Most motors need oil to stay running, but not all oils are created equal. Furthermore, car engines have different lubrication requirements than those in motorcycles. With all the different engines and all the types of oil to choose from, how do you know which motorcycle engine oil is best for your machine?
Two Wheelin’ and Dealin’
The first thing to know is that bikes have special needs in the lubrication department. Most are air-cooled and experience much greater temperature variations than cars, often needing to dissipate a lot of heat. Their engines tend to have wider clearances, and many have a wet clutch and/or share fluid with the transmission. This means you need an oil that can withstand extreme heat, but doesn’t carry additives that are going to wear down or break apart internal components. It can make things a little tricky.
The three main categories of oil are mineral, semi-synthetic and fully synthetic. In short, the best oil to use is the one recommended by the manufacturer, but if you feel informed enough to beat your own path, there is some flexibility depending on the particulars of your situation.
- Mineral: The closest to crude, mineral oil is less refined and has the least amount of heat tolerance. It loses its ability to lubricate and dissipate heat quickly when mashed repeatedly between gears. Generally speaking, however, if you don’t ride too hard or too often and are good about changing your oil regularly, it is an easy option (but for a bike you don’t care too much about).
- Semi-Synthetic: A further refined combination of mineral and fully synthetic, semi-synthetic attempts to provide some of the more helpful benefits and additives from synthetic oil while incorporating mineral oil. It’s not actually as simple as mixing the two together, but you get the idea.
- Fully Synthetic: Fully synthetic is actually still derived from crude, but is constructed in a lab and refined so much as to be almost unrecognizable … in the world of oils, that is. Fully synthetic oils have an additive package and chemical composition that resists breakdown caused by heat, guards against wear, inhibits oxidation and lubricates better. You shouldn’t have to change it as religiously — but still change it. Seriously. Most manufacturers recommend fully synthetic oil for optimum performance and protection.
Know Your Oil
Regular oil changes are even more important in bikes than in cars because the oil supply is significantly smaller and sees a lot more abuse. If you’re going to sidestep manufacturer recommendations, at least make sure you’re matching the proper viscosity and oil specification (ILSAC, API, JASO) as the original. Know that any time you veer away from doing so, you assume some risk.
There’s some flexibility with oil selection, but know what you’re getting yourself into so you can ride off into the sunset … safely.
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Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.