Some Newer Cars Can Burn Lots of Oil
A CR autos editor discovered that his used Subaru suffers from a documented oil-burning problem. How to identify the problem in newer cars and what to do about it.
Last summer the time came, finally, to say farewell to the 33-year-old station wagon I’d been driving for ages. I replaced it with a 2015 Subaru Forester—a good all-around family vehicle with a solid safety and reliability track record. It was new enough—it had well under 100,000 miles on it—so I didn’t expect to hover over its vital functions the way I had with my ancient, smoke-belching wagon. But I was wrong. After a couple of months, the low-oil-level light came on. The SUV had burned almost 2 quarts of oil over just a few thousand miles.
With a big, rusty 1970s sedan, I might have expected a cloud of blue-tinted oil smoke in my wake, along with a wad of prehistoric cigarette butts in the ashtray. But the Forester was a modern car, built in an era when automotive engineers had supposedly fixed such problems. I did some digging and found that not only was the model prone to oil consumption issues, but also there were other newer Subaru models and newish ones from other manufacturers that chronically burned oil, including several expensive BMW models equipped with 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 engines.
Consumer Reports exposed this problem several years ago, with most manufacturers we mentioned having since worked to fix the problems. Even so, recent CR reliability data show that there are still models, some only a few years old, that can burn enough oil to deplete the engine of what it needs for lubrication between factory-recommended oil changes, which can be up to 10,000 miles, depending on the model. And with the average age of cars on the road up to more than 12 years, these oil-burners are likely to pop up in a consumer’s search for a used car.
After all, I ended up with one, and it’s my job to know a lot about cars.
Finding the Problem
Chuck Lynch, director of technical services at the Automotive Engine Rebuilders Association, says oil consumption problems, all but eradicated by most manufacturers by the early 2000s, began to appear again toward the middle of the decade, after federal fuel-economy standards became more demanding. That’s when manufacturers began making trade-offs in engine design that would increase efficiency but in some cases had an adverse effect on durability. The irony, he says, is that more significant fuel-economy gains came not from engine design changes but from using more advanced eight-, nine-, and 10-speed automatic transmissions to help keep engines in the optimal rpm range.
“The manufacturers write the rules on what’s acceptable when it comes to oil consumption,” Lynch says. “There’s no government standard on oil consumption, or how much oil an engine of a given displacement needs to have in its sump.”
Subaru had designed my car’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine for better fuel economy, but the way the pistons and piston rings were set up allowed oil from the crankcase to slip past the pistons into the combustion chambers, where the pistons compress and ignite the fuel-air mixture to create the power needed to turn the crankshaft and move the car. In the wake of the class-action lawsuit, Subaru extended the factory warranty (previously five years or 60,000 miles) to eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Honda and GM have made similar concessions for oil-burning engines installed in vehicles they sold, including certain 2009 to 2014 Acura vehicles equipped with a 3.7-liter V6, and 2010 to 2013 Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
I took my SUV to the dealership for an oil consumption test. The mechanics changed the oil (at my expense), sealed the dipstick shut with a zip tie, and marked the oil fill cap, oil pan drain plug, and oil filter with paint to ensure that they wouldn’t be tampered with. They checked the oil level again after 1,200 miles. The results were dismal—it had used almost 2 quarts. So Subaru of America gave the approval for the dealer to install a new engine in my SUV, free of charge. (However, even that engine came with its own set of problems, and it took a significant amount of my time shuttling back and forth from the dealership service department to have them resolved.)
Not everyone is so lucky. Some automakers say vehicle owners are responsible for routine oil level checks, and may leave customers to fend for themselves if an engine ends up burning a lot of oil. The best way to guard against oil consumption, though, is to rely on cars that don’t burn oil. We said it in 2015, and we’ll say it again: Newer cars shouldn’t burn oil.
“We’re going to be hard-pressed to convince society to go back to checking the oil every time you get gas,” Lynch says. “Most people just aren’t in the habit of doing it anymore."
No Recalls for Oil Burning
This oil-burning problem is compounded because auto regulators don’t consider it to be a safety concern, so they don’t require automakers to address it through recalls. And the old litmus test for burning oil—blue exhaust smoke—doesn’t apply for newer models because advanced catalytic converters mask the problem. As a result, a newer car might quietly burn oil and an unsuspecting owner could end up with major repairs, including compromised catalytic converters or a damaged engine.
“It always astounds me how they don’t recall these things,” says Jill Trotta, vice president of industry and sales at RepairPal and an ASE-certified technician with 30 years of experience. “They don’t have to because it’s not a safety issue. They can put out a technical service bulletin (TSB), so there can be some assistance, but that doesn’t really fix the problem.”
TSBs are communications from automakers to dealers alerting them about potential problems with vehicles, and they often contain special service instructions or procedures for dealer technicians. A TSB falls short of a recall, which usually relates to safety concerns and triggers an aggressive campaign to correct the problem at no cost to the owner. Quite often, car owners are unaware that TSBs exist or that there might be a known problem with their car.
“If you suspect your car is burning oil, checking the oil level on a regular basis is a good place to start,” Ibbotson says. “Then it’s time to start asking questions at the dealership to see if you qualify for any corrective action at the manufacturer’s expense.”
What to Do If Your Car Burns Oil
While some manufacturers say a certain amount of oil consumption is acceptable even in lower-mileage cars, CR does not agree. “According to our survey, most cars burn very little or no oil at all,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s Auto Test Center. “Even if there is a small amount of oil burned, consumers should not have to worry about running low between oil changes.”
If you have a lower-mileage car that burns oil, there are some steps you can take to mitigate and/or fix the problem; some of these checks are good for any car.
1. Stop driving if the warning light comes on. If the oil-pressure or low-oil-level warning light comes on, Lynch says you should stop the car as quickly as you safely can and check the oil level. If it’s low, add oil until the dipstick reads full (but do not overfill it, which can also damage the engine).
2. Check the oil often. Trotta says it’s a good idea to check the oil in your car at least every 1,000 miles or every other fuel fill-up, particularly if the recommended oil change interval is closer to 10,000 miles. If your car uses a quart every 1,000 miles, it could deplete all the oil the engine needs for lubrication long before the next scheduled oil change. Don’t know how to check your oil? CR has a brief guide.
3. Research your car. Search online to see whether there have been any class-action suits, recalls, or TSBs issued for the model you own. GM, Honda, and Subaru, for example, extended the warranties on certain cars to address known oil consumption issues. (TSBs can be found at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.)
4. Don’t assume that an expensive car won’t burn oil. CR survey data show that the 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V8 used in some of the more expensive cars in BMW’s lineup over the past several years was a consistent oil burner until the 2017 model year, after which complaints about oil consumption began to diminish in CR’s reliability survey. Our members also complained with regularity about oil consumption in certain cars built by upscale manufacturers such as Acura, Audi, Mini, and Volvo.
5. Monitor oil consumption. Even if you have monitored oil consumption on your own, the dealership will want to see for themselves, and most are likely to use a systematic approach to determine how much oil your car is using.
6. Consider communication with the manufacturer. If you aren’t getting what you need from the dealer, contact the manufacturer directly through an official website or customer service telephone number. Correspond via email if you can, so there’s a permanent record of your communications, or take good notes that include names, times, dates, and what was said. Note that the manufacturer is always the final authority when it comes to warranty repairs.
7. Be persistent and document everything. Keep in mind that the dealer is only a franchise of the manufacturer. Keep all your records from transactions with dealer service departments and other repair shops—especially oil changes. That paperwork may come in handy if you decide that dealing directly with the manufacturer is your best course of action.
8. Consider fixing the car. Even if you end up being on the hook for the cost of an expensive repair or engine replacement, crunch the numbers and figure out whether the car is worth keeping. The car market ebbs and flows, but right now, new cars are scarce and used cars are expensive, so you may want to stick with the devil you know.
What the Manufacturers Say
Consumer Reports contacted all the manufacturers whose engines were listed as oil-burners in our oil consumption survey. All of them (except BMW) responded, and their comments appear below.
American Honda Motor Co.
“In 2019, American Honda initiated a voluntary warranty extension benefiting certain Acura vehicles equipped with the 3.7-liter V6 engine. The engine warranty was extended, specifically for issues related to oil consumption, to 8 years or 125,000 miles, whichever comes first, from the original vehicle in-service date. This warranty extension did not apply to any vehicle that has ever been declared a total loss or sold for salvage by a financial institution or insurer, or has a branded or similar title under any state’s law.
“In total, approximately 211,000 vehicles were included in this action in the United States. While most of the included models are now outside of the extended warranty period, some newer models may still be covered. Concerned owners may contact Honda’s campaign customer service office at 1-888-234-2138 or their local Acura dealer to determine current eligibility under the extended warranty.”
Models affected: Certain 2011 and 2012 Acura RL, 2009 to 2014 Acura TL SH-AWD, 2010 to 2013 Acura MDX, and 2010 to 2013 Acura ZDX models equipped with the 3.7-liter V6 engine.
“As indicated in the Technical Service Bulletin, Audi implemented a crankcase pressure regulating valve which resolved this issue. We are not aware of continued issues that have presented themselves since implementing this TSB resolution. The first step that a customer can do with any concern they may have is, report it to their authorized dealer. We also recommend customers check their oil periodically to ensure proper operation. Our dealer and customer care teams are available to assist in working toward a resolution should an issue present itself.”
Models affected: Certain 2009 to 2012 A6 and A7, 2011 and 2012 Q7, and 2010 to 2012 A4 and S4 models equipped with the 3.0-liter supercharged V6 engine; 2009 to 2011 A4, 2010 and 2011 A5 and A5 Cabriolet, and 2011 Q5 models equipped with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Declined to comment.
Models affected (per CR survey): 2012 to 2019 models equipped with the 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine, including certain 5 Series, 6 Series, 7 Series, X5 and X6 vehicles, as well as M-badged performance versions of the same.
“The 2.4-liter engine is used in the 2010-2017 model year Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain. The special coverage warranty is offered on certain 2010-2013 models that had increased oil consumption. Our data showed that the fixes we put in place through that time period resolved these issues for later model years. For customers with certain 2010-2013 vehicles, we created an expanded special coverage warranty for this engine from its base 5-years/100,000 miles. The 2010 models received a 10-year/120,000-mile warranty, and 2011-2013 models received a 7.5-year/120,000-mile warranty.
“Customers with oil consumption issues should go to their certified GM dealer for an engine diagnosis. They can then work with their dealer to determine if making a warranty or special coverage claim is appropriate.”
Models affected: Certain 2010 to 2013 Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain models equipped with 2.4-liter four-cylinder Ecotec engines.
“Customers who have questions regarding their vehicle are urged to contact the MINI USA Customer Care team at 1-866-ASK-MINI to discuss any issues on an individual basis.”
Models affected (per CR survey): Certain 2010 to 2013 and 2015 Mini cars equipped with the 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
“Oil consumption is an inherent feature of all internal combustion engines and the rate of consumption can be affected by such factors as transmission type, driving style, terrain and temperature. Our internal data shows that very few of our owners have experienced above-expectation oil consumption. We have continued to develop our products and our data suggests that this already low rate has been further reduced, if not eliminated. However, if an owner feels they are using more oil than they should be, they should contact their retailer, who will assess the situation on a case-by-case basis and can perform a consumption test to determine what actions should be taken. Different drivers in the same car may experience different results.”
Models affected: Certain 2012 to 2014 Impreza, 2013 and 2014 Crosstrek, and 2013 and 2014 BRZ models equipped with a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine; 2010 to 2015 Forester, Outback, and Legacy models equipped with a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine; 2010 to 2016 Outback and Legacy, and 2010 to 2014 Tribeca models equipped with the 3.6-liter naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine.
“We have not seen a significant issue with oil consumption in the field for this engine. We recommend that customers refer to their respective model’s owner’s manual for their usage and maintenance guidelines and regularly check their oil as well as all engine fluids. As with any concern customers may have with their vehicle, customers should inform their authorized dealer or be in touch with our Volkswagen Customer Care team, who are ready to support. (800) 822-8987, Monday – Friday, 8 am – 9 pm (ET), https://www.vw.com/en/contact.html."
Models affected (per CR survey): Certain 2016 to 2019 Volkswagen vehicles equipped with the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
“All engines consume oil but there is no specific mileage at which a high consumption rate could be considered normal. Oil consumption rates can be attributed to many factors, including driving conditions/style, engine age and maintenance, the type and quality of oil used, etc. If an owner believes they have an excessive oil consumption issue they should take their vehicle to an authorized Volvo Cars retailer where proper fault tracing, diagnostic testing, and service can be performed.”
Models affected: Certain 2007 to 2015 S80, S60, V60, V70, XC70, XC60, XC90 models equipped with 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engines and 3.2-liter naturally aspirated six-cylinder engines.