September 12, 2013 by quirkyuncle
Buying motor oil for your car is not as easy as it used to be. Unlike the past, there is more to choosing the correct motor oil for your BMW than merely picking a bottle off the shelf with the recommended weight that is made by a reputable brand.
Note: While some of the information in this article is applicable to any type of vehicle, this article was written to address motor oil selection for BMWs (and Minis that use the BMW oil spec) with gasoline engines in the US market (except for the BMW Motorsport ‘M’ vehicles that have different maintenance requirements).
One of the most read articles on this website is Quieting the infamous BMW lifter tick. The statistics I receive for the BMW lifter tick posting shows that its readers are from all over the world, making me believe that ticking lifters in a BMW is not a USA-only issue, as I had previously suspected. While the suggestions I make for driving differently in Quieting the infamous BMW lifter tick have remained effective at preventing lifter noise in my 2007 BMW Z4 3.0i, and I’ve receive no feedback from readers to indicate that these techniques are ineffective, it still makes me wonder what the root causes of this problem might be.
While the final solution that BMW offers to correct lifter knock is replacement of the entire cylinder head, the variable that my mind keeps returning to is the motor oil. Lifters are hydraulic components and all hydraulic devices are sensitive to the fluids that they use.
I’ve owned a couple non-BMWs that had hydraulic lifters which were oil sensitive and would periodically make a lot of noise. Effective solutions for these vehicles included: changing the oil sooner, using heavier oil, using lighter oil, or using a particular oil additive. Each situation and its solution was unique. The common thread was changing the characteristics of the motor oil in the engine, which is acting as the hydraulic fluid within each hydraulic lifter.
I’m not a petroleum engineer. Volumes could be written about motor oil ratings, viscosity, additives, and brand comparisons. I’m not going to do that here. My goal is to write a short and simple article about purchasing the correct oil for your BMW. The other technical details about oil are really interesting and I might discuss some of them in another posting. For now, if you have an interest, you can certainly find out more than you’d ever want to know about oil elsewhere on Internet.
What do we know (and assume)?
The following basic motor oil facts for my 2007 BMW were easily found:
- All late model BMWs use synthetic motor oil (it’s in the owners manual).
- Approved BMW oils belong to the 5w-40 and 5w-30 weight (viscosity) classes (it’s in the owners manual).
- BMW recommends the Castrol motor oil brand (it says so on the oil filler cap of the car).
BMW also recommends doing oil changes for my car at 15,000-miles. For synthetic oil, I always change mine at the 7500-mile interval. With any oil, the lubricating properties of diminish as the oil ages and gets dirtier. This easily seen in the following photo. See Recommended oil change intervals for more information.
Being old-school, I went to a local retailer that sold motor oil and bought 7-quarts of Castrol synthetic 5w-40 (the heavier oil weight option, it being summer) and an oil filter. The oil change was simple, and I was done for another 7500 miles. I suspect that this is what most folks do: purchase a reputable brand of oil that is of the specified weight. BMW specifies Castrol: it’s a good brand that you’ve heard of, so you buy it… unless maybe another known brand is on sale.
It all seems simple enough, but it’s not.
- BMW Genuine Oil SAE 5w-30 Synthetic Oil is recommended for scheduled oil changes.
It goes on to say that oil changes should only be performed by an authorized BMW center and that if you need to add oil and don’t have BMW Genuine Oil SAE 5w-30 Synthetic Oil, you need to go to an authorized BMW center to have it topped off.
When I did this research a while back, the BMW-USA website had a list of approved synthetic oils for the US market that was dated January 2008. It listed several brands, classifying all of them as oils with a “BMW long-life rating of LL-01.” The BMW LL-01 spec oil options listed were:
- Castrol Syntec European Formula SAE 0w-30 (rumor has it that this is the oil BMW relabels to sell as BMW Genuine Oil SAE 5w-30 Synthetic Oil)
- Mobil 1 SAE 0w-40
- Penzoil Platinum European Formula Ultra SAE 5w-30
- Valvoline SynPower SAE 5w-30
What happened between 2008 and 2013 to make BMW stop listing several oil manufacturer options? I have no idea. However, if you go to the Mobil Oil website, right now in 2013, the Mobil 1 0w-40 oil specs still list Mobil 1 0w-40 as being BMW LL-01 compliant.
Note: Gasoline used in the USA market can contains ethanol that can cause the oils specified for use in other parts of the world, such as those with a BMW LL-04 rating, to break down prematurely when used in the USA.
So, what should you buy?
If you want to follow the letter of BMW law, you’ll need to purchase BMW Genuine Oil SAE 5w-30 Synthetic Oil from a BMW dealer or other distributor.
If you are OK with an oil listed in 2008 as fully meeting BMW specs, you need to pay attention to the details, since BMW is listing very specific oil weights and types produced by each manufacturer. Most of the oil type and weight combinations listed in as OK by BMW in 2008 are not commonly available where I live: the only LL-01 oil on the shelf in local stores was Mobil 1 SAE 0w-40.
Oils that are BMW-spec compliant are listed as such on the rear label of the oil bottle. Note that not all oils by a manufacturer or even all weights of a specific oil type are considered LL-01 compliant. Check the label to be 100% certain it says BMW long-life oil 1, BMW LL-01, or some similar phrase.
Why Mobil 1 and the other LL-01 spec oils from 2008, aren’t on the BMW list any more, is anyone’s guess. It’s up to you to decide if they are still appropriate to use in your vehicle.
What’s my personal experience?
I’ve been running Mobil 1 0w-40 (with LL-01 compliance listed on the bottle), for the past five months (about 3000 miles). During that time, I’ve not had any lifter knocking issues. While I am driving the car as indicated in Quieting the infamous BMW lifter tick, there are instances where the car has had short low RPM runs around town, or sat idling for a while, and no ticking has resulted. I’m thinking that using an LL-01 spec oil has helped the situation.
I plan to continue using LL-01 spec Mobil 1 0w-40 oil in both my BMWs, as long as my success continues. If it doesn’t, you’ll be the first to know.
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- 18 August 2017: Editorial and organization changes.
- 13 August 2017: Added link to Recommended oil change intervals