One of the most important things of motorcycle maintenance is changing the engine oil at regular intervals. Do that and the heart of your bike will be happy. Which brings most riders to the question: What Oil!?
There are two options when doing so, riding to the authorised service centre for your bike and paying the bill on the way out. You don’t need to think at all! But, since we are all automobile enthusiasts here, who enjoy digging deeper and understanding the intricacies of our beloved machines, that method doesn’t satisfy our soul. We need to know what is the best oil for the bike’s heart and our soul, keeping in mind the wallet of course!
Here’s a quick guide to understanding motorcycle lubricants…
Motorcycle engine oils made up of two components the base stock and additives. The former is the actual oil component which makes up 80% of the product, while the latter makes up the rest. The additives are a mixture of detergents for cleaning and dispersants, which ensure the gunk in your engine doesn’t settle anywhere.
Engine oils are labelled according to the base stock and go by the names of mineral, semi-synthetic and fully synthetic.
Mineral oils, as the name suggests use natural petroleum oil pumped from mother earth as the base stock. These oils are cheaper, but do not last as long, are as pure or have as wide an operating window as synthetic oils.
Synthetic oils use oils built in a laboratory as the base stock. This is expensive to produce, but the production done under specified conditions, ensures that it is precise as the final product. Synthetic oils will last longer and are better equipped to handle extreme conditions.
Semi-synthetic oils are a blend of the two. With the synthetic component varying between 5-15% from brand to brand. These oils try to offer the best of both worlds, a long-lasting oil at an economical price point.
Which oil should you buy? It depends on your riding style and machine. At one end of the spectrum, we have sedate urban riding on a small capacity motorcycle. For such requirements, mineral oil is perfect. At the other extreme, we have high revving, highly tuned engines for racing on a track at the limit. For these, full synthetic works best. Choose an oil basis where you and your motorcycle fit on this rainbow of oil requirements.
On every can of motorcycle oil, you find in the market, you will see a number printed on it. 15W- 50 or 20W-40 or something similar. These numbers are exceptionally important to your motorcycle.
But first let us understand this alpha-numeric code. SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) grades oil on the basis of its viscosity. The first number on the left of the W denotes the minimum air-temperature that the oil can be used in. The W stands for winter. And the number to the right of the W signifies the maximum ambient temperature for the oil to be used in.
A 10W- 50 oil, suggests that it can be used in temperatures as low as -25 degrees centigrade without a problem. Oil in winter needs to be thin for it work at optimum for your engine. On the other hand, this grade of oil can be used up to 50 degrees centigrade without a problem. For the heat, the oil needs to be more viscous, to work optimally in your motorcycle’s engine.
Now which grade should you choose? The manufacturer of your motorcycle will recommend a certain grade to be used in your bike. They take into account the motorcycle’s internals, the nature of the engine and the expected riding conditions. If your riding isn’t taking you to any extreme temperatures, then it is prudent to stick to the manufacturer’s recommendations. But if you are expecting extreme weather, be it hot or cold, then you can try a slightly higher or lower temperature grade for your machine. To make things even simpler, if you are riding anywhere south of Madhya Pradesh, temperatures are never going to be too cold for the engine oil. If you are located in north Indian winters of the Himalayas, then you will need specific oils to handle the extreme cold.
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Another code you will find printed on the rear label of the oil can is JASO. This code will only be found on oils made specifically for motorcycles. Automobile oils do not meet the specifications of the JASO ratings.
The JASO ratings are based on the friction characteristics of the oil in dynamic and static terms. There are four ratings currently which you will find on oil cans. MA, MA1, MA2 and MB.
MB is used for scooters and other automatics which do not have a wet clutch. MA signifies that the oil can be used for a machine where the engine, clutch and gearbox use the same oil. MA1 states that it has the properties of MA and has friction modifiers which makes it suitable for wet clutch applications. MA2 oils are made for wet clutch motorcycles with catalytic converters.
Which rating do you need to use? In this case, stick to the recommendation of the manufacturer you find in your owner’s manual.
Car Oils in Bikes?
Often, we see newer motorcyclists put more easily available car engine oil in their motorcycle. This is sacrilege as far as your motorcycle is concerned. Over the last few decades, engine technology in cars and motorcycles has grown at an exponential pace. Engine oil tech has had to keep up to stay in sync. As such the two worlds gradually diverged. The big differences which make car oils a strict no is below:
Car oils do not run at such high RPMs as motorcycles. Cars have larger surface areas to cool off the oil, as such the oil runs at lower temperatures. Motorcycles always have space constraints, as such bikes don’t have this luxury to keep cool. Motorcycles use the same oil for the engine, gearbox and clutch, while cars have separate oils for the transmission and engine. Lastly, car oils have additives to make it slippery, which can cause the clutch to slip in your motorcycle.
For all these reasons, always buy and use motorcycle specific oils for your motorbike.