Had The Graduate been filmed today, the old guy at the party might well have given this one-word piece of advice to newly minted college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman): “Synthetics.”

It's a fair bet he'd suggest that to a Ben of today if he was a lubrication engineer — given the rising prominence of synthetic oil in formulations for heavy-duty (as well as automotive) engine lubricants.

Long regarded as something of the Superman of lubricants if for nothing more than its incredible cold-starting capabilities and its resistance to chemical breakdown, motor oil formulated with some degree or another of synthetic oil in its base stock (which oil suppliers combine with proprietary additive packages to produce finished motor oils) has suddenly slipped out of the niche category in which it's long languished.

It's as if the Man of Steel was no longer being held in reserve to deal with major crime sprees and natural disasters, but had been drummed into service permanently to take action on a much broader front. Yet the “super” capabilities of motor oil infused with synthetic base stock come at a higher initial price. That means only individual fleet owners can correctly judge the value of these lubes, whether it be by cost per mile and/or total cost of ownership.

But how super are the growing ranks of synthetic oil formulations? And why does it seem so many of them have appeared out of the blue to aid the Metropolis that is commercial trucking?

The second question is the simplest to answer. According to executives with major oil companies who spoke to Fleet Owner, as heavy-duty diesel engines have become increasingly sophisticated technologically — both to meet emissions regs and to provide greater value to customers — fleet owners have become far more open to paying more upfront for technologically advanced motor oils.

And the use of synthetics in base stocks has enabled formulating oil that promises to not only protect those engines, but to decrease fuel consumption as well as greatly enhance cold-start capability and extend drain intervals.

In even the recent past, synthetic motor oil was viewed as a specialized multi-grade engineered to have low viscosity — anywhere from 10W down to 0W — specifically to ensure cold start-ups in lieu of all-night idling (as well as reducing extra wear and tear on starters and batteries) for fleets running in areas subject to severe cold operating temperatures. And the higher-weight side of those multi-grades meant the oil would still protect those engines when they were in high-temperature operation. Under this traditional low-vis application scenario, the fleet choice might have been a 0W-40 oil or a higher-vis 5W-40.

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But now 5W-40 oil is being widely touted to fleets as a viable option along with other lower-vis multi-grade oils — chiefly 10W-30 and 10W-40 — for entirely different reasons that are not necessarily dealing with severe temperature extremes.

It's the desire of oil companies to provide lower-viscosity multi-grade products alongside their conventional 15W-40 oil — which probably still accounts for something close to 90% of the market per one oil supplier's estimate — that is driving the arrival of more synthetic blend and full synthetic motor oils for use by any type of truck fleet operating anywhere.

To be clearer even than fresh oil, the main reason for this is not to ease cold start-ups, it is to boost fuel economy and provide a more stable lubricant able to resist chemical breakdown to protect for longer periods between drains in both today's costly new engines as well as all heavy-duty diesels now on the road.

Details, Details...

To hear the oil companies selling them, the new low-vis motor oils are indeed “super” in that they deliver solid advantages in fuel economy, durability, drain optimization and of course cold-start capability over “conventional” 15W-40 lubes formulated with a mineral-oil base stock. However, as is usually the case with highly engineered products like lubricants, the full story is a bit more complex.

That is because it is possible, according to at least one major oil supplier, to formulate low-vis multi-grades from 10W-30 or 10W-40 down to at least 5W-40 with just mineral-oil base stock. On the other hand, most lube suppliers formulate some if not all of their low-vis multi-grades with synthetic base stocks because testing indicates the synthetic component will deliver measurable benefits.

Some lube suppliers told Fleet Owner that they prefer to downplay the semi-synthetic content of what could be termed “mid-grade” low-vis oils — 10W-30 and 10W-40 — to avoid confusing customers. In those cases, the marketers focus on the superior capabilities of the given low-vis oil — not its chemical makeup, including how much synthetic is blended into the base stock. It should be noted, too, however, that some major suppliers are offering mid-grade low-vis oil formulated only with a mineral oil base stock. On the other hand, essentially every company selling a full synthetic 5W-40 product said they tend to leverage the synthetic handle as much as possible in their marketing efforts.

Another complication is that most if not all the major suppliers of 5W-40 oil (formulated as full synthetics) for use by any heavy-duty truck qualify their fuel economy claims by stating they can be fully achieved only if the fleet also uses full-synthetic drivetrain lubes.

But when those positive estimates — results in these instances are not necessarily guaranteed by oil suppliers — run from 0.5% to a 3% gain in mpg, it would seem savvy fleet owners would be only too happy to pony up for the synthetic gear lubes as well.

Ultimately, whether a fleet owner will regard a given full or semi-synthetic low-vis — or a mineral-oil based one for that matter — as “super” will largely rest on how well his or her oil supplier details the features of their lubricant offerings and the specific advantages each may deliver in actual use.

No Cure-All

Forrest Lucas, president of Lucas Oil, argues against getting too excited about the synthetic component of premium motor oil. “A synthetic or a mineral base stock is just a carrier for the additive package,” he contends. “Synthetic [in the base stock] is better for stability; the oil will pour better in cold weather and [will perform] better in hot” operating conditions.

“But synthetics are not a cure-all because the base stock is not as important as the additive package,” he continues. “We formulated a 5W-40 [synthetic] ourselves and tested it in our own trucks last winter and switched back [to 15W-40]” because he was not impressed with the results. “I do constant R&D here myself,” Lucas adds, “and I am always testing formulations” with synthetics and without.

Offering a distinctly more positive view of synthetics is Mark Betner, product manager-heavy-duty lubricants for Citgo. He maintains that growth in the product category of motor oils formulated with semi- and full-synthetic base stocks is being driven by “greater acceptance of low-vis oils by both fleets and engine makers because the quality of these oil products can contribute measurably to fuel economy and offer other benefits as well.

“Awareness by fleets of low-vis oils is growing,” he continues, “especially thanks to the greater exposure 10W-30 formulations of various brands have been getting in the past year. Whether as a mineral-oil or as a synthetic blend product, 10W-30 is being positioned for the fuel economy benefit it delivers. That's due to its lower viscosity reducing the energy consumption of the engine. ”

Betner notes that Cigo offers 10W-30 formulations that use either a mineral oil base stock or a partially synthetic one. “These products might resonate with a fleet buyer because of the fuel-saving potential and because they may be available in the same price range as 15W-40 products.”

As for 5W-40 motor oil, Betner says using a fully synthetic base stock makes the most sense from a chemical perspective. “Both a 10W-30 and a 5W-40 will offer a fuel-economy advantage over a 15W-40 of anywhere from half a percent to three percent,” he points out. “But there is an issue with using 10W-30 for some fleets because one engine maker [Detroit Diesel] does not yet list this low-vis multi-grade as meeting their requirements.”

According to Betner, since both a 10W-30 and a 5W-40 can boost mpg in the same percentage range, what tips the scale performance-wise for the lower-vis product is that it will protect engines across a wider operating temperature band — from -22°F to 122°F.

“That feature decreases maintenance costs and lengthens equipment life,” he continues. “One engine manufacturer rates the lowest operating temperature for 15W-40 at 15°F. So going from there down to -22°F with the 5W-40 equals a 37-deg. difference. And since the 5W-40 oil will flow at much lower temperatures, it provides the cold-start capability, which also reduces stress on starters and batteries, as there is less amperage draw during start-up. That is the distinct advantage provided by a fully synthetic 5W-40 product — along with the potential for longer drain intervals. And while one engine maker does not yet accept use of a 10W-30, they all say yes to using 5W-40 oil.”

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Low-Vis Trend

Jim Gambill, direct marketing specialist for Chevron Lubricants, points out that the company's new Delo 400 LE 10W-30 oil has demonstrated a 1% fuel economy improvement over 15W-40 oils and — very remarkably — a 0.5% fuel economy improvement over 5W-40 grade synthetic lubricants.

“The use of this 10W-30 also does not come at the expense of engine durability,” he says. “Chevron conducted extensive lab and field durability tests that prove the product provides wear levels and oil drains fleets have come to expect from leading 15W-40 motor oils.”

Concurring somewhat with Forrest Lucas's view that synthetics are not the be-all and end-all of oil technology, Gambill says “more semi-synthetics are coming on the market and synthetics have their place, especially for cold starting and running trucks in high ambient temperatures. But what's really the story is the trend to low-vis oils,” not necessarily how they are formulated. Our focus is on the performance attributes of our products, not detailing the base oil stocks in them.”

That view is borne out by how Chevron describes what it calls its proprietary ISOSYN technology, which was applied to formulating the new 10W-30. “ISOSYN combines highly refined base oils with advanced additives to create products that rival synthetic lubricants in critical performance tests while maintaining costs similar to mineral-based oils,” explains Gambill. “This technology makes synthetics and synthetic blends unnecessary from both cost and performance standpoints in all but the most extreme operating conditions.”

Long term, Gambill is convinced low-vis multi-grades will be “the way to go” for trucking. “But we have one engine maker — Detroit Diesel — that wants to see more data from us before recommending 10W-30 for their North American engines. In the meantime, that complicates the oil-buying decision for fleets [with newer engines]. As it is, 15W-40 still rules but fleets dealing with different types of engines and aging power units are showing strong interest in all types of premium motor oils.”

Real-World MPG

Shell has a portfolio of mineral, semi-synthetic and full synthetic oils,” says Dan Arcy, OEM technical manager. “We are receiving a lot more queries on semi and full synthetic low-vis products, mainly due to their fuel-saving benefit.” Shell's Rotella product lineup now includes the full synthetic T-6 5W-40 that he says will reduce fuel consumption by 1.5% over Shell's own 15W-40. There are two other low-vis products, both considered semi-synthetics, the T-5 10W-30 and 10W-40. Arcy says the 10W-30 will cut fuel use by 1.6% and the 10W-40 by 0.7%.

He hastens to add that fuel economy depends on so many factors, including the duty cycle a truck is running and its driver. “Real-world” results may vary and, to begin with, be difficult to measure by a fleet. That's why Arcy emphasizes the role the oil supplier should play. “We gather all the operating information a fleet has before making a lubricant recommendation.

“For fleets that can use it,” Arcy continues, “10W-30 provides a fuel-economy benefit and better cold-starting performance. But for very cold conditions, we'd recommend 5W-40 — especially where engines had been idling all night to make it easier to start them.” As for 10W-30 vs. 10W-40, he'd “recommend the 10W-30 for its positive impact on fuel economy, but if the engine maker does not allow it, I'd suggest the fleet go with 10W-40.”

As Arcy sees it, though, “long term low-vis is the direction the industry is going to improve fuel economy and to gain better startability and to optimize drain intervals.”

ExxonMobil offers an intriguing mix of multi-grade products, including mineral-oil, semi-synthetic and full synthetic formulations. “We have our Mobil Delvac 1300 Super 15W-40 mineral product but also Mobil Delvac Elite synthetic-blend 15W-40, as well as our Mobil Delvac 1300 Super 10W-30 mineral-oil product and our 5W-40 full synthetic, Mobil Delvac 1 ESP,” points out Maria Burcham, product technical advisor-commercial vehicle lubricants for ExxonMobil Lubricants & Specialties.

The synthetic content of Mobil Delvac Elite 15W-40, Burcham explains, “enables extending drain performance beyond that of a mineral-based oil. I have no hard numbers, but we can say with assurance there are efficiencies [for engine operation] provided by its synthetic blend.”

She says the company's mineral-oil 10W-30 provides lower viscosity at typical engine operating temperatures while its 5W-40 Mobil Delvac E, a full-synthetic formulation, “provides better cold-startability and drains that extend beyond what a conventional mineral-oil product can. The high viscosity index of this oil gives it optimal viscosity characteristics over a wider band of operating temperatures. And the higher oxidation stability the synthetic provides results in the oil having greater resistance to [chemical] breakdown, which speaks to its extended-drain capability.”

Burcham says ExxonMobil “recommends customers use our oil-monitoring program, which tracks lubricant performance in actual service, so fleets can ‘customize’ their oil selection to their equipment and duty cycles. We also encourage fleets to follow the lube specs of their engine suppliers.”

However, she states that there are “no issues with any fleet changing over to a 5W-40 oil [to increase fuel efficiency]. “Compared to running a 15W-40 mineral oil, we have seen fleets gain up to 3% in miles per gallon by operating with Mobil Delvac 1 full synthetic and our synthetic drivetrain fluids as well. Using both those synthetic lubes,” Burcham adds, “is the best way to realize the greatest potential of synthetics.”

Slicing and Dicing

Petro Canada offers a “wide variety of viscosity grades from 15W-40 to 0W-40 to cover all operating temperature ranges,” points out Allen Murray, category performance manager for automotive, commercial & industrial lubricants. “We have both a conventional and a synthetic blend 15W-40, a conventional 10W-30, and full synthetics from 10W-40 down to 0W-40.

“Many fleets [have the perception] if they move to a lower-vis oil, they'd want it to be a synthetic,” he continues. “But our conventional 10W-30 offers the protection of our 15W-40 but is aimed at fleets seeking better fuel economy. Our lab tests indicate it can provide up to a 3% fuel-economy gain over a 15W-40. On the other hand, by stepping up to a synthetic blend 15W-40 from a conventional product, a fleet can consider longer drain intervals, as long as they conduct oil analysis.”

According to Murray, the company's full-synthetic 10W-40 is “very differentiated in its performance in all aspects. It has outstanding durability against wear and works at a wider temperature range than a 15W-40 for better cold-start capability. And it provides more of an opportunity to extend drains than a 15W-40.”

Murray says there is a very good reason for all the slicing and dicing of multi-grades going on in the marketplace now. “From talking to fleets, what I hear is they want the oil to protect the engine first and then provide any fuel-economy bonus. On top of that, fleets know it is hard to prove an mpg benefit when moving from one [oil] product to another.”

Peter Thomson, director of C&I Marketing for Valvoline International, contends that having both semi- and full-synthetic products on the market does confuse customers but each type of multi-grade has its role to play. “There are very good 15W-40 products that can provide extended drains. And both a 1W-40 and a 5W-40 will provide good cold-weather startability. But fuel economy is the key reason for fleets moving to 5W-40 products.”

He says that with buyer interest in mind, the company is launching the Valvoline MPG Guarantee that will “promise that fleets running our full-synthetic Premium Blue Xtreme 5W-40 along with our synthetic gear fluid will gain a minimum of a 1.6% improvement over operating with 15W-40 oil. If the fleet adds our electronic driver-monitoring system, we will guarantee up to a 4% improvement.”

As sure as Superman wears tights, synthetic oil can be hailed as “super” when one degree or another is used to formulate low-vis oils that boost engine efficiency by lowering fuel consumption, enhancing cold-start capability and lengthening drain intervals. But fleet owners should beware the kryptonite lurking in this purchase decision. That is to say, keep in mind that some oil suppliers insist that synthetics are not necessarily needed to produce a performance-oriented low-vis oil. And most would agree that their claims — and those of their competitors — about product performance should be viewed as the result of the total formulation of a given motor oil.