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What happened to the $39 oil change?

I grew up thinking of oil changes as inexpensive, quick services. Yet the simplest of services on a late model Porsche, Mercedes or BMW seems to cost $150 or even more. How come?

The first part of the explanation lies in the oil itself. In recent years the European carmakers have extracted more and more performance from less and less fuel using sophisticated technologies. Anyone who’s compared a 2008 BMW 5-series to a 533 from the mid 1980s can’t help but notice the difference.

The car designers have pushed the limits of engine technology to get today’s performance. That means engines run hotter, and there’s more stress on the internal parts. Engines now contain plastics and exotic metals, which need different kinds of protection. And finally the service intervals are far longer, so the oil in today’s BMW has to last several times as long as the oil we installed 25 years ago.

The result of that change is a much higher performing car that needs far higher performance lubricants than cars of yesterday. And the costs of getting it wrong are high… an engine that fails from sludge buildup or other lubrication failure can easily cost over $15,000 to replace.

Important as it is, engine oil or “motor oil” is totally misunderstood by most technicians and consumers. People glance in their owner’s books and see that their car takes 5-30 oil. They don’t even know what 5-30 refers to, so they assume any 5-30 oil will meet their needs. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, all non-synthetic and most synthetic SAE 5W-30 oil products available in North America fail to provide adequate protection for North American BMW and Mercedes cars that require a 5W-30 viscosity oil.

For example, both Castrol Syntec 5W-30 and Mobil 1 5W-30 both fail to meet BMW minimum requirements. Castrol and Mobil both make products that are suitable for BMW and Mercedes engines but they are not readily available in North America. Even respected brands like Amsoil and Redline fail to offer products that are approved by BMW. In the case of Amsoil and Redline, SOME of their products will serve well but are not technically approved and do have the potential to create problems under certain conditions.

Due to the widespread ignorance of oil service ratings in North America, BMW reduces the minimum requirements for cars sold on this continent. The Genuine BMW 5W-30 oil meets the reduced “LL-98” requirements. LL-98 is the long life oil standard that BMW established in 1998. That standard was superseded by a tougher one in 2001, BMW LL-01. Robison Service and other good BMW specialty shops use the higher grade “LL-01” approved oil for improved protection. These products will improve protection and improve the effectiveness of the BMW oil monitor system.

Mercedes has similar standards for its cars, and for that matter so do Porsche, Volvo, VW, Audi and most other high end carmakers. Ignoring the carmaker requirements is to court disaster. Having said that, I see that very thing happen all the time. People buy inexpensive oils in the mistaken belief that all oil is the same, and they feel good because they saved $50 on an oil service. But what happens when the engine fails and they face a $10,000 repair bill? That’s truly an expensive lesson.

Oil is not the only component of an “oil service.” There is also the filter. At Robison Service we use genuine filters and filters from Bosch and Mann, two of the principal suppliers to European carmakers. These filters cost a bit more, but once again they meet the carmakers requirements. A filter that clogs and causes an expensive failure isn’t much of a savings…

Finally, a proper service includes reading and resetting the maintenance system. All late model BMW and Mercedes cars have flexible service computers, where the car keeps track of what’s due and when. You may think the car just needs an oil change, but the maintenance system may be asking for a brake fluid change and new cabin filters too. Once again, there can be serious consequences if the recommended services are ignored.

Dealers and properly equipped independents will have the necessary electronic systems to talk to the car’s service computer. It’s very important to do this, and to scan for faults, because your car’s computer is all that stands between you and a breakdown in many cases. And if you ignore a stored fault (which may be invisible from the dashboard) you may not get any other warning before the car fails.

Finally, a proper service includes a careful visual inspection by a technician that’s familiar with the marquee. You can’t find that anywhere except at a dealer or specialist.

That’s why we don’t call these services oil changes anymore. We call them small services. We do that because they always include an oil change but they often include additional work as dictated by the car or our inspection.

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