Why do European Cars Require Special Oil?

For all the grin-inducing benefits of owning a European car – finely tuned performance, sophisticated styling, prestige – they can be a pain. According to this list, four of the top five most expensive vehicles to maintain hail from across the pond.

Not only that, but they require specialized oil that differs in many ways from the good ‘ol American motor oil you use in your Ford or Chevy. Here are four reasons why.

#1 Everyone likes clean air

The European Union maintains more strict standards for carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions than we do. (Our standards for nitrogen oxides [NOx] and particulate matter [PM] are more strict, however.) Because modern diesels emit lower CO2 than gasoline engines, the European market pivoted toward increased use of diesel-powered vehicles in the 1990s. Diesels also provide the advantage of better fuel economy.

One drawback, however, is the higher levels of NOx and PM diesels produce. To counteract this, diesel-powered European vehicles use diesel particulate filters (DPF) and catalysts designed to reduce pollutants from the exhaust before it exits the tailpipe.

Here’s where motor oil comes into play.

An oil’s formulation can have a negative effect on sensitive emissions-control devices. Certain components in the motor oil formulation, such as sulfated ash, phosphorus and sulfur (known collectively by the pleasant term SAPS), can reduce the effectiveness and life of DPFs and other emissions devices.

For that reason, motor oils formulated for European vehicles often contain lower SAPS levels to protect emissions-control systems.


#2 Longer oil change intervals

Europeans have long since accepted what’s only recently caught on in North America – longer oil change intervals.

Many motorists in the states are just a few years removed from blindly practicing 3,000-mile oil changes. Except, of course, AMSOIL customers who have been practicing extended drain intervals since 1972. But that’s a digression for another day.

Europeans are accustomed to changing oil far less often, with drain intervals of 16,000 km (10,000 miles) or so quite common.

One reason is the higher cost of oil in Europe. Another is the differences between manufacturer recommendations. For example, most modern BMWs require oil changes only every 15,000 miles (24,140 km). In the U.S., most people change oil around every 5,000 miles (8,000 km). The figure increases by a few hundred miles if their vehicle is equipped with an electronic oil-life monitoring system.

Longer drain intervals common with European cars require an oil capable of protecting against wear, deposits and sludge for the duration, which requires a more robust oil.

European oil

#3 The thick and thin of it

Check the owner’s manual of most European vehicles for which viscosity of oil to use, and you’ll likely find a chart that suggests different viscosities for different operating temperature ranges.

In cold weather, the OEM may recommend 5W-30. In warm weather, 5W-40. Often, drivers use 0W-40 or 5W-40 to offer the best of both worlds – good cold-flow at startup to protect against wear and good resistance to heat once operating temperatures are reached.

You don’t see many domestic gasoline-powered vehicles that use those viscosities, making it a little tougher to find the right oil for European cars.

#4 Automaker approvals

Staying in your owner’s manual, the OEM also recommends you use an oil that meets a specific performance standard. In the U.S., it’s typically an industry-wide motor oil specification, such as API SP.

European OEMs are different, however. They typically maintain their own motor oil performance specifications. Drivers of VWs, for example, need to use an oil that meets the requirements of VW’s own performance specs. The same holds for Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and other European cars.

Complicating matters, each OEM motor oil specification is slightly different. One OEM may require oils that offer better performance against oxidation, while another requires better resistance to viscosity loss.

For example, VW requires some of its engines to use a 0W-20 oil that meets its 508.00/509.00 spec, but other manufacturers require a 0W-20 oil that meets different specs. The specificity can easily confuse motorists.

Check out this Volkswagen R32 that clocked 300,000 miles using AMSOIL products.

OEM specifications tend to be more strict and require increased motor oil performance than industry specs. This, of course, requires more advanced (and typically expensive) motor oil technology delivered almost exclusively by synthetics.

General Motors, for its part, has taken a page out of the playbook of its European counterparts by maintaining its own GM dexos performance specification.

These differences mean you’d better make sure you’re using the correct oil in your European car. Fortunately, we make it easy for you by formulating a full line of synthetic motor oil for European cars.

If you don’t know which oil your car requires, check out our handy Product Guide.

Updated. Originally published July 10, 2018.


  1. MANY countries use much thicker oils than the US in the exact same engines because they are not bribed by the EPA and tree hugger groups to use the 5W and 0W-20 oils as in the states.

    A 1.5L Totota yaris in the US will recommend 0W-20 while that same engine in Russia or Australia will come with a manual that recommends 5W-30 and 10W-30

    This proves that as i have said for the past 10 years that these engines CAN and SHOULD use 0W-30, 5W-30, and 10W-30 oils for maximum protection

  2. If you live in areas that get cold, use 0w. If you’re in an area that stays warm all year, go with 5w. Either will work fine, it’s just 0w is more universal.

  3. Hey folks, I’m just looking into this as my son purchased a 2016 BMW X3 2.0 turbo. Amsoil website has “No recommendations available” for that vehicle. However BMW produced the same exact engine (and still do) number (N20B20A) in 2015 X3 2.0 turbo.

    Amsoil website does have a recommendation is to use European Classic ESP 5w-40 (EFMQT) or European Classic ESP 0w-40 (EFOQT) for the 2015 X3.

    I called tech support and they provided no reason for this. Does anyone here have a clue as to why Amsoil does not recommend the European oil for the 2016 and new X3’s?

  4. For a 2000 Volvo S80 2.9 Non-Turbo, do you recommend the amsoil signature series or the European Car Formula 5W-30 Improved ESP Synthetic Motor Oil? How is one better than the other?

    1. Hi Steve,

      Either oil may be used as they both meet the specifications for your vehicle. Signature Series offers a little more robust formulation, though, and is the optimum choice since it has a higher-end additive package and is good for a longer service life.



  5. European vehicles are different from other types of vehicle in many ways and also needs maintenance more frequently as compared to other kinds of the vehicle which are really expensive. Car manufacturers in Europe are subjected to certain extreme Cartier which is essential to make a vehicle according to the European standard. Such vehicle needs regular maintenance to work smoothly for the long time period. Different types of lubricants used in the vehicle should be inspected regularly and if necessary should be replaced with suitable substitutes. Irregularities in the maintenance of such vehicle could have catastrophic effects on the health of the vehicle.

    1. Man do I agree with you.
      Especially German vehicles.
      Keep it simple is not in there vocabulary.
      And the cost of ownership can be very expensive…..
      No thanks
      Not for me.

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