Oil and your BMW – Which is the Best?

Oil and your BMW – Which is the Best?

There really is no ‘best’ oil to pour in the engine of your BMW, after all, if there was one that shined completely above the rest you’d be buying it.  Engine Oil has always been a great debate for those that are a bit serious about their service.  I sometimes feel that debating about oil brands is much like squabbling over which Brewery produces the best Lager.  I love beer, and I’ve had some really crap beers (especially in college) and I’ve had some really good beers.  Same can be said for Oil.  Crappy oil is the stuff that is really cheap, has generic packaging and there is usually almost all of it still on the shelf – the ‘Natrual Light’ of oils.  Hopefully none of you are using that stuff, or worse yet, drinking that sort of beer.

I find that the most common oils in the great debate are Mobile-1, Castrol, Royal Purple, and Amsoil.  I should say that I am not a fluids expert, I’ve done no crazy amount of testing on any of these oils, nor have I read 15 different case studies that have — this is all based on experience (and opinion).  Aside from all the great things that oil does for any engine, modern BMWs need oil to feed both the Vanos unit(s) as well as the hydraulic lifters (if your engine has them).  Now for my super scientific test results.

Mobil-1

I don’t like Mobil-1.  It’s the most popular oil, and a lot of folks swear by it, but I just don’t like it.  Many cars come in to the shop with the engine sounding like a rotating barrel of marbles and most of them have one thing in common — the owner uses nothing but Mobil-1.  One customer had a 1998 M3 running Mobil-1 and his hydraulic lifters were making a racket with Mobil-1; I switched him into Castrol Syntec 5w-30 and within 30 seconds the valve noise was almost completely gone.  I’m sure that Mobil-1 is a good oil, it just doesn’t seem to agree with BMWs all the time for some reason, so I never use it and never will.

Amsoil

I just can’t use this stuff.  It reminds me of Avon cosmetics and buying encyclopedia’s from a door-to-door salesman.  The guys who are selling it always seem to remind me of a cross between a shoe salesman and the ‘kids’ who try to sell me magazines to support their baseball team when they are clearly 10 years past their last time at bat for little league.  If you’re not smart enough to come up with a decent marketing plan, what makes me think your oil is any good?  I just don’t trust it, and a BMW engine is not the platform to ‘try something new and different!’

Castrol Syntec

Talk about marketing, these guys have it handled.  BMW has been endorsing Castrol since the early 1990’s and I have to say that I’ve never had anything but good results using Castrol.  I think it is a great oil and seems to do really well in BMWs.  It is reasonably priced, and you pretty much can get it anywhere.  If you are using it and like it, stick with it.  Tip- you can buy ‘factory oil’ at your nearest dealership, which is Castrol Syntec in a BMW bottle, at almost a dollar less per quart.

Royal Purple

This stuff is expensive.  I know some people that love it and I ask them why and they really don’t have a valid answer.  It’s usually two to five dollars more per quart than the others and I just don’t see the need to be ultra spendy.  It’s kinda like buying corn flakes at Whole Foods, same basic flake, but at the Whole Foods price.  It seems to be really good oil, but at that price why bother? There are other options that are great and less expensive.

What do we use? Here’s a list of the current engine oils that we have had the best luck with along with their applications:

Kendall 20w-50

In my opinion this is the best oil you can put in your BMW if it requires non-synthetic oil.  The only problem with Kendall is that it can be hard to get in the retail market.  A good alternative would be Castrol GTX.

Castrol Syntec 5w-30

This is the factory recommended oil and it works great and it is reasonably priced.

Elf (or Total) 5w-30

Elf oil has long been popular in the European market and well known in F-1 racing.  They tried to introduce it to the US market in the early 1990’s but no one could get past the name ‘Elf’ as it reminds us of little guys climbing out trees with a boxes of cookies.  So they are now using the name ‘Total’ for the US market and I really like this oil.

I first gave Elf a try in my drama queen of an M5 which was consuming about 2 quarts of oil every 3k miles with the use of Castrol TWS 10w-60.  Using Elf’s 10w-60 has cut my oil consumption in half, and when I change my oil I like the way the used oil looks in comparison. My car just seems happier with it.

Elf 10w-60 and Castrol TWS 10w-60

These oils are for use in newer M-series engines and are expensive.  Of the two, I highly recommend the Elf based solely on the results it has produced on my own car.

All things considered, everyone needs to relax a bit about oil.  There’s really not one oil that is best across the board.  If you are overly concerned about oil, read different oil comparison test results, or you’re sending used oil samples out for analysis, this tells me that you are doing one thing right – changing your oil frequently enough.

The best thing you can do is frequent oil changes no matter what you are using, and to continually check your oil level between changes.  Like I tell my customers, vegetable oil is better than none at all . . .

Chris Keefer

Independent Motorcars

5836 Autoport Mall

San Diego CA 92121

858-455-5836

www.independentmotorcars.com

About the Author

11 Comments

  • Vu July 11, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks Chris!

    I hope you didn’t write that just cause I asked the question. I’m not super picky about my oil, but I always thought it was interesting that BMW recommended Castrol right on the cap. Also, reading forums and seeing the debates is always entertaining.

    Great blog…keep it up!

  • Chuck Hasek July 11, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Great blog, good read and great information (pretty funny at times also)! On the oil issue, I like Elf also but definitely recommend Motul and Lubro-Moly (Liqui-Moly in Europe). Both great oils.

    Cheers,

    Chuck

  • John August 17, 2008 at 10:19 am

    FWIW – the Castrol Syntec 5W-30 and the BMW 5W-30 are not the same oils. For starters, the Syntec is an ACEA A1 class oil while the BMW is an ACEA A3 class. What’s more, the viscosities at operating temperature are quite different with the Syntec being at the light end and the BMW oil at the high end of the rather broad SAE 30 range.

    The closest Castrol product to the BMW oil is the TXT Softec LL-01, but you’ll only find that overseas. Here in the states, the only Castrol oil people should be putting in their BMW’s is the Syntec 0w-30.

  • sandiegobmw August 18, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Thanks for the information John.

    Wondering if you are an oil tech of some sort. This further proves my point that being overly concerned and educated about engine oils, while not extremely important in this application, is a VERY good thing.

    Engine oil specifications will vary depending upon climate. BMW calls for 5w-30 or 5w-40 regardless of ambient temperatures.

    Check it regularly!

    Chris.

  • John August 18, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Chris –

    No, I’m not an oil tech, just an engineer that went OCD on oil a while back. What makes it so easy to choose the “wrong” oil for your BMW is that the operating viscosity range targeted by the factory, about 11.3 cSt to 14.5 cSt at 100 deg C, spans the high end of the SAE 30 range and the low end of the SAE 40 range. So merely getting a xW-30 or xW-40 oil doesn’t necessarily cover it. The other finicky requirement from BMW is the high HTHS (High Temp-High Shear) viscosity of >3.5.

    The easiest way for people to get the “right” oil is to let BMW do the work for them. Starting in the late 90’s, BMW and several other European auto manufacturers started looking closer at engine oil performance and developing their own approval standards based on tests done on their specific engines. For BMW, the standard to look for on the label or datasheet is “LL-01″. You can also take advantage of Mercedes-Benz’s work and look for an LL-01 oil that is also MB 229.5 approved. If you use an oil that meets those two specifications, you can be completely confident that you’ve got the good stuff.

    Not to say that using a non-BMW approved oil is guaranteed to cause problems. It’s just that the approved oils are known NOT to cause problems. And of course, oil requirements for the S– engines are their own subject, but for us non-M series drivers, using a BMW approved oil is the easy way to go.

    John

  • John August 18, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    BTW – for older engines that are likely to prefer a heavier oil (and were probably originally spec’d for 10W-40) a good yardstick is to go by the Porsche approval list. Those are all xW-40 to xW-50 oils that have passed some pretty stringent criteria.

  • Al September 14, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Great info. I really think ELF oil is neutral it does not work hard on the engine thats why it is clean when you change it after 7000 miles. I am now using only lubro moly and royal purple on my bmw’s.

    And yes John you are right about 5w-50 porche approved being good on older than 1998 bmw engines.
    Chris try lubro molly 10w-60 on your M-series.

    Cheers

  • Ferdinand September 30, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Great article, been doing some research and it seems the ELF 0W30 Excellium Full-Tec is the only one that meets the BMW Longlife-01 specification and safest bet then.

    BMW seems to be pushing Castrol but from what I found out the Castrol 5W40 only meets the Longlife-98 not the LL01 specification which is the preferred spec.

    Thanks again.

  • Aleksey April 28, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Amsoil synthetic 5W-40 oil (European Car Formula) meets BMW LL-04 specification (and Mercedes Benz 229.31, 229.51) as of today.

  • Richard August 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Great blog. I have been speaking with BMW NZ and it is interesting to note that they only use Mobil S. They have said if the oil is a semi synthetic then the grade is 10W 40. However, if the oil is fully synthetic then it is recommended that you use 5W 40. No mention of Castrol.

    Oh decissions decissions……..

    Richard

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