So Easy Even a Caveman Can Do It…

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Oil changes are still pretty simple. But easy is another thing. If you haven’t done one in awhile – to a new car – you might be surprised by how much more complicated the process has become.

First, it’s gotten harder to get underneath new cars. Or rather, to get them up in the air, so you can get at things.

Driving them up on ramps – as was common back in the day – is often not possible today because the front end of many new cars will push the ramps forward as you try to drive up and on. Or they get pushed unevenly. That can be very dangerous to your wallet as well as to you. The ramps may also hang up on the lower part of the fascia – the rubber front end cover all late-model cars have – and be damaged during the attempt.

A $40 oil change becomes $400 in body damage.

One way to avoid that is to use some boards to “step up” gradually to the ramps – as in this picture.

Similarly, standard floor jacks may not slide under a new car’s low-slung bodywork.

The good news is there are low-profile floor jacks specifically made to get around this problem. The bad news is if you haven’t got one already, you’ll need to buy one – and a good floor jack usually costs at least $75 or so. Either way, be certain of your jacking point before you start pumping up the jack. Most new cars are unibody designs – integrated frame and body – and it can be not-obvious which is body and which is frame. You want frame.

 Don’t apply jacking force to body panels such as the floorpans or the rocker panels.

Once you have the car raised, you may discover you can’t find the oil drain plug.

Many new cars are fitted with plastic underbelly pans – designed to smooth airflow underneath the car, for reasons of fuel economy as well as noise reduction. But these pans have to come off before you can access the car’s mechanical underbelly, including the engine oil drain plug (and oil filter, if it’s not topside).

With the car on a hoist and a technician able to stand/walk around under the car, removing the underbody pan isn’t that much of a hassle. It’s not so easy when you’re lying on your back, in your driveway.

Actually, getting the pan off isn’t too hard.

It’s getting the pan back in place that can be a pain. These things are often large and unwieldy. You have to line them up with multiple holes and then get the plastic tabs or whatever the fastener system is locked down without the pan moving out of position.

Here’s where a helper – human or floor jack – is . . . helpful. A second pair of hands to hold the pan in place while you get it fastened. Or, use the floor jack to do the same. The pan is usually made of plastic and isn’t heavy. It’s just awkward to get it lined up.

Be sure it’s reinstalled correctly before you lower the car and drive off. If it falls off with the car at speed, you will not be happy. Neither will the driver of the car behind you.

As far as the actual oil:

Modern car engines are much more sensitive about which oil goes in the crankcase. It’s not like it was in the past – when almost any off-the-shelf-oil would do. Or at least would do no harm. Synthetic or standard; 10w-40 was on sale this week.

No worries.

Today’s engines want very specific oil and using other-than-specified oil can lead to problems which you’ll end up paying for – because use of other-than-specific oil will usually void your warranty coverage. If the manufacturer says use synthetic – use synthetic. If it says use only 5W-15.

Don’t use 10W-40.

And don’t use additives, either – unless they are approved additives.

Also be exacting about the oil level. Too much can be as bad as too little. This, by the way, is one of the perils of having someone else change your vehicle’s oil. Quick lube places often use a pump to feed fresh oil to the engine, rather than pour the oil in one quart at a time, as you would at home. The pump system makes it easier to lose track of how much actually got pumped in.

If you have someone else change your oil, always check the level on the dipstick before you drive off.

Another thing to check is for drips under the car before you drive off. Quick lube places sometimes overtighten oil filters, crushing the gasket – which results in leaks. They also sometimes overtorque the the oil pan drain bolt, damaging the threads. If that happens, the leak can become a gusher when the now-barely-hanging-on-by-a-thread drain bolt falls out while you’re driving.

If you do your own oil changes, you’ll never have to worry about stripped threads or overtightened oil filters.

It’s just not quite as easy as it used to be!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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29 COMMENTS

  1. This is why I liked the old Jeep CJ-7 so much…I could change the oil standing up, only having to go on the ground to remove and re-apply the oil drain plug. Everything else I used to do while standing up over the engine block, since there were no panels to remove, and no reservoirs or other appendages of the engine to block access.

  2. The pinch weld along the bottom of the rocker panel is usually one of the strongest points. Most have designated places fore and aft that are used to locate the lift plates in a shop.

    As for BrentP above, NEVER GET UNDER A CAR SUPPORTED ONLY BY JACKS!!! Buy a couple pair of jack-stands, they’re much cheaper than a funeral. If you have a small or mid-size car and you get some 6-ton stands you can raise the car far enough to have room to drop panels, trannys and most everything else.

    • The problem with the rocker pinch point isn’t strength, it’s that it isn’t designed for a hydraulic jack. They can get bent up. It’s cosmetic damage. Hence the adapters. The typical lift points for the homegamer would be where the frame rails meet the torque boxes. The lift points are there for the two post lifts, but they can be things you don’t want to use a jack with.

      I own two sets of jackstands for when I am actually under a car and the wheels are off.
      For an oil change when the car is lifted by two jacks I am not under the car. I reach under the car with my arm. The wheels are still on the car. There is more than enough room under the car for my arm when it is sitting on its wheels if both jacks should magically fail at the same time.

  3. Nothing like that 01 Camry V6 where the oil filter points downward and is positioned right over an engine mount. B4 you can get the filter off it drains all over the numerous curves of the bracket and is hard to clean without a gurney. Oh what a feeling, Toyota!

  4. I went to a Korvette’s 40 years ago for a oil change. Afterward my car was continuously leaking oil. I took the car to several fly-by-night repair shops and each one had a different expensive diagnosis, ranging from a bad head gasket to the engine burning oil.

    I finally took the car to a GOOD (but pricey) repair shop. The mechanic lifted the hood, twisted the oil filter and said THERE’S your problem. The Korvette’s minimum-wage grease jockey didn’t tighten the filter enough. Damned if he wasn’t right!

    They charged me a minimum fee for the diagnosis, but it was worth it. Too bad by then the constant engine overheating resulted in a small crack in the engine block which eventually grew and destroyed the engine eight years later

  5. Years ago, I almost bought a motorcycle with all those molded fairings you see on those hyper-sport bikes. I had just changed the oil on one of my other bikes and that whole scene was still fresh in my mind so I started looking around for the oil filter, and couldn’t even see it so I passed. I wasn’t interested in spending an extra couple hours getting to the oil filter.

    However, I also bought a used car from a guy who agreed to let me have the car inspected at the dealer, and while it was up there I asked how much it would cost to repair that molding underneath which had been damaged (probably from hitting a speed bump a bit too fast) The bill to repair everything was well over $4k which gave me some wiggle room on the price. He came down a few grand and I bought the car as it was essentially just cosmetic and with it already so low, no one but small animals bouncing underneath would ever notice.

  6. I put a lot of miles on my car, but I have a guy in California and a guy in Florida who do a fantastic job of changing my oil and filter for not much more than the price of the oil which is recommended by the manufacturer.

    However, when you say: ” If the manufacturer says use synthetic – use synthetic. If it says use only 5W-15. Don’t use 10W-40.” I wouldn’t necessarily go along with that.

    My mother bought an RX-8 brand new from the Mazda dealer and Mazda recommended using a very light weight oil only in the US. Why? Because they had to pass those pesky California environmental requirements, and that wasn’t going to happen with the oil those racing engines in RX 8’s require. So rather than pay the penalties for not passing the air quality requirements, they suggested that people put oil in what was effectively going to destroy those engines, and most of those engines didn’t make it more than 30 to 40 thousand miles before they shook themselves apart. My mother drove hers fairly easy. She was the typical “little old lady from…” so she was able to get almost 80k out of her car before she traded it in. Her mechanic told her what was going on, and to “Get rid of it quick!”

    There was a class action lawsuit against Mazda which I think they lost because of this nonsense.

  7. I own a 1999 Toyota Corolla. I FINALLY changed my oil in 2015. Before that, I went to shops to do it. (Prior to that, I had old VWs, and did all that crap on my own)
    It took me about three hours to do that oil change. I had to get my digital camera out to try and find the oil filter and the drain plug. It was a BEAR!
    After that, however, it now takes me about 10 minutes to remove the filter and the drain, and most of the time is involved with getting my tools from the trunk.
    Let it drain for 30 minutes, and another 10 minutes to put the new filter in, the drain plug, fill it up again, and put my tools back in my trunk.

    WINNING!!!!!

  8. I was a little surprised Eric didn’t mention the fact that with many new cars, the oil filter is replaced by a cartridge. The cartridge is easily replaced, but it just adds a few extra steps and inconvenience to the job.

      • eric, I was sorta amazed back in the day when spin on filters started being used. Wow, what a concept. But the truth was, the old cartridge filters were larger for the most part. When changing one, you got some idea of anything going wrong by looking at the filter and the inside of the housing.

        My sister called me one day and said their Camaro was leaking oil after her husband had changed oil, would I look at it. I was young and thin so I just slid up under it with a red rag, felt of the filter which was covered in oil, wiped it off and gave it another turn or two. Voila, no more leak.

  9. Honestly, is there any advantage to newer cars other than that their bodies last longer to make all this frou-frou crap and hassle worthwhile?

    • They’re objectively safer. Advances in structural design mean that you stand a far greater chance of living through an accident in a car that was built in the last 10 years than one built before that.
      These are RHD Corollas from Australia, but the video shows how much better the newer car performs.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xidhx_f-ouU

      • I’ll accept that but still reject the cost and complexity of newer cars as not being worth it. True, it’s possible that I could be spared serious injury or death in a new car accident, but as a motorcyclist and Geo Metro driver I don’t let remote chances of injury stop me. I’ve had motorists tell me that they’d love to drive a Metro for the gas mileage but are afraid of it, so they stick with their behemoths. I can’t see it.

        • I agree, Ross.

          I’m exposed to new cars all the time – and they more and more remind me of the handful of times I have stayed at some over-the-top hotel (press trips). Lots of “hey, check that out!” stuff. But just as I’d never stay at one of those joints on my own nickel – so also I will never buy a car with all this “stuff” I can easily live without that costs an absurd amount of money.

          • eric, then there’s quality in old vehicles you don’t find in new ones. My 93 Chevy pickup had steel handles for everything the newer body styles have plastic on. I’ve had 2 endgate handles in the last year on the Z71, POS it is. Not a damn screw on the interior I’ve found so far. The 93 was held together mostly with Torx or Allen screws. The door panels had “some” snap in fasteners but basically was held on with screws. Seats, crappy things compared to the old ones.

            Not sure I see any advantage to the 5.3 engine over the “old” early 90 model 350’s. They weren’t leakers and while they might not have had the low end torque of the newer engines, they got better fuel mileage and the old TH700R4 was reliable as hell. TBI, same thing as well as the distributors which were good for at least 300K. Damn, I don’t mind buying a new distributor like a friend did with 342,000 miles to have an engine that was still running fine when it passed the 500K mark as were two others from the early 90’s I know that passed that mark in good stead.

            Did we go to that aluminum engine just for weight savings? Sure, not because it’s better. In fact, those variable valve ratios that bump up the bottom end torque will be laying down and watching the old stuff go by and they regularly do.

            I get 13 mpg at 80 mph, a couple ticks above my old 4.10 geared 454 and that bad boy would pull big rigs out of the sand. I don’t want to think about doing such with the newer styles. Now the Duramax is another beast altogether and it will take abuse……so there’s a $12,000 hickey getting a tough truck like they all used to be. I can put a bluetooth radio in an old truck for $100 and that $800/month that would be going for a payment is staying in my pocket.

            I could spend a few hundred for a Brown Lipe gearbox with underdrive, overdrive and 1:1 and have another OD once in transmission OD.

            Oh, they weren’t perfect but came a hell of a lot closer than anything since.

  10. Safe Jack makes a set of jack stands they call RennStand which is designed to address the jacking issues associated with newer cars. They’re pricey, but less costly than purchasing any of the portable hydraulic units like QuickJack or a full blown lift.

  11. The lower engine cover on the wife’s 2016 Honda Civic LX is metal. If it were plastic it might be easier to put in place since you can cajole and bend plastic enough to get the holes to line up. With the metal cover that is not possible. UGH!

  12. Or do what many “professionals” do and buy an oil sump pump and pump the oil out of through the dipstick tube.
    No jacking, underbody pan removal or drain plug sealing issues.
    The only downside is you might not get all the old oil out so you may need to reduce service intervals slightly.

  13. Floor jack wise the annoying thing is a lack of structures like torque boxes where frame rails attach to the ‘tub’ of the unit body. Those made for nice flat jacking points. On my ’12 I had to make adapters that slip over the rocker panel flange so I can use the factory scissor jack locations with my floor jacks without bending them. (One can buy these adapters too, but I had some scrap metal I could just cut a slot into)

    Another thing is I hate ramps. Always did. Too easy to go too far with a manual trans car. So for the ’12 I use two jacks (one on each side) to get it high enough to undo the big shield and have enough space for it to swing out of the way.

  14. I’ve never had anyone else do my maintenance, but after thirty odd years of doing this myself on multiple cars, I’m getting kind of tired of it. The underbody panels aren’t too annoying once you find a good procedure for each car, but what gets really tedious is cleaning up the mess afterward – wiping down funnels, cleaning out the drain pan, and then disposing of the oil itself. I’ll keep doing it, of course, since I’ve never messed it up like the quick lube places, and I use high quality oil and filters, but it’s getting tiresome.

    • Opp, I get it….but I still do it too. Where am I gonna get an Amsoil filter and oil? I’d just have to pay some godawful amount of labor to a real shop and then second guessing everything they’d done.

      Don’t want just any funnel supplying just any oil to anything of mine. My funnels are clean enough to eat out of. I fill my filter before installation..and make sure it has a one way valve.

      I don’t have to clean the drain pan too much since I drain it into an oil drum where I store my used lubricants….always good for use in an oil-fired stove. I just set my drain pan, the bottom of a barrel that held paint so it’s got a slick coating on it, on top of the funnel sitting on the barrel. If I need used oil I get it from the pump in the barrel.

      Back when my parents were alive they stopped by after being in a large town 60 miles away eating out and doing whatever they did. My dad stopped at the gate and his oil light came on. He got here to the house and told me about it. He’d just had it changed at a Jiffy Lube I think. I told him countless times to bring it to me and it wouldn’t take me more than an hour to check and change whatever was needed all the while he and my mother could be in the house talking to my wife or looking at the cattle or what the hell ever they wanted to do. That day there was NO oil on the stick. I added a couple quarts and got it almost to the add mark. Ah, almost 2 quarts they’d put in it with a cheapass filter. Then I greased it….correctly. And checked All the fluids.

      What I hate these days is not being able to stand up and do it. Don’t know why I didn’t put a four post lift in the barn when I could afford it, kick myself, kick myself.

      When my cousin was alive I’d do it in his shop and then clean the floors and lifts and wash tools just so it was worth it to him. Ever now and then I’d drop by and his shop would be full or had been full and I’d sweep and clean the floor and wash tools for an hour and put them back where they belonged. Sometimes when I’d just stop by he’d laugh and ask if I didn’t need to work on something. I know something about some things not everyone does so like the day he was having hell with a transfer case in a Ford pickup I took his place and made sure the pickup line was installed correctly(you have to break the case down)for the oil pump and then put it back together. He was mighty proud of that. I drilled the bolts out of front hubs on a 4WD one day and installed the new ones. I don’t mind helping if I can. I’m just not as keen to work on a creeper as I once was.

      • Yeah, a lift would do wonders to make this easier. I wish I was rich enough to afford enough of a garage for one in the expensive area where I live!

        • Got that right. Alas, my garage has only a dirt floor but I’ve done scores of oil changes crawling underneath various vehicles. It’s a crowded pain under there (my old Honda Civic’s oil filter is a pig to reach and guaranteed to leak oil in rivulets all over pieces of engine and bodywork) but it beats oil change shops. Except one time when my unheated garage was 15 below zero and I just didn’t want to freeze my hands again.

          • I’ve done a Civic and the larger car too. I had to use a 2×6 underneath to keep my floor jack from bending the floor pan, what a pain. It was tight too but I use a big pan so I rarely have oil spill except when the wind blows hard. The front of a jack is right in the way on pickups so the pan doesn’t go very far behind the drain plug.

            On the bright side, I’ve found good used 4 post lifts for $3,000. I haven’t found a good spot for one in the barn. I should build another shop just for that. If you’re dealing with a garage you can use the lift to park on or raise it up and park under it.

            One thing I used to use and need to make some more is ramps made out of RR ties(get a new one). Cut half way into at what ever angle suits your vehicle. If you need more height just add 2×6’s. Dead steady they are. You will need to borrow a chain saw if you don’t have one. Put a 4×4 at the end as a bump stop or just take it easy.

            I had a friend who used to have a 4×4 in his garage. WTF is that for? So the wife stops before hitting the wall. Oh yeah.

  15. 5 and 3/8’s qt or oil for the Xterra is 5.5 qts in my book. 1/8th of a qt of oil isn’t going to change anything considering some vehicles burn off an angels share during use before the next change. Most modern transmissions have vents to spew and froth if over filled as well.

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