Oil change questions are the most popular topics at many car forums. We do some math to figure out how much they actually cost us.
Oil changes drive owners nuts. That is our takeaway from being participants in online forums like the CarTalk Community. Owners endlessly discuss the merits of different brands, the benefits of synthetic, conventional, and blended oils, and of course the cost and change frequency most likely to provide a car with a long life. These are all important topics, and ones we have addressed in many stories at BestRide. Today, we want to look at what percentage of the total cost of ownership oil changes in mainstream cars makes up.
Before we begin, we have to define the cost of ownership. AAA and other organizations do a great job of breaking all of the various cost of ownership aspects down and showing which vehicles are the least and most expensive to operate. For our example, we will choose a couple simple examples and run the numbers using conventional and also fully synthetic oil to see how much, or how little, oil changes affect the total cost of ownership of the most popular vehicle type on the road today, the mainstream compact crossover. Yes, crossovers have passed pickups as the largest vehicle segment, in case you missed the news.
First some big numbers. Your $30K, well-equipped crossover will last roughly 15 years. The EPA tells us that the average vehicle is driven 15,000 miles per year these days, and that means by age 15 your crossover will have 225,000 miles. To make sure we are always leaning towards being conservative in our estimate of how much oil changes add up to, let’s assume you got a smoking deal on your crossover and paid $25K. Let’s also assume gas prices stay at their low levels of today for the next 15 years. A vehicle like an AWD Mazda CX-5 or Subaru Forester will need $1,500 for fuel each year according to the EPA, so over the life of the vehicle, that adds up to $22,500.
Next up, insurance and registration fees. Let’s low-ball this one. Let’s assume that the vehicle has an average cost per year of just $750 for insurance and registration costs. If you have a young driver on your policy that number is about 1/3 of the real price, but let’s again lean towards making the oil change costs seem as high as a percentage as we can. That adds up to $11,250 over 15 years.
Next, let’s pretend you live in a state with zero taxes. No state sales tax (ours is 6.25%) or excise tax (ours is $25 for every thousand of the vehicle’s value paid annually). That will discount our total cost of ownership by as much as $3,000, but we realize not every reader lives in a state with these taxes.
Finally, let’s also ignore all other vehicle maintenance cost details and just call it $2,000 total. That will cover all of our air cleaners, brakes, fluids other than oil, and timing belt if there is one, plus any repairs like wheel bearings or other broken things. Last, let’s call tires $1,500. That is a low-ball estimate of three replacement sets for a compact crossover.
Our total cost of ownership breaks down as follows:
Vehicle depreciation – $25,000
Fuel – $22,500
Insurance – $11,250
Maintenance other than oil plus tires – $3,500
Taxes – $0
Total cost of ownership over 15-years = $62,250
The costs of oil changes can vary somewhat by manufacturer. For example, Toyota includes the first two years, or about four oil changes, in the cost of the vehicle. Chevy covers the first two. Mazda and most other automakers’ dealers include the first one free as our example from Liberty Mazda in Wakefield, Massachusetts illustrates below. Let’s pretend none of them are free. Let’s also set the change interval at a low 5,000 miles. That means we will have to change the oil 45 times over the life of the vehicle on our way to a final 225,000 total miles before the vehicle has lived a useful life.
The True Cost of Oil Changes
Now we have to enter into a debate about synthetic or conventional oil costs. Or we can just calculate the costs two ways. One with a cost for conventional oil and one with a cost of higher-priced synthetic. As our coupon above shows, oil changes can have a cost of about $200 for eight changes. Therefore, a cost of about $25 per change less tax and the disposal fees most shops now change. Let’s up that to $40 for conventional oil and set the cost at $75.00 for synthetic. It is pretty easy to find better deals than this, and most will now include a car wash and vac, but we want to see how high a percentage we can get oil changes to be.
So, over 225,000 miles and 45 oil changes, out costs would be $1,800 for conventional oil and $3,375 for synthetic oil in total with no freebies or discounts. Here is how that works out as a percentage of the total cost of ownership of today’s most popular vehicles:
$1,800/$62,250 = 2.89% of the cost of ownership of a vehicle. Let’s call it 3%
$3,375/$62,250 = 5.42 of the cost of ownership of the vehicle. Let’s call it 5%
Keeping costs down for vehicle ownership is important to any family. As our quick breakdown shows, oil changes make up a small percentage of the total cost of ownership of today’s most popular vehicles.
Wondering if cars that don’t use oil, like battery-electrics, have lower maintenance costs? Check out our comparison of gas-powered cars to electrics.