Whether you’re a car maintenance expert or still learning the basics about your vehicle’s upkeep, the chances are you know that motor oil is what keeps your engine alive and healthy. 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 – far more so, even, than choosing between conventional or synthetic oil.
So, what is this magical amount, and just how important is it that you get it right?
In this article, we’ll explain how much oil your car needs during a change, why it needs this particular amount, how you can be sure you’re measuring out the right number of quarts, and what might happen to your engine if you happen to put in too much or too little oil.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- Get It Right – Putting in either too much or not enough oil can cause serious damage to your engine.
- How Much? – You can find out how much oil your vehicle needs by checking your owner’s manual, the car manufacturer’s website, heading to a dealership, or doing it the old-fashioned way with your oil dipstick.
- Ballpark Figures – In most cases, a four-cylinder engine takes about five quarts, a six-cylinder engine takes around six quarts, and an eight-cylinder engine takes between five and eight quarts. These figures, however, are only an approximation.
How Much Oil Does My Car Need? Counting Quarts
Oil serves as a lubricant that prevents the churning engine parts deep inside your car from grinding together and stalling.
Therefore, it makes sense to think about your car’s innards as a volume that needs to be filled—a larger engine size has more surface area in need of lubrication, so it will need larger amounts of oil.
In general, a car will require five to eight quarts of oil in order to fill up. While a four-cylinder engine typically needs about five quarts, a six-cylinder engine will be happier with around six quarts. Finally, an eight-cylinder beast may have a motor oil capacity between five and eight quarts, depending on its size.
In other words, you can understand exactly how much oil your car needs by asking yourself, “how big is my engine?” If it’s on the smaller side, the volume you need will be smaller, too. If you’re sporting a pickup truck with a massive eight-cylinder engine, prepare to pour more in during every change to get the oil level to a suitable point.
Goldilocks and the Three Cars
Since we’ve already determined that engine oil is the blood keeping your car’s engine pumping, it’s no surprise that maintaining the proper amount of oil 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 of oil you need 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 In 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 future at-home oil changes.
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 the oil to reach the engine’s upper components after you turn the ignition. Ideally, the oil 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 oil remaining, the more likely it is to overheat, which can lead to all sorts of problems, including a blown head gasket, cylinder head gasket failure, and catastrophic engine wear.
This tendency towards higher temperatures leads to some damaging chemical reactions within the oil itself, whether you use synthetic oils or conventional oils. Eventually, sludge and soot deposits from these reactions can lead to some serious and irreversible engine damage and, ultimately, engine failure.
Finally, having insufficient 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 costly repair job.
What Happens If I Put In Too Much?
Too much oil, 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 oil levels are high enough to come into contact with the spinning 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 the 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 oil it needs for future changes and additions (assuming you’re taking it to a reliable place, of course).
Tip #4: When buying oil, most producers and sellers will have a “find motor oil capacity” feature that reveals all when you enter the make and model of your vehicle.
Tip #5: Check the oil 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 conventional oil or modern synthetic oil, the engine oil 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 of oil 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:
- The larger it is, the more oil you’ll need (in general).
- Having too little oil at any given time will damage it.
- Having too much oil at any given time can also damage it.
- Check your owner’s manual or ask for help if you’re not sure how much oil you need.
- Oil leaks are serious. If you discover your engine leaks oil after a refill, head to a mechanic asap.