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Trust Your Oil Life Monitor
In recent years, a number of automakers have installed oil life monitors of varying complexity in their vehicles. The more basic versions are more maintenance minders than actual systems. They're based on mileage, and switch on a maintenance light when the vehicle hits a predetermined mileage range.
The more advanced oil life monitors, on the other hand, constantly take information from numerous sensors throughout the vehicle and then use a complex algorithm to predict the life of your oil. Based on your driving conditions and habits, the frequency of your oil changes can vary.
These systems take the guesswork out of knowing when your next service is due. Just drive as you normally would and wait until the maintenance light comes on. You'll be surprised to see how far a vehicle can go between oil changes. The hardest part is not letting your preconceived notions of oil change intervals second-guess the monitor.
It's also important to note that these systems are calibrated to work with the factory-recommended oil. They aren't sophisticated enough to recognize that you've upgraded to another blend, so save your money and stick to the factory fill.
Use the Time Estimate
If you have a weekend car or put very low miles on your vehicle, you'll have to change your maintenance strategy a bit. Robert Sutherland, principal scientist at Pennzoil Passenger Car Engine Lubricants, says that over time, oil becomes contaminated by gases that blow by the pistons, and the longer the oil sits with that contamination, the more it degrades.
Whether an automaker uses an oil life monitor or set mileage intervals, all of them also prescribe a maximum time frame for an oil change. For example, the 2010 Toyota Prius has a recommended oil interval of one year or 10,000 miles — whichever comes first. Since some oil life monitors are more sophisticated than others, the vehicles that employ them will have different time recommendations. You'll also find this information in your owner's manual.
Get an Oil Analysis
The issue of what constitutes "normal" versus "severe" driving has long been a point of contention among vehicle owners, mechanics and dealership service departments. All have their own motivations for their recommendations. But the best way to determine how you drive your vehicle is to get your oil analyzed.
An oil analysis will tell you the condition of your oil, and it also can reveal any problems that your engine may be experiencing. Some sample tests can show traces of fuel and coolant in the engine oil, which are early signs of engine problems. When you get your results back from the lab, you'll also get a recommendation on how much further you can go between oil changes.