Viscosity is one of the most critical properties of engine oil.
We’ll discuss how oil viscosity is defined, including the difference between dynamic viscosity and kinematic viscosity. And if you’re curious about the viscosity index, we’ve got that covered too, plus several FAQs to help further clarify engine oil viscosity.
This Article Contains
- What Is Oil Viscosity?
- 8 FAQs about Engine Oil Viscosity
- Who Designed Oil Viscosity Grades?
- What Are Multigrade Oils?
- What Do Multigrade Oil Numbers Mean?
- What Happens When Engine Oil Viscosity Is Too Thin?
- What Happens When Engine Oil Viscosity Is Too Thick?
- What Are Popular Engine Oil Viscosity Grades?
- Does Motor Oil Type Affect Oil Viscosity?
- What’s the Difference Between Synthetic Engine Oil and Mineral Oil?
Let’s get cranking.
What Is Oil Viscosity?
Viscosity describes how resistant a fluid is to flow. It indicates how thin or thick a fluid is — impacting properties like temperature resistance and lubrication.
Here’s an easy way to think of viscosity:
- Thin, light fluids are low viscosity (like brake fluid)
- Thick, heavy fluids have higher viscosity (like grease)
Oil thins out as it gets warmer, so engine oil viscosity refers to how well it pours at a particular temperature.
Engine lubricant viscosity is usually defined through its kinematic viscosity and dynamic viscosity (absolute viscosity). Another important viscosity indicator is the viscosity index.
Let’s take a look:
A. Kinematic Viscosity
Kinematic viscosity is fluid resistance to flow and shear due to gravity.
If you pour water into one container and pour honey into another, you’ll notice that water flows faster. This is because water has a lower kinematic viscosity than honey.
The high-temperature viscosity grade of oils is determined by their kinematic viscosity (typically tested to ASTM D445). And this value is usually reported at either 40°C (100°F) or 100°C (212°F).
For motor oils, kinematic viscosity is usually measured at 100°C as this is the temperature that the SAE engine oil classification refers to.
B. Dynamic Viscosity (Absolute Viscosity)
Dynamic viscosity (or absolute viscosity) is slightly different from kinematic viscosity.
Let’s say you first use a straw to stir water, then honey.
You’d need more effort to stir the honey because it has a higher viscosity than water. Dynamic viscosity refers to the amount of energy required to move an object through a fluid.
For motor lubricants, dynamic viscosity determines the oil’s cold temperature viscosity grade (the “W” rating). It’s measured via the Cold Cranking Simulator test, which simulates engine startup at progressively lower temperature settings.
C. Oil Viscosity Index
The oil viscosity Index (VI) is a unitless number representing how much the kinematic viscosity of a lubricant changes with temperature.
It’s obtained by comparing a test oil’s kinematic viscosity at 40°C with the kinematic viscosity of two reference oils. One of the reference oils has a VI of 0, and the other has a VI of 100. All three oils have the same viscosity at 100ºC.
If there’s little viscosity change in the test oil between 40°C to 100ºC, it will have a high viscosity index — meaning its viscosity is relatively stable with different temperatures. Many refined conventional and synthetic oils have a viscosity index exceeding 100.
Next, let’s explore some FAQs related to oil viscosity.
8 FAQs about Engine Oil Viscosity
Here are the answers to some common oil viscosity questions:
1. Who Designed Oil Viscosity Grades?
Oil viscosity grades for engine and transmission oils (SAE J300) were developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).
2. What Are Multigrade Oils?
Before multi grade oil blends were developed, most vehicles used one viscosity grade oil in the winter and another for summer.
As motor oil technology evolved, additives like a Viscosity Index Improver (VII) allowed for multigrade oils. These oils have two viscosity grades, so the same motor oil grade can be used yearly — and can perform at low, high, and normal engine operating temperatures.
3. What Do Multigrade Oil Numbers Mean?
SAE oils viscosity grades are in an “XW-XX” format, where “W” stands for Winter.
The number before “W” is the low–temperature oil viscosity. It’s measured at -17.8°C (0°F) and simulates the vehicle startup conditions in winter. The lower this number is, the thinner the oil in low temperature settings.
So, 0W-20 is a pretty smooth-flowing, low viscosity oil in cold startups.
The number after the “W” is the oils viscosity at a high temperature. Measured at 100°C (212°F), it represents the oil flow at an engine’s operating temperature. The higher the number, the more resistant the oil is to thinning at a higher temperature.
Meaning 10W-40 would be a great high viscosity oil for heavy-load, high-temperature applications.
Note: Gear oils have a similar SAE grading format to engine lubricating oil, but their classifications aren’t related. Engine and gear oils with the same viscosity will have markedly different Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) viscosity grade designations.
4. What Happens When Engine Oil Viscosity Is Too Thin?
Oils with lower viscosity are good for cold startups, but when thin oils are too thin for your engine, here’s what can happen:
- Increased friction and engine wear: Thinner oil may not adequately fill gaps between engine parts, increasing metal-to-metal contact. This can be worsened with extreme heat as motor oil becomes thinner at a higher temperature.
- Reduced oil pressure: Engine components can wear out faster when the motor oil is too thin, leading to insufficient oil pressure.
- Increased motor oil consumption: Thin oils can easily find their way around seals (especially if they’re worn) and get burned off in combustion or leaks, leading to increased motor oil consumption and potentially harmful deposits.
5. What Happens When Engine Oil Viscosity Is Too Thick?
A higher viscosity oil is ideal for heavy loads and high temperature climates. Still, if it’s too thick (not the correct viscosity), it can hurt your engine in these ways:
- Increased operating temperatures: A higher viscosity oil doesn’t transfer heat between engine parts as quickly as lower viscosity oil. This can increase the engine operating temperature, which hastens oil breakdown and induces sludge formation.
- Reduced fuel economy: A thicker oil will have more difficulty circulating through your engine, making your engine less fuel efficient, cutting into fuel economy.
- Poor cold temperature startups: Using a thicker oil in the wrong climate may result in increased engine wear as it struggles to crank. An excessively thick oil can create significant battery strain and might leave you with a dead engine on a chilly winter day.
6. What Are Popular Engine Oil Viscosity Grades?
These thinner multi grade oil blends have gained precedence over previously preferred thicker SAE viscosity grade oils like 20W-50 or 10W-30 blends due to the narrower oil pathways in smaller, modern engines.
Tighter gaps in engine parts require a lower viscosity oil, with the added benefit of better fuel economy from motor oil that flows quickly.
7. Does Motor Oil Type Affect Oil Viscosity?
For the most part, no.
The same motor oil viscosity can exist in conventional oil, synthetic blend, or full synthetic oil types. They’ll contain additives like a viscosity index improver (viscosity modifier), friction modifiers, anti-wear additives, and more to provide efficient engine protection and performance.
However, very low viscosity winter-grade oils like 0W-20 or 0W-30 only come as a synthetic blend or full synthetic oil.
Conventional oil is only refined from crude oil and contains many impurities. Synthetic base oil is chemically engineered to create uniformly-shaped molecules with fewer impurities. This allows synthetic base oil to flow at a much lower temperature than a conventional crude oil base.
With this in mind, using an oil with the correct viscosity specified for your vehicle is also crucial.
8. What’s the Difference Between Synthetic Engine Oil and Mineral Oil?
Conventional oil (mineral oil) is derived from refining crude petroleum. During the process, natural contaminants and unwanted hydrocarbons are removed. Mineral oils are ideal for older vehicle models, as they offer the advantage of low cost.
Synthetic engine oils are made with numerous mineral and synthetic base oils with additives. These additives are similar (or identical) to mineral engine oils, making them close to mineral oils in terms of quality but are more affordable.
Knowing how different motor oil viscosities can affect your engine’s performance, longevity, and fuel consumption is a significant part of car care — on top of how often an oil change is needed.
The best place to find the correct oil viscosity is your vehicle owner’s manual. The manual may recommend different oil grades depending on where the car is driven, as the climate is an important selection factor.
And if you need help with an oil change, you can always get hold of AutoNation Mobile Service!
AutoNation Mobile Service is a mobile vehicle repair and maintenance solution that offers easy online booking and is available 7 days a week. Not only can we help with an oil change, but we can provide most services your vehicle might need directly on-site.
Contact us, and our expert mechanics will stop by to lend you a hand right in your driveway!