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Synthetically speaking

October 11, 2010
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The lubrication business is changing. In the past, the market was wide open to lubrication manufacturers. Service providers, as well as consumers, bought what oil companies and the OEMs told them to buy.

For many years there were only a few applications with similar performance criteria, so the need for lubrication solutions was easily met and understood by service providers and consumers.

Things have changed. We now have many choices and options that can provide added value to the consumer and service provider.

The automotive consumer is sophisticated and capable of recognizing if an enhancing product provides the added performance they are looking for. This is not to say that automotive consumers understand lubricants or additive chemistry; most don’t. But they do know their vehicle and they can see changes in performance and delight in trouble-free motoring.

What’s in a name
One of the bigger changes is the proliferation of “synthetic” and “semi-synthetic” lubricants now available. Just understanding what the term “synthetic” means in today’s automotive aftermarket is confusing.

In 1999, a ruling by the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau found that Group III base oils (refined, hydro-treated crude oil) can be considered “synthetic.”

The ruling declared Group III base oils can provide equivalent performance to traditional fully-synthetic Group IV PAO base oils (a man-made fluid with specific properties). It also found the products utilizing these base oils can be called synthetic.

These applications range from passenger car and truck motor oils (with specific categories of oils targeting consumer applications), to gear lubricants, to the most confusing category of all: automatic transmission fluids.

Motor oils are the most often changed lubricant in your vehicle. The choice of using “synthetic” motor oil, or a less expensive non-synthetic oil, is a decision the knowledgeable service provider can help the consumer make by understanding how they use and maintain their vehicle.

Gear lubricants
Gear lubricants are used for some manual transmissions, transfer cases and differentials. There are three categories most commonly used:

  • GL-4;
  • GL-5; and
  • GLS.

All three categories have “synthetic” products available with the same benefits of extended life and enhanced protection we find in other synthetic-based lubricants.

With extended warranties on vehicle drivelines, and OEMs looking for any reason to deny those warranties, the use of synthetic-based lubricants is a smart move. Using a synthetic leaves the OEM with no ammunition to reasonably deny a warranty based on “improper lubricant” in the event of mechanical problems.

Synthetics also offer the service provider a certain level of insurance. In the case of lubricant quality issues, there will be little wiggle room for OEM dealerships to avoid a warranty obligation.

Automatic transmission fluids
Now we come to automatic transmission fluids (ATFs), by far the most complicated and misunderstood lubricant used in the vehicles you service.

ATFs have to perform the same function regardless of who manufactured that transmission. OEMs use limited availability and “exclusive use requirements” to drive customers back to the dealer for fluids and/or service. Understanding ATFs will help drive those consumers back to your shop.

OEM ATFs are tested and designed to meet their specific fluid requirements and will perform well in the transmissions they are designed to be used in. Extended durability, with precise frictional performance, increases the cost and availability of these dealer-only ATFs.

There are now transmission fluids for which manufacturers assert there are no equivalents. Knowing what you can and can’t do will have a huge impact on your bottom line in the future.

The specification system for qualifying OEM-licensed ATFs (like DEXRON and MERCON) are changing in ways that will increase the quality of licensed products, but at a much higher cost. DaimlerChrysler has now released the MOPAR® ATF+4® specification for licensing.

The “genuine” ATFs used by Asian OEMs and others are factory-specified ATFs exclusive to that manufacturer and are available only through their dealer network.

At last count, there were over 40 different branded OEM fluid types used in North America to service automatic transmissions. This has created a logistical problem for service providers who are unable or unwilling to keep the variety of ATFs called for today by OEMs.

There are several variables that determine what properties are required by the base oil and additive package that make up the “special” OEM fluids. The trend is toward high quality, extended durability lubricants with frictional properties that do not change as the miles accumulate on the vehicle.

  • Viscosity — Transmissions that are controlled electronically by computers require an ATF with a viscosity that remains stable across a wide temperature range.

    Many of the strategies used to control shifting are dependent on a fluid that stays in a specific viscosity range for optimum function. Synthetic ATFs will meet these requirements.

  • Durability — Extended warranties have driven most OEMs to base oils and additive packages that have superior oxidative stability and better anti-wear properties.

    Stable viscosity for the life of the fluid is one of the most important aspects of extended durability. Elevated operating temperatures in front wheel drive vehicles and extended service intervals have driven OEM ATF requirements to better fluids to reduce warranty cost.

    Again, synthetic ATFs provide extended durability.

  • Frictional properties — Problems with torque converter shudder and the use of frictional materials and clutch plate configurations that are difficult frictionally have required the use of fluid additives that modify friction for high speed clutch engagement. It is crucial these additives do not affect the frictional properties at lower speeds that prevent clutch chatter and torque converter shudder.

    Frictional requirements often separate fluid types that would otherwise be very similar. FORD Type F is an example of a non-friction modified ATF. DEXRON® / MERCON® fluids are moderately-friction modified and MOPAR® ATF+4 is a highly-friction modified ATF.

Highly-friction modified fluids generally have high-speed frictional properties similar to moderately-friction modified fluids, but are targeted to reduce low-speed frictional problems, like torque converter shudder and clutch chatter.

Friction modification is not difficult to achieve with one of the friction modifiers available on the market today.

The combination of synthetic ATF and targeted friction modifiers has become the solution for many service providers who do not choose to stock 40 different types of ATF. This need has also resulted in the proliferation of multi-vehicle ATFs now appearing in the aftermarket.

With the OEM use of high quality lubricants growing at a phenomenal rate, the trend towards synthetic lubricants as viable solutions to these requirements will continue to grow.

Even though synthetic lubricants are more expensive, they are also more cost-effective because they provide the increased protection so vital to protect the consumer and just as important, the service provider.

Pat Burrow spent 21 years working for independent test labs doing lubricant research and qualification testing for GM, Ford and Chrysler. He was involved in qualification testing for the DEXRON and MERCON ATF specifications from GM and Ford. He has worked for International Lubricants Inc. since 2003 as the Technical Director. For more information, please contact Pat at

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