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Bruce Smith | March 21, 2010


A close look at engine oil labels and understanding the abbreviations

By Bruce W. Smith / Editorial Services

No matter what brand or type of oil container you grab, there’re a number of symbols and abbreviations listed on the label that help you make the right oil choice. 

To start with, SAE is an abbreviation for the Society of Automotive Engineers and the SAE abbreviation on oil packages tells what viscosities the oil is capable of and, indirectly, at what ambient temperatures the oil is to be used.

Most automobile manufacturers recommend API (American Petroleum Institute)-certified oil in their engines. In fact, use a non-API-rated oil and you risk voiding engine warranty.

API certification is so highly respected because it also involves the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), vehicle and engine manufactures, technical societies, and industrial associations such as the American Chemistry Council to determine the tests and procedures that will adequately reveal the characteristics of the oil.

Certification of a manufacturer’s oil is contingent on API determining that it meets the standards set forth by the International Lubricant Standardization and Approval Committee (ILSAC).

Beyond that are more detailed abbreviations on an oil container that help designate an oil’s suitability for various uses.

Gasoline-engine oil designations

  • SL       For use in all automotive gasoline engines thru 2003. Formulated for better high-temperature deposit control and lower oil consumption.
  • SJ        Usable in all 2001 and earlier engines.
  • GF-3 Oil meets the minimum OEM certification for 2001 gasoline engines—and all earlier models
  • GF-4 Oil meets the minimum OEM certification for 2005 gasoline engines—and all earlier models

Diesel-engine oil designations

  • CF       For use in diesel engines, including the use of fuel with over 0.5% weight sulfur and can be used instead of CD oils.
  • CF-2   For use in severe duty, two stroke-engines. Can be used instead of CD-II oils.
  • CF-4   For use in high speed, four-stroke, naturally aspirated or turbocharged engines. Can be used instead of CD and CE oils.
  • CG-4   For use in severe duty, high speed, four-stroke diesels using fuel with less than 0.5% weight sulfur. Oil with this designation is required for engines to meet 1994 emissions standards. May be used instead of CD, CF and CF-4 oils.
  • CH-4   For use in high speed, four-stroke diesels designed to meet 1998 emissions standards. Designed for diesel fuels with up to 0.5% weight sulfur. May be used in place of CD, CE, CF-4, and CG-4 oils.
  • CI-4    For use in high-speed, four-stroke diesels meant to meet 2004 emissions standards. These oils have been specifically designed to protect engines which use exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and use fuels with up to 0.5% weight sulfur. It can be used in place of CD, CE, CF-4, CG-4, and CH-4 oils.

 Note: If your pickup’s owner’s manual says to use certain oil rating, use that or the one that supercedes it. Never use an oil with an older/lower designation.-BWS

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