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Is the 3,000 mile oil change really dead?

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Posted: 8 am ET

You know how when take your car in for a 15-minute oil change and you get a little sticker on your windshield that tells you when you need to come in for your next appointment? Well, as you've probably noticed, the mileage number is usually 3,000 miles beyond your current mileage.

Fortunately for those of us that like to put oil changes off a little longer than that, a recent New York Times story says the notion you need an oil change every 3,000 miles is pretty much bupkus:

"There was a time when the 3,000 miles was a good guideline," said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for the car site Edmunds.com. "But it's no longer true for any car bought in the last seven or eight years."

Oil chemistry and engine technology have improved to the point that most cars can go several thousand more miles before changing the oil, Mr. Reed said. A better average, he said, would be 7,500 between oil changes, and sometimes up to 10,000 miles or more.

Ten thousand miles between oil changes? Being the cheapskate that I am, this sounded like great news. But I couldn't start cutting back on oil changes, let alone advising Bankrate readers to do the same, without looking into this a little further.

So I contacted Society of Automotive Engineers, who put me in touch with James Linden, chairman of the SAE Fuels and Lubricants Council.

His verdict?

"I don't recall, for many, many years that (any automaker) has called for a 3,000 mile oil-drain interval in the owners' manuals," says Linden. "The traditional 3,000 mile number that you're talking about it is probably something the oil change outlets are pushing more than the (original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs) are."

Why can cars go farther between oil changes nowadays?

"Oil quality has improved significantly in the last 10 or 20 years," says Linden. "Even if there was a 3,000 mile interval back 10 or 20 years ago, that was with oil that is not nearly the high quality of oils that are out there today."

Linden says that instead of embracing some arbitrary number like 3,000 miles or 5,000 miles set by oil-change providers, the best guide for motorists on when to change their oil is their owner's manual.

Even though the intervals specified by your car's manufacturer may seem long compared to what you're used to, if you stick to that maintenance schedule, your warranty should be safe, says John Van Alst, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. You can find a link to a digital copy of your car's manual using the links on this page at Edmunds.com.

However, if you've bought an extended warranty from a dealer, Van Alst says, you may want to look over the fine print to see if they have any language letting them off the hook for repairs if you extend your oil-change interval. Third-party warranty companies are more aggressive in trying to deny coverage for repairs if they feel you haven't changed the oil often enough, Van Alst says.

Here are some other oil change pointers from Linden:

Only allow oil with the API seal to be used in your car

Only allow oil with the API seal to be used in your car

  • Pay attention to the viscosity of the oil, usually displayed as an alphanumeric code like 5w-30 or 10w-30, that's recommended in your car's manual, and be sure whoever is changing your oil knows it. Sometimes OEMs recommend different viscosities for different climates.
  • Make sure the oil going into your car is approved by the American Petroleum Institute and bears the API starburst logo pictured at right. A new, more stringent standard called ILSAC GF-5 is debuting Oct. 1, Linden says, that will provide even more durable lubrication for engines.
  • Even if you're the type of driver that loves to pamper her car, there's no special benefit to be had from changing your oil too often, says Linden. If you change your oil at 3,000 miles, all you'll be doing is wasting money and resources and unnecessarily harming the environment, he says.
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