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You would think that, much like cooking oil, motor oil would be a relatively simple thing — not so. We aren't going to inundate you with technical geekery, nor will we give you a chemistry lesson on the functions of friction modifiers. Thankfully, our friends over at Popular Mechanics already have that covered. Once you've narrowed down what viscosity your car requires (that fun 5W30, 15W40, etc. number), and whether it's been running a synthetic oil or not, you're then down to choosing the quantity required for your car and, more importantly, the brand.
Each of these top-tier brands spend a great deal of time and resources testing their motor oils, and experimenting with different additives in order to ensure that their oil protects your engine for as long as possible. We have heard numerous stories over the years from incredibly brand-loyal motorists who swear by their choice, often touting the hundreds of thousands of miles they've covered without suffering from engine failure. So we have to ask — what's in the secret sauce?
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Dr. John Ellis, Valvoline's founder, is actually credited as being the inventor of motor oil, so to say the brand has some history would be a bit of an understatement. Starting with steam engines, and then supplying motor oil for the Model T, was just the beginning. Now Valvoline splits its focus between extensive development of oils designed for high-mileage engines, as well as an ongoing support of motorsport.
On the high-mileage front, Valvoline is one of the few automakers offering an interesting engine guarantee. If your engine has 125,000 miles or less on it, you can register your vehicle for a program, which, based on a set of entry requirements, will mean Valvoline will provide your engine with a bit of a warranty as long as you follow their oil-service guidelines.
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Total motor oil is far more common in Europe than they are in the U.S., however the brand has been making great strides to ensure the American public becomes familiar with their name as well as their reputation. They've recently become the primary sponsor of the International Motor Sports Association racing series (formerly known as Grand-Am racing).
Anyone who follows motorsports outside the U.S. will be vastly more familiar with Total. The brand has been the sponsor of Red Bull's Formula 1 racing team since 2009 (including the 2013 series where Red Bull took home both the drivers' and constructors' championship titles with Sebastian Vettel at the wheel), as well as being Citroën's oil sponsor for every rally championship they've entered in since the '90s. The great thing about motorsports partnerships like this is they allow Total to see how its oils perform in the worst conditions imaginable, and in the process test new ways to improve their oil's performance and longevity.
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Pennzoil's big play in the engine oils market is all about keeping your engine clean and free of sludge and other buildup. The less sludge in your engine, the more freely components move, and thus better power and greater fuel efficiency. Pennzoil even has an interesting mileage- and fuel-savings calculator that is meant to show this added benefit from using their Platinum Synthetic motor oils.
The brand has worked tirelessly to build a ton of relationships with automotive manufacturers, including their more recent venture in becoming Ferrari's official oil supplier. Part of this new relationship spawned a really interesting marketing campaign involving some pretty impressive high-performance driving by Rhys Millen (though not all involving Ferraris), and the latest installment includes some very impressive driving on some very icy surfaces.
Using their oil isn't going to turn your car into a supercar or make you a better driver, but it does make for a pretty entertaining video series.
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Mobil 1's focus has long been on performance, and they pride themselves on their motorsports partnerships. Being the official motor oil of Nascar as well as the oil sponsor of McLaren-Honda in F1 racing, their oils have been pushed to the limits time and time again, and being able to study the impact of those stresses on their product is no doubt an important asset. Over the course of our research we also discovered that they are also one of the best oils when it comes to maintaining a low viscosity in cold temperatures.
What we've found most interesting is their recent focus on adapting oils to work better with turbocharged engines, which are becoming vastly more common in new cars of late. Oil consumption is a major issue in turbo cars, and by the looks of it, Mobil 1 is paying close attention.
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When looking through the pack, no one appears to be as focused on long-term engine life than Quaker State. The brand offers a number of mineral, synthetic-blend, and fully synthetic engine oils geared towards vehicles that already have a great number of miles on them.
Establishing a great maintenance routine from day one is great if you've owned your car since it was brand-new, but it's nice to know that there are options available for engines that have already seen a fair bit of wear and tear. If you have a read through some of the reviews of their Defy High Mileage oil, you'll see they have hundreds of happy supporters rolling around in cars with a mileage of 200 to 300K.
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Looking through our top five motor oils, Castrol lands in the group as a well-rounded "Yeah, we've done that, too" brand. On the racing bend, Castrol has done the rounds sponsoring teams in everything from NHRA drag racing, to the World Rally Championship and German Touring Car races.
They also make great high-mileage oils that are designed so oil stays on engine parts longer — even when your engine hasn't been fired up over an extended period of time. Add to that being a regular choice for a number of automakers, and they've pretty much got the hit list covered.
One thing we did find that stood out was a very smart oil-selector tool that allows you to input your make and model of vehicle and have it tell you exactly what oil your car is meant to run on. Figuring this out isn't always easy, so it's neat to see an oil producer take the lead on this.
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Amsoil comes from an interesting background in being the business venture of an ex-fighter jet commander back in 1972. They produced the first synthetic oil in the world to be recognized by the American Petroleum Institute, and to this day they remain one of the few — if not the only — oil companies in America that are still independent and family-owned.
Amsoil has long been recognized — especially in the world of motorsport — as an excellent choice when it comes to the world of performance. They sponsor a huge number of racing events across North America ranging from motocross, Sprint Cup, and off-road truck events in the U.S. through to the Canadian Snowcross Racing Series north of the border.
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Royal Purple isn't as well-known or heavily marketed as its other siblings above, but a number of independent tests reveal that Royal Purple is more than capable of keeping up with the larger industry players.
Publications of all shapes and sizes over the years have taken a shine to Royal Purple, and the test results range from seeing performance upgrades on a classic car via Hot Rod magazine, to reasonable fuel-economy gains on a late-model Ford truck when switching over to Royal Purple's motor oil, gear oil, and transmission fluid.