ATV Oil vs Car Oil: Top 5 Differences You Should Know


Oil is considered the second most important fluid in your quad because it carries out many important functions and helps keep your engine healthy. Learning what is the difference between ATV oil and car oil is vital for a new rider, which is why I decided to talk in-depth about this topic. Here is everything you need to know about engine oil so that you can keep your quad in peak condition!

There are two main differences between ATV oil and car oil: viscosity and purpose. Car oil is formulated for fuel economy, minimize friction, and it generally has a lower range of viscosity. This type of oil is not created with stable viscosity in mind, as automobiles get regular oil changes and have different engine characteristics.

On the other hand, ATV oil is created with rust and corrosion prevention in mind. It needs to have more friction in order to prevent clutch slippage and stable viscosity because quads are not used as frequently as cars. Not only that, but manufacturers recommend a wide range of viscosity so that the engine can easily withstand both extremely cold and hot conditions.

Off-road riders are often faced with the dilemma: should I use ATV oil, car oil, or motorcycle oil for my 4 wheeler? Today I will explain how each category of oil is formulated and its compatibility with a quad. Keep on reading to figure out what oil you should use in your ATV for best results.

image comparing ATV oil vs car oil

What is the Difference between ATV Oil and Car Oil?

Difference between ATV Oil and Car Oil

Because of the different ways we use cars and ATVs, mechanics have determined that each vehicle requires specific oil functions. While all engine oil will be used to lubricate, clean, and cool off your engine parts, there are certain characteristics unique to each type. For instance, the primary purpose of automotive oil is to minimize friction and save fuel. ATVs actually need a higher level of friction, which is why the oil is formulated to prevent rust and corrosion. The difference in functions is caused by the fact that the engine on a 4 wheeler works differently than the one on a car.

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Car oil is only circulated through the engine, while on ATVs the oil reaches the transmission and clutch as well. This means that oil made for quads requires different viscosity to prevent clutch slippage and pitting in the gears.

It’s important to note that oil made for All-Terrain Vehicles also needs to perform at both very high and very low temperatures because of their specific usage style. If you are starting your ATV on a cold winter morning, or you are riding at high speeds in the middle of the summer, a motor oil with a wide range of viscosity will be of great help.

If you understand the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) code system, you will easily differentiate between oil types and find the right one for your vehicle. Multigrade oils are categorized based on their viscosity level at low temperatures, followed by their level at high temperatures (for example 5W-30).

SAE attributed different numbers to these levels, lower numbers meaning less viscosity and higher ones meaning more. The lower the first number is, the better the oil will perform in subzero weather conditions. The higher the second number, the thicker the viscosity at hot temperatures. A majority of car oils will sit at 10W-30 viscosity, while the most used ATV oils have a 10W-40 range.

As you can see, there are quite a few differences between car oil and ATV oil. In fact, motorcycle oil might be the most similar to ATV oil because of its similar engine function. Still, there is a distinction to make between these two as well, depending on the type of transmission. You can differentiate the two types by using the JASO type on the oil.

The Japanese Automotive Standard Organization (JASO) classification is the system used to categorize viscosity levels for motorcycles and ATVs based on their transmission requirements. I will go over the JASO categories you need for your quad further down in the article and note which one works for motorcycles as well.

Looking to buy a used dirt bike? Check out this article I wrote about how to determine if a bike or ATV has high mileage.

Can you use car oil in an ATV?

Because of the key differences shown above, using car oil on your quad can lead to damage such as clutch slippage, increased oil consumption, and wear from gear pitting in the transmissions. That being said, using car oil for your ATV is not unheard of. There are a lot of off-road riders that opt for using synthetic car oils without the energy-conserving quality, which helps you avoid clutch slippage.

In case you are going to use automotive oil, this is the best kind that you can choose to maintain your engine in good condition. Make sure to take into account the SAE code number recommended by your manufacturer when choosing the viscosity range. Still, in my opinion, there are far better advantages to using dedicated ATV oil for your quad.

What oil should I use in my ATV?

The best thing to do in any situation is to choose the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) for your quad, even though it might have a higher price margin. Whether you have a Polaris, a Yamaha, or a Kawasaki, you cannot go wrong with oil from your manufacturer with the recommended SAE viscosity you can find in your manual. OEM oils go through the most extensive testing process, including Dyno testing and field testing, so you can be certain your engine will thrive.

If you decide to research third-party oils, make sure to check your vehicle’s manual to see the manufacturer’s SAE recommendations. While there is a general rule to opt for a lower “W” (winter) viscosity if you live in an area with extremely cold temperatures, the second number should always be chosen based on your ATV’s unique requirements. For instance, if your manufacturer recommends a 5W-40 engine oil, then you can still choose a 0W-40 one for protection at up to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

ATV and motorcycle oils are also categorized based on the JASO classification. Here are the types of oil you can use for your ATV based on your transmission type:

  • JASO MA-1 and MA-2 – This category of oil is better used for a wet clutch transmission, mostly found in motorcycles. JASO MA-2 is the highest quality oil between the two.
  • JASO MB – This type of motor oil is destined for automatic transmission because it includes friction modifiers similar to the ones in car oil.

Most users prefer synthetic oil because it is made to withstand higher engine temperatures. If you are the type of off-road rider that likes a challenge and often visits difficult trails, then choosing synthetic is a no-brainer. As for ATV owners that use the vehicle for hauling cargo and farm work, conventional natural oil can be a budget-friendly option as well.

Last but not least, when choosing your engine oil, I recommend you take into consideration caster oil as well. This oil is made out of caster beans and offers the best protection for your engine at high RPM. Adventurers that use their ATVs for racing or rocky mountain terrains will benefit from the added protection. One disadvantage of using caster oil is that it smokes more. If you do not use your ATV very frequently, you need to check for potential oil buildup.

There are many criteria to take into consideration when choosing the ideal motor oil for your quad. Whether you prefer a high mileage oil or a natural oil, it is always important to check the JASO and SAE classification before you make your purchase. Making the wrong choice for your transmission and engine needs might result in long-term damage to your engine parts.

Can you put 5W30 in an ATV?

pouring oil

I might be repeating myself saying this, but first check the recommendations in your manual. Your manufacturer might offer you a few range options or just one range size that goes best with your engine. If your manufacturer recommends both a 10W-30 and 10W-40, then you can choose a 5W-30 if you live in colder temperatures. But if they recommend a 0W-40 engine oil, then a 5W-30 will not work as it has a lower range and lower viscosity at high temperatures. In this situation, 10W-40 oil will work well even if you go through a difficult winter.

I reckon that all of this number talk might be a little confusing to new off-road riders. If you are not sure what to choose, go with the manufacturer’s recommendations and call it a day. Your engine will be sure to function in peak condition!

Are you suspicious that your ATV might be running lean or rich? Check out this article I wrote about learning how to determine if an ATV is running lean or rich and how beginners can prevent possible damages.

How often should you change the oil on an ATV?

The general rule is to change your ATV oil every month or after 50 hours of use, depending on which comes first. This ensures proper engine protection, cleaning, and cooling at all times, keeping your quad in peak condition for the long term. While frequent oil changes can seem like a costly and bothersome task now, I assure you that the engine repairs will hurt your wallet more than preventive work. In case you use your 4 wheeler mostly for work and not fun, then oil changes can be farther apart.

If you use synthetic oil with the SAE recommendations in your manual, you are sure to have a healthy engine. If you also keep up with your regular monthly oil change, your ATV will thank you and repay you with years of fun rides. Now go choose the perfect ATV oil for your machine and hit the trails!

Bob Kelly

Hey there, my name is Bob and I've been riding ATVs, dirt bikes, and UTVs for most of my life. Going on outdoor adventures has always been my passion. I love sharing tips and tricks with beginners who are getting ready to join the world of outdoor enthusiasts. You can reach me at bobtheatvguy@gmail.com if you want to get in touch.

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