need a good quality synthetic in them. Toyota sludge problems For their part, Toyota have the dubious honour of having the most complaints about sludge buildup in their engines - over 5,000 in 2008. At the time of writing there is a class action suit going on against them. Details can be found at www.oilgelsettlement.com Saab sludge problems For an example of sludge in a Saab 9 5 Aero with only 42,000 miles on it, you might be interested to read my case study on this engine, put together with the help of a reader. Our sludge case study.