Recently there has been concerns regarding premature timing-chair wear, which resulted in people using thicker oils. Many people think that when they use a 0W-40, they are putting in a thick oil because it's "40-grade" when it's at normal operating temperature. It turns out that it's not that simple.
This Nissan study says that timing-chair wear has to do with the base-oil viscosity, not the finished-oil viscosity, which has more to do with the amount of the viscosity-index improver (VII) polymer blended in than the base-oil viscosity. It turns out that for boundary lubrication (metal-to-metal contact), such as in the valvetrain or timing chain, finished viscosity has no effect as the VII molecules are squeezed out and only a microscopic layer of oil is present in addition to the antiwear/extreme pressure/friction modifier (AW/EP/FM) compounds.Nissan study on wear in timing chains
This brings the question that what's the actual viscosity of the base oil rather than the VII-blended oil, which is an indicator of the oil's ability in protecting boundary- and mixed-lubrication regions (metal-to-metal or partial metal-to-metal contact). Finished, VII-blended viscosity is only an indicator of safeguard against wear in hydrodynamic region, such as the bearings.
The clue on base-oil viscosity comes from the ExxonMobil guide on synthetic-oil blending.
Here are the two rules:
(1) As a general rule, x in xW-y is an excellent indicator of base-oil viscosity. A 5W-20 base oil is a lot thicker than a 0W-20 base oil and a 10W-30 base oil is a lot thicker than a 5W-30 base oil. So, if you really need a thick oil, such as in older engines, in TGDI engines, or any engine where timing-chain or valvetrain wear is a concern, stay of from any 0W-xx or even a 5W-xx oil.
(2) Within the same xW-y group where x is a constant but y varies, such as [0W-20, 0W-30, 0W-40] or [5W-30, 5W-40}, the oil with the smallest spread -- smallest difference between y and x -- has likely the thickest base oil and the oil with the largest spread has likely the thinnest base oil. So, 0W-20 is likely to have a thicker base oil than 0W-40! In fact in my UOA comparison of 0W-20 and 0W-40
, I did find out that 0W-20 produced less valvetrain wear (less iron [Fe]) than 0W-40!
To summarize the rules for getting a really thick oil: Find the oil with the largest cold number x and the smallest spread between the hot and cold numbers y - x in the SAE viscosity grade xW-y. It's more crucial for the x to be large than the y - x to be small. A 0W-40 is an awful choice for valvetrain and timing-chain wear protection, as it has the smallest x and largest y - x. 15W-40 would be an excellent choice for a thick oil, because it has a very high cold-viscosity number and a relatively small spread between hot and cold viscosities, which indicates that it actually
does have a thick base oil instead of having been thickened by the VII.
Here are the examples given by ExxonMobil. Base-stock viscosities are implied in the names of the base stocks. For example 4 means 4 cSt and 45 means 4.5 cSt. These are the base-oil viscosities calculated from the base stocks and their percentages in the table (4.1 cSt, 5.8 cSt, 8.0 cSt, and 4.3 cSt base stocks, respectively):
So, 0W-40 is the thinnest oil in terms of the base-oil viscosity!
SAE grade Base-oil viscosity at 100 C (KV100 for the base oil)
0W-20 5.43 cSt
0W-30 5.16 cSt
0W-40 5.00 cSt
5W-30 6.80 cSt
5W-40 6.56 cSt
5W-50 6.67 cSt
10W-60 7.90 cSt
A final note: While x in xW-y is always a good indicator of the actual base-oil viscosity, there are variations in how much the y - x spread affects the base-oil viscosity. While ExxonMobil guide indicates the conclusions here, there are other formulations possible. You are always safe with a large x if you want a thick base oil. However, you will usually have an additional assurance on base-oil thickness if you also choose a small y - x.