New Tundra Owners – Should You Use Synthetic Oil?
We get asked this question all the time: “I just got a new Tundra and I want to treat it right – should I use synthetic oil? If so, should it be full synthetic or synthetic blend?” The answer: It depends.
Synthetic oil has fewer impurities, better properties at high temperatures than natural oil, slightly better viscosity, and it’s more resistant to breakdown. Therefore, synthetic is better for an engine. However, whether or not it’s better for your engine depends on a few things…
NOTE: If you’re rolling in a 2010 or newer Tundra, you’re probably using 0W-20 oil, which is only available as a synthetic. This is the oil of choice for newer Tundras mostly because it improves fuel economy. It’s some of the best oil available, and unless you’re doing something really extraordinary, sticking with Toyota’s recommended 0W20 is best.
Post last updated September 2013.
Should You Use Synthetic Oil?
1. Are you zealous when it comes to changing your oil? If the manual says to change your oil every 5,000 miles, do you have the oil changed at 4999.9 miles?
If you follow a strict oil change regimen, chances are you won’t benefit from synthetic oil. Synthetic oil is highly resistant to breakdown and sludge forming. However, most oil won’t breakdown unless excessive time and/or mileage passes between changes. Because most the benefits of synthetic oil over regular oil don’t show until the oils are subjected to adverse conditions, you really won’t see any benefit from synthetic unless you stress the oil.
However, if you’re the type of person that might forget an oil change (shame on you), or if maybe you don’t get to changing your oil right at 5,000 miles, then you can buy a little insurance against engine damage by using synthetic oil.
2. Are you going a long time between oil changes? Case in point: my grandmother, who drives a few thousand miles a year (less than the Toyota recommended 5000 miles between oil changes), uses synthetic. Why? Because her oil can go more than a year between changes.
Unlike natural oil, synthetic oil will last more than 6 months without any breakdown in effectiveness. So, if you (or someone in the family) is likely to exceed the 6 month time between changes, synthetic oil makes sense for them.
3. Severe duty users. As natural oil gets hot, it starts to breakdown. The longer that natural oils stay hot, the worse the breakdown becomes. If you regularly operate your vehicle in such a way that the engine temperature is always high, you should run synthetic. For example:
- Letting your vehicle idle for hours at a time (like on a jobsite) will overheat the engine. Because you’re not moving, there is no high-speed air circulating around the engine to keep it cool. In this case, excessive heat can build and normal oil will break down.
- Constant operation in high ambient temperatures or at high altitudes will also lead to higher engine temperatures. High temperature air has poor cooling properties, so if your truck spends ever waking hour in 100+ degree heat, synthetic certainly isn’t a bad diea. Additionally, while air above 10k feet is usually cool, it’s also “thin” also has poor cooling properties. Synthetic isn’t a bad idea for high altitude residents either.
- Extreme cold (-10 F or below) can also cause natural oils to break down much faster than normal.
- Racing, daily towing or hauling, or aggressive off-roading all can create high engine temperatures. Hauling the boat to the lake and back once a month probably doesn’t qualify, but towing the bobcat to and from the jobsite five days a week definitely qualifies.
- You’re burning a lot of E-85, which tends to create acids that wear down natural oils a little faster. You can learn more about that problem here.
4. Your personal situation may require it. Some experts suggest synthetic oil in stop and go traffic. While I disagree with this blanket statement (we all drive in a little bit of stop and go), you may want to go with synthetic if your typical drive has just as much “stop” as “go”.
5. Short distances. There is some advice out there stating that if you only drive your vehicle short distances, you should use synthetic. The theory is that synthetic coats the engine better in a short time period than natural oil, protecting it better for short-trip drives.
In my opinion, if you only drive short distances, synthetic oil will not save your engine. Short distances are bad because the engine never gets up to full operating temperature, and that causes a host of problems (increased corrosion in the exhaust system, poor fuel economy, increased oil wear, etc.) With modern engine tolerances being so high, I really don’t think synthetic will make much of a difference by sticking to all your parts better than regular oil…if anything, the opposite would be true
Therefore, my advice to people that only drive short distances: Stop doing that. Plan your trips so that your vehicle gets a good 15 minutes of road time. If you can’t do that, buy a cheap old car that you don’t care about to get you to and from work everyday. It’s better than wearing out the engine in your truck.
Beware of Synthetic Blends
If you decide to use synthetic oil, be conscious of “synthetic blends”. While many manufacturer’s have a synthetic blend as their standard oil, the term “synthetic blend” is not regulated. Any mixture of regular and synthetic oil is considered a blend, even if it’s just 1% synthetic and 99% regular. If it’s not a manufacturer provided oil (i.e. Motorcraft, Goodwrench, Genuine Toyota Motor Oil, etc.) then it could be a very low percentage of synthetic in the oil.
Some companies will state the percentage of synthetic vs natural, but you’d be surprised to find that big names like Valvoline, Penzoil, Quaker State, etc., have very low percentages of synthetic in their “synthetic oil” blends.
What Toyota Says About Synthetics
Toyota’s official policy is “Any oil that meets API standard specifications can be used in your vehicle.” In other words, normal “natural” motor oil is just fine. You can use 5W-20 in an engine that was designed for 0W-20 without fear of a problem (or vice versa).
There are rumors that Toyota won’t warranty your vehicle if you use the “wrong” oil, if you switch from synthetic to natural (and back again), etc. This is all BS. The truth is:
- It’s against the law for Toyota to mandate a specific brand or type of oil be used as a condition of their warranty. They can only specify that API certified oil be used.
- If you don’t use the oil recommends, it’s incumbent upon Toyota to prove that this non-spec oil caused a problem in order for them to invalidate your warranty.
- Believe it or not, you can extend the manufacturer’s suggested oil change interval as you see fit. If you’re running some particularly excellent oil, and if you’re babying your motor, you may find that your oil is functioning as it should after 15k+ miles. While I would never recommend this particular decision, you can choose your own oil change interval as well.
To sum up, Toyota doesn’t have one thing to say about synthetic oil. They recommend synthetics on newer engines because they improve fuel economy and reduce ownership costs…not because synthetics are markedly better.
After all, synthetics are only better than natural oil in specific situations…right?
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