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Even an automotive novice knows that neglecting to change a car’s oil can lead to serious trouble. Perhaps the most basic of all basic maintenance items, the humble oil change has spawned many a question. How many quarts does my car take? How often should I change its oil? Should I change the oil by a certain date or by mileage since the last oil change? Is the change interval different for synthetic oil? What’s the worst that could happen if I put it off? And then there’s the key question being asked here: How much does an oil change cost?
The price you will pay for an oil change depends on a number of factors. If you haven’t cracked open your owner’s manual in a while (or ever), this is the perfect opportunity. It’ll tell you exactly what the automaker recommends for oil changes. It lists the required oil viscosity (the thickness of the oil), the engine’s oil capacity, whether your vehicle takes conventional or synthetic oil, and exactly how often to change your oil based on how and in what conditions you drive. These are the key factors that affect the cost of an oil change, and they vary from vehicle to vehicle.
Why the Cost of an Oil Change Varies
As for cost, as with most auto maintenance and repairs, it depends. Synthetic oil is more expensive than conventional oil, and some engines hold a lot more oil than others. For example, a first-generation Mazda Miata’s little inline-four will need about 3.4 quarts, while the 3.0-liter diesel in a W123 Mercedes-Benz 300D demands more than double that: between seven and eight. Along with the cost of the golden slippery stuff, you’ll need to fork over enough cash for an oil filter and whatever the shop charges for labor. You might assume you’ll pay a little more for all of the above at a dealer, but we found that’s not always true. Top-quality synthetic oil alone can cost between $20 and $30 for a five-quart bottle, so don’t be surprised if an oil change with filter repacement runs $75.
To confirm that price range, we checked four locations that do oil changes—one of them a dealer—near our Ann Arbor, Michigan, office. Using a fictitious 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata, which uses synthetic oil, as our price tester we found that the cost of an oil and filter change varied from $71 at an oil-change location offering a discount coupon to $84 at another oil-change spot. The dealer price came in at $75.
DIY and Save
Of course, if you’re even modestly mechanically inclined and have the tools and time, lay down some cardboard, drop the drain plug, and get greasy! Changing your own oil might be the least intimidating way to start learning how to work on a car, and in most cases shouldn’t take more than an hour. Plus, you’ll save on labor! We found the appropriate oil and filter for our imaginary Miata on Amazon for a total of $33, so the savings can be significant if you’re doing it yourself. Either way, now you know how much an oil change can cost.
Why Change Your Oil
What you don’t want to do is ignore the need for oil and filter changes. If you do that, your oil could slowly turn into petroleum sludge, fail to flow through the engine, and cause the engine to fail. That could virtually total your automobile. What’s more likely is that the oil lubricating your engine will lose some of its all-important lubricity and accelerate wear on the engine’s internals. Clean, fresh oil minimizes friction, avoids wear-accelerating metal-on-metal contact between the mechanical bits spinning around inside, and can even help your fuel economy. And even good-running vehicles can burn off slight amounts of oil over time. Avoid oil changes long enough, and you may run your oil level dangerously low, imperiling the engine.
When to Change Your Oil
Thanks to modern petroleum engineering, some automakers recommend 10,000 miles or more between oil changes. Regardless of what the Peppy Lube Guys’ mechanic and their literature says, it’s always wisest to go by the book and trust the automaker. Remember, they did engineer your vehicle in the first place, and it’s in their interest for the vehicle to run as well as possible for as long as possible. After all, their name is on it.
Don’t Change Your Oil Too Often
That being said, as important as clean oil can be for the life of an engine, do not allow yourself to be tricked into changing your oil more frequently than necessary. The little sticker Valvo Jiff ‘n’ Pep stuck in the corner of your windshield saying you need an oil change in 3000 miles? In most cases, that 3000-mile interval is unnecessary and downright wasteful. Most vehicles driven in normal conditions can go 7500 to 10,000 miles between oil changes—which also includes changing the oil filter.