How Much Oil Does My Car Need? – A Guide to Making Sense of Quarts

Whether you’re a car maintenance expert or still learning the basics about your vehicle’s upkeep, you likely know that oil is the life force keeping your engine alive and well. Just as your blood keeps your heart pumping, your vehicle’s engine needs oil to run.

However, a proper oil change involves more than just pouring in an unspecified amount of whichever product you find first in the auto shop. With each car comes different needs and, believe it or not, even the amount you put in is important.

So, what is this magical amount, and just how important is it that you get it perfectly right?

pouring oil into a car after figuring out how much it needs

In this article, we’re here to explain how much oil your car will need during a change, why exactly it needs this particular amount, how you can find out for certain that you’re measuring out the perfect number of quarts, and what might happen to your engine if you happen to put in too much or too little.

How Much Oil Does My Car Need? Counting Quarts

Oil’s primary purpose is to act as a lubricant within your engine, preventing the metal parts deep inside your car from grinding together and stalling.

Therefore, it makes sense to think about your car’s innards as a volume which needs to be filled—a larger engine has more surface area in need of lubrication, so it will need larger amounts.

In general, a car will require five to eight quarts in order to fill up. While a four-cylinder engine typically needs about five quarts, a six-cylinder one will be happier with around six quarts. Finally, an eight-cylinder beast may use between five and eight quarts, depending on its size.

In other words, you can understand exactly how much your car needs by asking yourself, “how big is my engine?” If it’s on the smaller side, the volume of you need will be smaller, too. If you’re sporting a pickup truck with a massive engine, prepare to pour more in during every change.

Goldilocks and the Three Cars

Since we’ve already determined that oil is the blood keeping your car’s engine pumping, it’s no surprise that maintaining the proper amount of it within your vehicle is critical for it to run without any problems.

Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Too hot, too cold, and just right? Well, you can think about the amount that goes in the same way. It’s not good to have too little, but it’s equally damaging to have too much.

What happens during each of these scenarios—driving a vehicle with a surplus or continuing to commute in a vehicle starving for lubrication—and why are the consequences so serious? Let’s find out.

What Happens If I Put Too Little?

This is what most people think about when they worry about their car’s oil capacity, and just as expected, you’re not doing your ride any favors by driving it until it’s bone-dry.

Keep the following three points in mind the next time you’re tempted to ignore your scheduled oil change, or don’t feel like picking up that extra quart during your next at-home change.

Problems Starting

While some cars will be all right for a little while with a quart less than the recommended amount, the real damage occurs during startup.

With a volume significantly lower than the recommended amount, it will take a longer time for it to reach the engine’s upper components after you turn the ignition. Ideally, it should reach these components within just a couple of seconds.

Won’t Last Long

Additionally, the oil itself won’t last too long if it’s running low. The less amount remaining, the more likely it is to overheat.

This tendency towards higher temperatures leads to some damaging chemical reactions within the oil itself. Eventually, sludge and soot deposits from these reactions can lead to some serious and irreversible engine damage.

Unwanted Friction

Finally, not having enough oil to keep your car’s moving parts lubricated spells trouble.

The quickly-moving parts within your vehicle’s engine create massive amounts of friction. Without oil to facilitate these movements, it’s possible that your engine may grind and seize.

If this happens, your car isn’t going anywhere—what we call “stalling.” Not only can this create massive inconvenience, but it can permanently damage your engine, meaning you’re in for a pricey repair.

What Happens If I Put Too Much?

Overfilling your car, on the other hand, can be just as much of a problem as having too little to lubricate the engine.

The crankshaft, which is responsible for powering the pistons within your engine, often rests just above the oil reservoir. Usually, a pump draws the oil up from the pan so that it can do its work.

However, if levels are high enough to come into contact with the quickly-moving crankshaft, the oil becomes prone to frothing. This airy, bubbly mess is difficult for the pump to properly capture and distribute, meaning that the engine won’t get the smooth, thin layer of lubrication it needs to work at its best.

Finding the Information You Need

In order to determine exactly how much oil your make and model of car will need for maximum performance, we’ve put together the following list of tips you should check out.

Tip #1: Check out the owner’s manual that came with your vehicle. If, like many of us, your owner’s manual has been lost to the realm of the unknown, you might have better luck finding an online copy of the manual.

Tip #2: Investigate the manufacturer’s website. Typically, there is a section of the site dedicated to vehicle owners and practical information they’ll need.

Tip #3: Take your car to the local dealership for a check-up. The experts there will know exactly how much it needs for future changes and additions (assuming you’re taking it to a reliable place, of course).

Tip #4: Check the dipstick. You should see two markings—one indicating the minimum amount necessary and one representing the maximum. Regardless of the type of oil you use, either a traditional or a modern synthetic oil, the level should be somewhere between these two markings. Aim for the middle!

Forget the Guesswork

As you can likely conclude from the information presented in this article, determining the amount of oil your car needs isn’t a time for guesswork.

If you were losing blood during a medical procedure, would you want your doctor to just estimate how much blood to transfuse back in? Of course not!

If you don’t know the optimal amount needed, don’t risk changing your car’s oil on your own. Ask a professional, hire them to do it for you, or search for the information you need. In the long run, you’ll avoid expensive repairs or replacement costs, and you’ll be keeping your car happy, too.

Remember these rules of thumb, and you’ll be golden. As far as your vehicle’s engine is concerned:

  1. The larger it is, the more oil you’ll need (in general).
  2. Having too little at any given time will damage it.
  3. Having too much at any given time can also damage it.
  4. Check your owner’s manual or ask for help if you’re not sure.

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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