Home Diagnosis and TroubleshootingEngine Oil and Lubrication 5W20 vs 5W30 – What’s The Best Oil For Your Car?

5W20 vs 5W30 – What’s The Best Oil For Your Car?

by Jordan Harris
5W20 vs 5W30

We compare 2 of the most common motor oils for cars: we will be exploring the similarities and differences between 5W20 vs 5W30.

The motor oil is a critical part of the car. Its main focus is, as you would probably expect, lubrication. It keeps everything running smoothly. Your oil is also partially responsible for cooling and, in some way, assists the coolant system. We’ll go into this in more detail later on down the page.

For the purposes of today, we’ll try to keep everything focused on 5W20 vs 5W30.

If you’re familiar with how multi-grade motor oil is graded, click here to skip down to the section where we compare 5W20 vs 5W30. Also, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave one at the bottom of the article and we’ll get back to you.

Right then. Let’s get started.

5W30 Vs 5W20

Someone who isn’t familiar with the way motor oil is graded might be immediately put off by the strange “number”, “letter”, and “number” systems that manufacturers use to describe their products. It’s true. It can be very overwhelming.

Don’t worry, though – we will walk through it step by step.

This way of “grading” oils was standardized by the Society of Automotive Engineers – or the SAE. It refers to multi-grade oils – that is, oils with more than 1 grade.

If we use one of the above oils as an example, say “5W30”, this might help.

You can see that there are 2 separate numbers used to describe this product – a “5” and a “30”. These are the 2 different “grades” which make the oil “multi-grade”.

(Technically, the “W” is attached to the “5”, so it reads “5W-30”, but don’t worry about that just yet. We’ll come to it.)

These numbers represent relative viscosity. Let’s now look at viscosity in greater depth.

Oil Viscosity

Viscosity, in simple terms, is how thick a liquid is.

The thicker a liquid is, the more viscous it is. For example, you might think of custard or a good, thick, beef gravy.

And, vice versa, the thinner a liquid is, the less viscous it is. Water or skimmed milk would be good examples of this.

To define it properly – scientifically – we would say that viscosity relates to the amount of internal friction as it moves. Check out princeton.edu for a full definition.

Liquids become less viscous at higher temperatures. That is, when they’re cold, they are thick, but as they’re warmed up, they become thinner. Motor oil is no exception to this.

In terms of engines, this is kind of the opposite of what we want. When a car starts up, it has to be able to pump oil all around the engine quickly. If the oil were to be too thick, this put much more strain on the oil pump and also means that it wouldn’t be able to flow all around the engine as efficiently as if it were thinner. Therefore, when the oil is cold, we generally want it to be as thin as possible.

Also, once the engine is up to temperature, the oil naturally becomes thinner, but we want it to be as good at lubricating as possible. In most motors, this requires an oil that is as thick as efficiently possible.

This is why we use synthetic multi-grade motor oils. Viscosities can be modified to whatever the manufacturer needs for the car and the climate it is being sold in.

Oil Weights Explained

We mentioned earlier that, technically, the oil is made up of 2 gradings – the first number and the second one. In the case of 5W30 oil, this is made up of “5W” and “30”. So, we’ve looked at the numbers and how they represent relative viscosity, but what does the “W” mean?

The W is indicative of the viscosity in cold temperatures. It quite literally stands for “winter”.

The number before shows the oil’s relative viscosity in winter. Going back to our 5W30 example, we can see that this oil has a relative viscosity of 5 in the cold.

By contrast, the other number is often thought of as, quite simply, “not winter”. 5W30 would have a relative viscosity of 30 in “not winter” conditions.

In reality, these 2 numbers are really talking about the motor’s starting and running temperatures.

These 2 numbers are not related to each other! “5W” is actually more viscous than “30” at their own measured temperature rating.

When you come to a car in the morning, it is typically cold – unless you live in a particularly warm climate, of course. When you start the car at this time, it is referred to as a “cold start”. Don’t ask me where automotive engineers get their inventive terms from. The first grading number in the oil, in symbol, is referring to the oil’s viscosity at this moment.

Once the car is running, it has to get up to its optimal operating temperature. This is the gauge you see on the dashboard and is usually about 100 degrees C. The second number of the oil is (approximately) the relative viscosity of the oil at this time.

Difference Between 5W20 And 5W30

Using the above definitions, then, we can describe these 2 oils in comparison to each other. 5W20 vs 5W30. Which is best?

Both have a winter rating of 5W. This means that, when your motor is cold, for example when you come to it in the morning, it will have a relative viscosity of SAE 5. This is nice and easy to pump around your motor quickly, while things are getting warmed up.

Since both oils are the same in these conditions, there isn’t much to compare.

At operating temperatures, however, there is a difference. 5W20 has a lower viscosity at this point than 5W30. This is as simple to know as “20 is less than 30”. This means that 5W20 is thinner than 5W30 when your motor is running at its operating temperature.

For this reason, 5W30 is more likely to be used in bigger engines that reach higher internal temperatures – at least, in comparison to 5W20. The vice versa is also true, obviously – you would be more likely to find 5W20 in a smaller-engined vehicle than 5W30.

This is the only real difference between 5W20 vs 5W30.

There may be other differences, but these will come from the manufacturers. Multi-grade oils are usually made with a variety of additives. These help with things such as keeping the engine clean, free from sludge, environmentally friendly, etc. Different manufacturers will use different additives and different amounts of them, too.

Overall, there is very little difference between 5W20 vs 5W30.

You should always consult your owner’s manual for the correct information regarding which oil to put in.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #1: Engine Wear and Tear

Both 5W20 and 5W30 oils provide protection against engine wear and tear. However, 5W30, being thicker, offers better protection in high-temperature situations. It creates a thicker film on engine parts, reducing metal-to-metal contact. Conversely, 5W20, being thinner, reduces friction in the engine, leading to less wear and tear in colder temperatures.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #2: Fuel Efficiency

5W20 oil, due to its lower viscosity, can lead to improved fuel efficiency. It offers less resistance in the engine, which means the engine doesn’t have to work as hard to pump the oil. This can lead to a slight increase in miles per gallon (MPG). However, the difference in fuel efficiency between the two oils is minimal and may not be noticeable in everyday driving.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #3: Engine Performance

5W20 oil, being thinner, can lead to better engine performance in colder climates. It flows more freely and can reach critical engine parts faster, leading to quicker start-ups. On the other hand, 5W30 oil, being thicker, may lead to slightly slower engine performance in colder climates but offers better performance in warmer temperatures by providing additional protection.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #4: Vehicle Manufacturer Recommendation

Always consider the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation when choosing between 5W20 and 5W30. Some engines are designed to operate optimally with a specific oil viscosity. Using the wrong oil can lead to reduced performance and could potentially void your vehicle’s warranty.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #5: Climate

Your local climate is a significant factor to consider when choosing between 5W20 and 5W30. If you live in a region with cold temperatures, 5W20 may be the better option. Conversely, if you reside in a warmer climate, 5W30 may provide better protection for your engine.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #6: Cost

Generally, the cost difference between 5W20 and 5W30 is negligible. However, it’s always wise to compare prices from different brands before making a purchase. Sometimes, one viscosity may be on sale or have a rebate offer, which could lead to cost savings.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #7: Engine Age and Condition

Older engines or engines with high mileage may benefit more from using 5W30 oil. The thicker oil can help to seal small gaps and spaces between engine parts that have worn over time. However, it is always advisable to consult a mechanic or refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual before making a switch.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #8: Environmental Considerations

Using 5W20 oil can lead to slightly lower emissions due to improved fuel efficiency. This can be a consideration for environmentally conscious drivers. However, the difference in emissions between the two oils is minimal.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #9: Engine Type

Different engines, such as turbocharged or naturally aspirated engines, may have different oil requirements. Turbocharged engines, for instance, may benefit from using 5W30 due to the thicker oil providing better protection under the higher pressure and temperature conditions generated.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #10: Towing or Heavy Loads

If you frequently tow heavy loads or carry heavy cargo, 5W30 might be the better option. The increased viscosity can provide better protection for the engine under the additional stress and heat generated by towing or carrying heavy loads.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #11: Racing or Aggressive Driving

For drivers who participate in motorsports or tend to drive more aggressively, 5W30 may provide better engine protection due to its higher viscosity. It can offer better protection at higher engine RPMs and under more extreme driving conditions.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #12: Oil Consumption

Engines that consume oil more quickly may benefit from using 5W30 oil. The thicker oil may help reduce oil consumption by sealing small gaps better and resisting burn-off at higher temperatures.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #13: Hybrid or Start-Stop Engines

For vehicles with hybrid engines or start-stop technology, 5W20 may be the better choice. The lower viscosity can lead to quicker circulation of the oil when the engine starts, providing immediate lubrication and protection.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #14: Synthetic vs Conventional Oil

Both 5W20 and 5W30 oils are available in synthetic and conventional forms. Synthetic oils generally provide better protection and performance over a wider temperature range. If your vehicle manufacturer recommends synthetic oil, it’s essential to use it regardless of the viscosity.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #15: Maintenance Schedule

Your vehicle’s maintenance schedule may also influence your choice between 5W20 and 5W30. If your vehicle has been using 5W30 for an extended period, suddenly switching to 5W20 may not be advisable without consulting a mechanic.

5W20 vs 5W30, Differences #16: Legal or Warranty Requirements

In some cases, using a specific oil viscosity may be required by law or to maintain your vehicle’s warranty. Always check your vehicle’s owner’s manual and warranty documentation to ensure compliance with any such requirements.

In conclusion, the primary differences between 5W20 and 5W30 motor oils are their viscosities and the temperatures at which they operate best. Both oils have their advantages and are suitable for different driving conditions and engine types.

It is essential to consider various factors like your local climate, vehicle manufacturer’s recommendations, engine age and condition, and environmental considerations when choosing between 5W20 and 5W30. Additionally, always consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual or a professional mechanic before making a switch between the two oils.

Oil Type Explained

We have been thinking about 5W20 vs 5W30, but there is a whole range of multi-grade motor oils that you could come across. Some motors take oils with viscosities as low as 0W20 – or even less – while some need 15W40. So, why are there so many?

The answer is perhaps an obvious one – because there are lots of different types of motor.

A car’s engine is designed alongside it – it is supposed to be as complementary to the car’s purpose, style, and shape as possible, giving a smooth drive.

In general, the larger the motor is, the more viscous the oil has to be when at operating temperature. This helps to keep everything lubricated and running well.

There are now many exceptions to this rule.

The main one is probably the increased dependence on forced induction, better known to most of us as superchargers and turbochargers.

These are used more and more in the design of cars to reduce environmental impact. Using them allows for the motor to spend less force “sucking” air into the engine, and this process means that the car is more environmentally-friendly. There are also other benefits, and this means that the engines are more efficient. Read about these on Supercharger Forums here.

As these engines become more efficient, the motor oil is not required to be so viscous. This is why many small, modern cars use multi-grade oils with very low viscosities, such as 0W20.

By contrast, in large, diesel trucks, an awful lot of lubrication is needed. For example, the compression ratios inside diesel engines are much higher.

As a result, you are more likely to find more viscous oils, such as 15W40, in vehicles like these.

What Happens If You Put The Wrong Oil In Your Car

If you were to use the wrong kind of motor oil in your car, you should immediately stop the engine, drain the oil, and replace it with the right kind. Of course, don’t do this on the side of the highway!

If you find yourself in that situation, there’s probably little choice other than to keep on going. Drive as slowly as is safely possible and keep a close eye on your engine’s temperature gauge. If it starts going up into the red, pull over and switch the engine off for a while to allow it to cool. Should the situation require it, you should call for roadside assistance.

In the specific situation of 5W20 vs 5W30, putting the wrong oil would certainly have a negative effect – but it probably wouldn’t be an immediate worry. You should change the oil as soon as you can, but it wouldn’t be an emergency situation.

Putting 5W20 in when it should be 5W30 is likely to lead to a slightly hotter motor than usual. Putting 5W30 in when it should have been 5W20 could lead to a marginally warmer motor. Both of them could lead to mechanical parts and components wearing marginally more quickly than they would otherwise.

It would be more dangerous to put 5W20 in an engine designed for 5W30 than the other way around, but you shouldn’t do either.

No fret. Check your owner’s manual to make sure you’ve put the right oil in. If not, find a safe, level place to work, away from any drains, and change your oil. We will explain how to do this later on in the article.

Multigrade Oil

In the past, cars had to have 2 oil changes per year. 1 at the start of winter, and 1 at the start of summer.

There was a lot of oil changing going on. This was going on up until the 1960s.

You can read more about it on Addinol‘s website.

The invention of multi-grade oils meant that this was no longer necessary.

Disadvantages To Multigrade Oil (5W30 Vs 5W20)

Compared to monograde oil… not really, no. Very few, at least.

Multi-grade oils don’t “hold” their viscosity for as long as a monograde oil. The oil ages faster, as well.

However, since it saves you from changing your oil twice a year (and old oil should always be thrown away), these disadvantages are reasonably negligible.

The only exception might be if you live somewhere with a relatively constant year-round climate. In places like these, using a monograde oil may suit you better, as it will last longer. As always, consult your owner’s manual, local manufacturers, and local mechanics – advice will vary depending on the car, too.

Why Do Cars Have Engine Oil

5w20 vs 5w30 oil between metal

Motor oil is there as a lubricant.

Within your engine, there are many moving parts – the vast majority of them made of metals. As metals get hotter, they expand too. If this was to be left unchecked, eventually they would begin to hit one another. With the extreme forces found inside engines, this would result in major, likely irreparable damage.

Motor oil is there to prevent that. It essentially forms a barrier between 2 surfaces, absorbing the forces and keeping them as frictionless as physics allows. This is why it is important that the oil is as viscous as possible (but not so viscous that it can’t be pumped around the motor efficiently!).

Oil also has a role in the cooling department.

Although it’s not its primary purpose, the constant oil flow around the engine helps to regulate its temperature. Of course, the coolant is the main system responsible for this, and it does the majority of the work.

How To Change Your Motor Oil

Before changing your oil, you will need a few things. It’s also recommended to slightly warm your motor first, by running it for a few minutes. This will help the oil to flow through and drain out.

You should find a level surface, away from any drains. Any oil spills that leach into the public water system can carry some serious fines, not to mention be a serious pollutant, and block up drains. (As an aside, this is also why you shouldn’t pour cooking oils and fats down the drain either – they block up the drains).

Anyway, coming back to it – yes, a level surface is very necessary, for 2 reasons.

  1. Safety – If you’re working under a car that isn’t on a level surface, it won’t be secure. This is a risk of serious injury or death, so always be careful. Always work safely.
  2. To actually allow the oil to drain – as the diagram shown below illustrates, if the sump isn’t flat, some oil will puddle in the corners and not drain out. This could be sludge, which is the sort of goo-looking stuff your motor could develop over time, which clogs up the system. It’s basically the cholesterol of the automotive oil system. You want to make sure it’s all out, so make sure the car is flat.

5w30 vs 10w30 why car must be level

Note: It is often worth changing your oil filter at the same time as the motor oil. This is because you will need to drain the oil to change the filter anyway.

Equipment You Need

  • A 4-post or 2-post ramp (this makes the job easiest if you have access to one. If not, 4 axle stands and an appropriate trolley jack are a must if your car doesn’t have much space underneath it).
  • The new oil and filter, are in the correct quantity.
  • A funnel, for pouring the new oil in.
  • Rags, for cleaning.
  • An oil pan, for catching the waste oil.
  • PPE – gloves, especially.
  • A wrench or ratchet, to remove the sump plug.
  • A mid-range torque wrench (probably 3/8″). This is to reapply the sump plug to the correct level of torque.


  • Parts cleaner, also known as brake cleaner – this stuff is great for removing oil drip stains on metal.
  • A magnetic tray – to make sure you don’t lose the sump plug or washer.


Here’s a more detailed step-by-step guide on how to change your motor oil…

1. Preparation

  1. Make sure the ignition is off and the keys are well away from it.
  2. Remove the oil cap on the top of the motor. This will allow the oil to flow through the system more easily.
  3. Get underneath the car and put an oil pan in place, ready to catch the oil. Beware of the angle at which the oil will come out. It may surprise you.
    • If you can’t find the oil pan comfortably under the car, you’ll need to jack it up high. Make sure to do so safely and to put it on axle stands. Never spend long under the car yourself, to minimize any risk.

2. Draining The Oil

  1. Use the spanner or ratchet to remove the sump plug. It’ll be tight at first but should loosen up fairly quickly. Once it’s loose, remove it and allow all the oil to drain into the pan.
    • Don’t be too harsh with it – the sump plug will be on pretty tight, but it should loosen up. The last thing you want to do is shear the bolt off. That’s a whole new level of problem.
    • The pressure of the oil inside the sump might push the sump plug out of place before you’re expecting it. To prevent this, you should keep pushing the sump plug in towards the sump while undoing it. When you’re ready, pull it away.
    • It’s very common to get oil all over your hand and wrist at this point. Make sure you move it away from the upcoming oil stream, instead of into it. If you do get oil on your hands, wait a minute before you change your gloves. Don’t stop watching the oil until it’s trickling. This is because the direction will change as the pressure in the sump gets less and less, as the oil drains out. After this, change your gloves – this reduces any dermatological risks.
  2. Once all the oil has drained out, replace the sump plug. Use the owner’s manual or an online website to check what the level of torque should be.

3. Pouring In The New Oil

  1. You can now pour the exact quantity needed of new oil into the motor through the oil cap at the top, which should still be off. Make sure it’s the right oil multi-grade as well, as we looked at earlier in the article.
  2. Run the engine for a few moments. This fires up the oil pump and shoots the oil around the motor.
    • It might sound a bit scary for the first couple of seconds. Don’t worry – this is just the sound of the motor when there’s no oil in it. The oil should get pumped around soon enough, and the noise will go back to normal. If it doesn’t after 10 seconds, switch the engine off. There’s a big problem, probably with the oil pump. You will likely need assistance.
  3. Check the level on the dipstick. It should be between the minimum and maximum levels.
    • If it isn’t, just add more or drain more as required. No biggy.
  4. You’re all set. Clean up the car with rags and parts cleaner, and make sure to get rid of any spillages on the ground.
  5. Keep an eye on the dashboard lights and temperature gauge over the next 50 miles or so, and check the car for leaks when it’s parked up. Other than that, you’re good to go.

Oil Viscosity: 5W-20 vs 5W-30 vs 10W-30 – Need-to-Know Facts

  1. The primary difference between 5W-20 vs 5W-30 vs 10W-30 motor oils is their viscosities when cold and at normal operating temperature.
  2. The “W” in the oil viscosity rating stands for “winter” and refers to the oil’s cold weather flow characteristics.
  3. Lower numbers indicate that the oil will remain more fluid and easier to circulate in cold weather for improved start-up protection.
  4. The 5W oils flow faster in cold weather compared to 10W oils, resulting in better protection against wear.
  5. Cold-weather protection is important regardless of climate since most engine wear occurs during cold starts.
  6. An oil with a higher viscosity at operating temperature provides a thicker lubricating film, which can help improve wear protection.
  7. Thicker oil isn’t always better, as it can result in oil starvation.
  8. An oil with a lower viscosity at operating temperature reduces internal friction, maximizing fuel economy.
  9. 5W-30 is the most widely used and recommended viscosity, but 0W-20 and 5W-20 are becoming more popular due to tighter engine tolerances and the need for improved fuel efficiency.
  10. While it’s generally okay to use an oil that has one viscosity rating higher or lower than recommended, it’s best to use the viscosity given in the owner’s manual for optimal performance and protection.

5W20 Vs 5W30: In Conclusion…

We hope this article has been useful if you weren’t sure about the differences between 5W20 vs 5W30.

Motor oil is a vital part of the car and should always be taken care of.

In short, the lesson to take away is to always trust your owner’s manual. The internet is full of weird and wonderful ideas which might be great… but might cost you a whole lot of money in the long run as well.

Thank you for reading. Check back soon for more content.

5W20 Vs 5W30: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

If you’re still curious to learn more about 5W20 vs 5W30, our FAQs here might help…

What Does SAE Stand For

The SAE stands for the Society of Automotive Engineers. They’re the ones responsible for, among other things, standardizing a classification system for motor oils. This is why you’d see the letters S, A, and E on any bottle of engine oil. Thanks to the SAE, the varying types, weights, mixtures, and viscosities of oil have been specified and made more clearly. Hence, this makes it easier for consumers to know which oil is suitable for their car. In particular, the SAE allows consumers to get an insight into which engine oil and viscosity are right for specific vehicles, their driving conditions, and whether or not they can perform well depending on the climate.

Can I Use 5W30 Instead Of 5W20

In short, no, it’s a bad idea to interchange 5W30 with 5W20. Generally, it’s best to use oil viscosities that have been prescribed in the owner’s manual, as your manufacturer has designed your engine to rely on a specific weight of motor oil. In this case, 5W30 is a much thicker and more viscous oil than 5W20 when your engine is at its operating temperature of around 100 degrees celsius. Since 5W30 is a thicker oil than what your engine is used to (5W20, in this instance), there’s going to be more resistance as the 5W30 oil is circulating. As a result, this means there’s less oil flow, which leads to increased fuel consumption and poor performance. Over the long run, using the wrong oil grade (5W30 instead of 5W20) will also cause internal damage to the engine.

Can You Mix 5W20 And 5W30

Yes, you can mix 5W20 and 5W30 oils together, but only under specific conditions. First off, you need to check your owner’s manual to see if your engine is compatible with both oil grades – 5W30 and 5W20. At lower temperatures, both 5W20 and 5W30 have the same viscosity. However, at an engine’s higher operating temperatures (100 degrees celsius), 5W30 is a much thicker and more viscous oil compared to 5W20. Now, if your engine could be used with both oils, there shouldn’t be any issues with mixing them. In this case, just ensure that you mix 5W30 and 5W20 oils from the same brand. However, if your engine is only compatible with one or the other, you can’t mix 5W20 and 5W30. It may be possible to mix them in an emergency to get it going. But not for long, as it might cause serious internal damage to the engine.

Is SAE 30 The Same As 5W30

In one way, both SAE 30 and 5W30 are the same, though you can’t easily interchange one for the other. SAE 30 is a single-grade motor oil, meaning that it’s only been tested and rated at higher temperatures. Meanwhile, 5W30 is a multi-grade oil, whose viscosity can remain more constant as the temperature changes. At lower temperatures, 5W30 is rated with a viscosity weightage of 5. On the other hand, 5W30 has a similar viscosity rating as SAE 30 (also 30) at higher operating temperatures of 100 degrees celsius. In short, SAE 30 can’t operate as reliably in colder conditions (such as over the winter) as 5W30. Therefore, SAE 30 is more geared towards generators or lawnmowers, while 5W30 can be used in more complex operations, like in a car engine.

What Does The W In Oil Mean

When you’re looking to change your motor oil, it’s crucial to pay close attention to that W in the oil grade rating. W stands for Winter, which defines how a particular oil’s viscosity may change in colder temperatures, which differs from its viscosity in hotter conditions. Let’s take 5W30 as an example. The number after the W, which is 30 in this instance, is the rated viscosity of this oil at an engine’s operating temperature of around 100 degrees celsius. Meanwhile, the number before the W, which is 5 in this case, is the relative viscosity of this oil when the conditions get colder. This doesn’t just mean driving over the winter, but also giving your engine a cold start. Thanks to how modern motor oils are engineered, they can vary in viscosity (i.e. become less viscous) if the temperature drops.

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