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October 28, 2009

The Truths about Cold Weather Driving and Synthetic Motor Oils

Snow-car-mirror-penywise_morguefile_archive_display_149135 When it comes to cold weather driving, synthetic motor oils offer significant advantages vs. conventional motor oils

One of the greatest challenges for a motor oil is protecting engine parts during cold weather start-ups. Those of us who live in sunny Los Angeles or Phoenix don't have to worry about it much, but those who winter in the snow know that starting a car in the bitter cold without adequate lubricant protection can cause wear-and-tear on an engine and, over time, lead to costly repairs.

One way for drivers to ensure that their vehicle's engine is protected in freezing and below-freezing temperatures is to use a high-quality, fully synthetic motor oil that is designed to deliver exceptional engine protection even when the temperature drops.

Below is an explanation of what happens to your car in cold weather, and why choosing a synthetic motor oil over a conventional, mineral-based oil, is one of the smartest decisions you can make to help protect your vehicle from the cold.

Snowstorm-by-earl53-morguefile_archive_display_156734 The Effects of Cold Temperatures on an Engine
As temperatures drop, motor oil thickens and loses its "pumpability," or the oil's ability to be circulated through the engine by the oil pump. After all: cold, thick oil is more difficult for an engine to pump, and if it becomes too viscous, it can stop flowing altogether.

With limited or no oil traveling through the engine, critical engine parts are not properly lubricated during start-up and can develop wear as they come into contact with each other.  For example, metal-to-metal friction within bearings can lead to engine damage during start-up and reduced efficiency thereafter.

Selecting a synthetic engine oil that can be pumped quickly to engine components, even in extremely low temperatures, is important to protecting your engine in cold weather.

Cold_testing Cold Temperature Performance - The Synthetic Advantage
In order for a motor oil to protect an engine in cold weather, it must resist excessive thickening under low temperatures and remain fluid for smooth and consistent circulation. 

Because of their formulation and resulting properties, synthetic motor oils provide better engine lubrication at temperature extremes than conventional oils. For example, they contain higher-quality base stocks that enhance their performance capabilities even in sub-zero temperatures, enabling them to protect engine parts sooner after the car is started.

Most conventional oils are paraffin-based and, therefore, tend to thicken up considerably as the wax molecules crystallize in cold temperatures.  This extends the time needed to pump oil throughout the entire engine and requires the car starter and battery to work harder.

By comparison, synthetic motor oils contain fewer waxy paraffins. As a result, they remain fluid down to much lower temperatures and continue to provide the engine with superior protection. For instance, certain viscosity grades of Mobil 1 fully synthetic motor oil are designed to withstand temperatures as low as -51*C (-60*F), allowing it to be pumped easily to engine parts for start-up protection against friction. Engines start faster and wear and tear can be minimized to contribute to extended engine life.

Putting the Oil to the Test
Experts from the Mobil 1 Research Team have conducted several proof-of-performance tests at the company's Paulsboro Technology Center that highlight the ability of Mobil 1 synthetic motor oil to provide valuable engine protection at low temperatures.

A cold-pour demonstration used to determine fluidity at -40F degrees shows that Mobil 1's resistance to thickening even at that low temperature would enable the oil to get to critical engine parts soon after the car starts. On the other hand, the conventional oil was not pourable at this temperature. This indicates that Mobil 1's protection capabilities are further exemplified even in the coldest of climates, making it the ideal choice for cold weather driving.

Cold_testing2 Mobil 1 engineers also incorporate a cold chamber into their testing program, where temperatures can be dropped as low as -35F degrees.  The chamber allows the engineers to test the ability of Mobil 1 to perform a cold start after several hours in extreme cold conditions.  The vehicle seen exiting the cold chamber here has just successfully completed a cold start test after sitting in the chamber for more than eight hours at -35 F degrees.

Additional Ways to Protect Your Engine from the Cold Include . . .
Along with using a high-performance, synthetic motor oil, there are a few additional things you can do to help protect your car in the winter.

For instance, it's important to make sure that your vehicle's battery and charging system are in good operating condition. In cold weather, a battery's cranking power is reduced significantly. At the same time, the electrical power needed to start your car increases when the temperature plunges. Make sure all filters -- oil, gas and air -- are in good condition. Check your coolant level and thermostat functionality to ensure proper engine warm-up.

And another thing to consider is to take it easy on your engine for the first few minutes following start-up, to give the oil a chance to warm up and make sure that the motor oil is circulated through the entire engine.

By following these important tips, you can help to ensure that this winter your car's engine will be well protected.

Creative commons snowstorm photo by earl53 at
Creative commons snowy car mirror photo by pennywise at

About the author:
Kevin Chinn is an engine oil technical advisor for ExxonMobil Lubricants & Petroleum Specialties Company.  He is a member of the Mobil 1 Research Team based at the company's Paulsboro Technology Center in Paulsboro, New Jersey.

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