Why checking the oil level is important

Oil dip stick held and checked against white cloth over engine.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 5 April 2022

Learn to check the oil level and keep your car running smoothly. Read our guide and prepare for the 'tell me' part of the practical driving test!

At Easter, we blogged about the importance of making vehicle checks before you start driving. Well, with winter on the way, we‘d like to explore the subject again.

If you’re an ambitious, safety-minded sort (that’s all of you, surely?) and you want to know *everything* that should be on your checklist, then read our previous post on the subject.

In this post, we’re going to drill down to one important subject. (Yes, this is a dreadful pun, as you’ll soon see. And there are more.)

So, what is this terribly important subject? Well, the answer is ‘oil’.

No need to be crude

OK, before we go any further, here’s a bit of science: it’s a pretty safe bet that, unless your only dealings with planet Earth are to make the occasional fly-past in a starship powered by rotting space carrots, you’ll have used something that’s powered by oil.

The modern world, from the fuel in your car to the turbines used to create electricity, is built on it. Oil’s raw form is known as ‘crude oil’, but boil it up at the right temperature (s) and it soon turns into all kinds of other useful things – like cosmetics, cleaning products and nylon.

Crude oil also becomes the oil that you put in your car to keep the engine running smoothly.

Slick performance

So why is oil so important for your car? Well, maintaining the correct level is essential as oil lubricates, cleans, cools and protects the moving parts of your engine. It prevents the engine from seizing up and breaking down.

If your vehicle does not have an oil-level gauge on your dashboard, you’ll need to lift the bonnet and check it using the dipstick.

To check your oil level using the dipstick, follow this handy 9-point guide:

  1. Check your vehicle handbook to find out whether the manufacturer recommends you check the oil level when the engine is cold or warm.
  2. Make sure your vehicle is parked on a firm, level surface.
  3. Open the bonnet and find your dipstick. (Your vehicle manual will tell you where it is.)
  4. Pull the dipstick all the way out and wipe it clean to remove the oil residue.
  5. The dipstick should be marked with two notches near the bottom. These two points will show what the minimum and maximum oil levels should be.
  6. Now reinsert the dipstick into the engine, then slowly pull it all the way out again to check the oil level.
  7. The oil residue on the dipstick should be between the minimum and maximum markings.
  8. If the oil residue is below the minimum marking, you need to top up your oil level.
  9. Check your vehicle manual for the recommended grade of oil to put in your car.

Refining your skills

If you’ve only just started to learn to drive and it all seems rather daunting, then ask an experienced driver with a few mechanical basics to give you a hand. They’ll be able to show you exactly what you should be doing and watch you practise.

Oils well that ends well

So that’s your cut-out-and-keep guide to checking the oil. It’s really important that you get comfortable with this – not least because it’s actually one of the ‘tell me’ questions in the new driving test. You could be asked to open the bonnet and show the examiner how you’d check that the engine has enough oil, so do not get caught out!

We’ll be back with more handy hints and tips very soon, but if you cannot wait that long, click through to the Safe Driving for Life shop and pick up a copy of The Official DVSA Guide to Driving – the essential skills. It’s packed full of good stuff about breakdowns and basic maintenance and is the perfect companion to The Official DVSA Theory Test for Car Drivers.

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