Automotive snake oil

Are you still buying into the myth?



If there’s one thing that isn’t first on the blame list for the daily horrendous traffic we go through these days, it’s definitely the influx of new automobiles that roll out into our roads every single month. With roughly 10,000 brand new units added onto Metro Manila traffic alone (not counting new motorcycles that easily double that figure), that number accounts for over 300 new cars, SUVs etc., that you’ll have to jostle for space for on a daily basis. Naturally, the more time you spend on the road, the more fuel you consume and maintenance costs you’ll have to cough up for. As a result, we adapt and of course the automotive after-market product manufacturers will take that adaptation as a sales opportunity.

The most logical thing to do is opt for a car with a smaller engine that would yield more distance to the liter, but who wouldn’t want to save more on fuel and maintenance, and especially increase power on top of that? That’s where fuel and oil additives come in, based on perceived need and demand. Otherwise known as “performance enhancers,” there are literally hundreds of products out there in liquid or even tablet form, that you pour into your oil fill port, or pop into your fuel tank inlet. The promised benefits are astounding: increased mileage, a boost in power, and added longevity. Funny, but those same promises are seen on vitamin supplement labels. There are of course consumers who get swayed by the very convincing home TV shopping ad and impactful packaging who’d pluck the product from the shelf and bring it straight to the cashier without a thought, but thankfully there are a lot more who scrutinize well, what they put into their cars that they spent a sizeable fortune on. Whichever side you fall into, the promises are almost always too good to be true. Consider these facts:

If fuel believe

Fuel additives tout special cleaning agents that dissolve harmful carbon deposits that build-up inside your fuel tanks and fuel lines that will eventually clog up your sensitive electronic fuel injectors, and that would save you from a potentially huge repair bill eventually. These fuel additives also claim to promote better combustion, for a cleaner, more powerful fuel burn that would result in better acceleration, and therefore more mileage- since you’d tend to ease off on the throttle due to the significant power increase. Sweet. But it doesn’t take much to realize that all Petroleum companies or fuel brands advertise their products the exact same way, offering those very benefits to begin with. Modern fuels nowadays, from the big three (Petron, Shell, Caltex) at least, are already formulated to prevent and eventually dissolve carbon deposits, and have (thankfully) improved Euro fuel ratings for higher quality and a cleaner combustion. Besides, after referring to your car’s operation manual, if it can take fuel with a higher octane rating, then fill-up with it if more power and enhanced acceleration are what you’re after. Of course that comes as an added cost, hence the various fuel grades as options. So if all a fuel additive can do besides what the unadulterated fuel already is providing is to up its combustibility, then most of what you’re paying for really, is their packaging & advertising expenses, and ironically, the added risk of really just screwing up your engine’s fuel injection system. What does added power give you in this kind of traffic, really? You can actually save on your fuel expenses significantly with a more sensible driving style and better driving and maintenance habits. But if you’re after a better feel on your car’s overall performance dynamics-wise, switching up to fuel with a higher octane grade may be the answer. There’s a whole industry that deals with modifying or adding onto your car’s computer chip to give it a notable (sometimes astounding) performance boost and mileage increase, but that’s a different topic altogether.

Oil always love you

There are also oil additives out there in the market, and the number of choices must be dizzying. Well, save yourself from the headache, and the unnecessary cost. Back in the day, what the average motorist really was after is to extend the oil-change interval of his car. Every 3 months or every 5,000 Kilometers, whichever comes first. That rule of thumb is practically obsolete nowadays, due to the advancements in automotive technology, and lubricant technology as well. Depending on the kind of motor oil you use, (despite what your car’s operation manual specifies, there are several options available) the oil-change intervals have been extended to up to 10,000 Kms on average for the newer cars, as recommended by the manufacturers themselves. It doesn’t require rocket science to realize that a motor oil’s formulation is decidedly more complex and crucial than a fuel’s, especially for today’s ultra advanced engines, mainly because it’s not intended to be consumed by your car, and it’s there to last and stay intact to essentially prevent your engine from self-destructing due to friction and heat (well, that’s a bit melodramatic).

Now, the average motorist knows and cares about cold-start protection and sludge build-up, thanks to the vividly illustrated motor-oil ads all over. And by now, you must know that your off-the-gas-station-shelf motor oil includes these special formulations that target and address those concerns. Rust inhibitors and detergent agents prevent contaminants, deposits and debris from building up inside the engine, and cause them to be flushed out when you replace your oil. The dreaded sludge build-up must really happen to those who are incredibly careless about changing their oil, and/or use oil of questionable quality (um, sold in jugs by the roadside?). Then of course special properties in today’s oils make them more adherent and resistant to breaking down, leaving a thin film of protection on the engine’s walls and components that guard against cold starting, and effective lubrication in even the most extreme of operating temperatures.

Though these are virtually the same benefits that oil additives claim will give your engine. Much older cars with compression issues may benefit from them, but determining if your old car really needs it may be an issue in itself. Car manufacturers, most especially for their high-end or flagship nameplates, can be very specific with the kind of oil you should put in your high performance, premium luxury, exotic or super car, even right down to the oil brand (partnership possibilities aside), since obviously so much is dependent on the motor oil’s viscosity grade, and classification (mineral based, semi to fully synthetic) among many other factors that non-Chemical Engineers won’t enjoy reading up on. So it would be wise to not mess with their formulation—that their manufacturers have spent millions of dollars on R&D and testing to begin with. I’ve witnessed thorough and repeated stringent testing of an engine/oil additive via advanced equipment, and though there were slight improvements in horsepower output and engine temperature, the difference in the figures were really too minute to matter, or to be worth the product’s cost. Of course that can’t be basis to judge all oil additives, but it’s safe to assume common sense and good quality oil is all it takes.

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