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I get a lot of email, "My buddy has 283,000 miles on his Yamazuki 867 Nintruder, and he's never used anything but 35¢ per quart grocery store oil changed every 48,000 miles." Here's the truth: modern Japanese engines are amazingly well engineered and can tolerate a surprising amount of abuse. However, putting automotive oils in your motorcycle and running them for more than 1500 miles is abuse. I abuse my motorcycle enough with the way I ride them without adding on the abuse of using cheap oil that will break down in 1500 miles.
The question of which oil is best is not settled. We know what we want: the oil is inexpensive, lasts a long time, and makes our engine never break. There are various articles in MCN which do a chemical analysis and make recommendations based on the content of the additive package. I am very skeptical of this, as the utility of these chemicals at various levels is never tested, and the base oils are not tested. There are a couple articles that actually test for viscosity breakdown, and standard petroleum oils don't do very well. Consumer Reports once did a 4,500,000 mile test of oils in NYC taxicabs, however these engines only start once per day and are water-cooled, so they mostly avoid cold start-ups and overheating. If you're using a standard automotive petroleum oil in your motorcycle and running it for more than 1,500 miles, you are taking your chances. By 1,500 miles, the VII additives are pretty much all broken down, and the oil has therefore thinned out enormously.
Your engine will not explode if you use Spiffo-Magic Superlube for 4,000 miles. Your engine will not explode if you never use synthetic oils. However, any of these choices puts additional strain on your engine. You buy $65 tires for your car that last 45,000 miles, and $100 tires for your bike that last 8,000 miles. Why on earth would you try to save $5 on each oil change to buy an oil that can't hold up in a motorcycle engine? My DL650 runs its oil through the transmission, I run off-road (extreme environment due to silicon blow-by at the piston rings), I'm pretty much always revving my engine at 5500 rpm or more (red line on the Corvette, the one that comes with Mobil-1 as factory fill). I stress my little engine enough without making it use dinner candles as lubricants. Nor do I wish to make the bearings run in 10w-40 oil that's broken down to 10w-15 oil.
Some people should, in my opinion, clearly use a synthetic oil. You should be using a synthetic if:
If it's below -55c, -65f, stay home. Really.
Three synthetics stand out from the rest: Mobil Delvac 1, Mobil-1 SUV and Shell Rotella T Synthetic. These are C certified industrial oils meant to be purchased in 55 gallon drums and used by companies which run a lot of diesel engines. The Commercial oils, as discussed above, have more expensive additive packages which are meant to prolong engine life and oil life, as opposed to being cheap to buy at Pep Boys and helping the car companies meet their CAFE requirements. These oils meet all the automobile requirements through SJ, and also have extra additives to help pick up gunk in the engine, to keep the oil from becoming acidic, and to maintain the oil's viscosity over a long time. In fact, the manufacturers talk about their oil's viscosity resistance to shear forces - exactly what a motorcycle needs. Shell Rotella-T Synthetic is available at Wal-Mart for $13 / gallon, so I consider this the motor oil of choice. Delvac-1 is very hard to get in the west - there are only two places in all of California where you can buy it. Mobil-1 SUV is readily available everywhere for about $4.50 / quart. When used with the correct filters, these oils are certified for 50,000 mile oil change intervals, and are frequently used for 100,000 to 150,000 miles in diesel long-haul trucks. Now, before you get all excited about the possibilities, you must also keep in mind that the diesel engines don't run their oil through their transmission, and the large diesels all have two oil filters, one a normal paper filter, and the other a 1 or 2 micron filter that catches pretty much everything. We don't have these secondary ultra-fine oil filters on our bikes. Also, the large diesel engines hold eleven gallons of oil - a oil and filter change costs these guys $350 if they use synthetics, $150 if they don't.
The synthetic diesel oils are 5w-40 oils. Some people have expressed concern to me that this doesn't match the 10w-40 specification for their engine. The 5w rating only applies when the oil is cold, below about 80° f. Once your oil and engine are up to operating temperature, these are 40 weight oils, just like all the others. In cold conditions, under 40° f, the 5w oils are much better for your engine than a 10w oil.
AMSOil, Motul 5100, Mobil-1 MX4T, Mobil-1, Redline, and Golden Spectro are apparently made with high quality additive packages, similar to the commercial synthetics. Personally, I would find it reassuring if these oils were CI-4 certified. However, many motorcyclists have used these oils for years with good results. They are all fine oils, and perfectly acceptable to run in your motorcycle. They are a bit on the pricey side. Delvac-1, AMSOil, Redline and Motul synthetics contain no petroleum oils - they're pure synthetic. To the best of my knowledge, all other synthetic oils contain some amount of Group III oil.
Mobil-1 automotive oils all contain small amounts of moly - about 100 to 200 ppm. This can cause clutch slippage in some motorcycles. I've only heard of this being a problem in Honda Shadows.
I'm sometimes asked if it's ok to blend your own oils. Yes, it is. Oils are all made out of pretty much the same chemicals, and nothing really bad will happen. If I wanted to blend my own oil, I expect I would use something like 25% Motul 5100 10W-40 and 75% Chevron Delo 15w-40, which would get me both the advantages of a lot of diester stock (5100 is pure diester) and the diesel additive package. In the winter, however, I would use 25% Motul and 75% Rotella synthetic, to get the superior low temperature performance. In fact, I just run Rotella synthetic in everything I own, year round: ST1300, DL650, Superhawk, Chevy Silverado, motorhome.
I'm also sometimes asked if it's ok to run non-Harley oils in Harley-Davidsons. In my opinion, yes. If you change your engine oil every 3,000 miles or so, you can run pretty much any decent oil. I ran Valvoline in my Harleys for 120,000 miles. For extended oil life or superior protection, I recommend AMSOil, Golden Spectro, Motul 5100 or Mobil-1. Harley recommends a 20w-50 oil, so Rotella or other synthetic diesel oils will not do. However, the 15w-40 diesel oils meet the same film strength standard as 20w-50 oil, and are just fine to run in your Harley. I'm told that the standard Harley oils are made by Sunoco, and the Syn-3 is made by Castrol. The Syn-3 Harley synthetic is primarily a Group III oil, and contains very little PAO or Diester stock. I don't consider the Syn-3 Harley oil either a particularly excellent oil, nor a competitively priced oil.
If you live in another country, you'll have to do a bit of research to decide on an oil. Generally, any oil certified for use in a late model Volkswagon or Mercedes turbo diesel is a good choice. Another good idea is to go to a truck stop and ask the truckers about brands. Rotella is marketed all over the world, but in other countries it's called Rotella or Rimola or Helix Ultra, and the formulation may be a bit different, depending on local climate and preferences. It will likely also be a lot more expensive than it is here. Sorry. I don't make your tax policy. Nor ours. They would all be very different if I did.
If you prefer a less expensive petroleum oil, Chevron Delo 400, Mobil Delvac 1300, and Shell Rotella T are available at any auto parts store for under $7 per gallon, or at Sam's Club or Costco for under $6 per gallon. This price is reasonably competitive with passenger car oils, and you are getting a Group II oil with the superior commercial additive packages. Notice in the table above that these oils have particularly good high shear film strength, meaning the protection you get for your bearings is much better than with a 10w-30 or 10w-40 oil. I don't have any information about how long you can run these oils before their viscosity breaks down, but I'm confident it's at least as long as the best consumer petroleum oil. If you're really into saving money, you can often find these oils locally in 10 gallon drums for about $50. This should keep your bike, your car, and your wife's car in good shape for at least a year. Farmers, ranchers and truckers buy these oils in large quantities, and we get to ride piggy- back on their economies of scale.
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