Hands-On Review: Best Oil Filters to Keep Your Engine Clean and Healthy
Take a look inside and compare new vs. used spin-on oil filters.
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BY Mike Bumbeck / LAST UPDATED ON May 28, 2021
If oil is the lifeblood of an engine, then the oil filter is its liver. Changing your oil and filter regularly is the difference between an engine that runs clean for hundreds of thousands of miles and a sludged-up sack full of broken metal bits. And it’s a lot easier and less expensive than a liver transplant.
Many modern engines use a cartridge-type oil filter. It’s easy to gauge the condition of a cartridge filter; you can see the filter element when you crack open the cartridge, and that element is the replaceable part.
More common, though, is the conventional spin-on oil filter. It’s also easy to remove, and replacement is a matter of simply spinning on a new one. But an outer steel canister conceals the filter element, so most of us have never seen the inside of one.
That all changes today.
An aftermarket filter with consistent quality, from a company that specializes in imported vehicles.
- OEM-quality and factory fit
- Correct canister volume for older engines
- Sealed and pre-lubricated o-ring base gasket
- Service reminder sticker
- Can be difficult to find and more expensive than economy-grade oil filters
- Domestic applications often not available
A genuine spin-on filter direct from your car’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM) leaves no questions or doubt.
- Assured performance from the same company that built your engine
- Factory correct bypass valve pressure
- Competitive price over aftermarket filters
- Engineered for use with newer engines
- May not be the best choice for older vehicles
- Watch out for counterfeits in the online marketplace
A high-performance filter from a reliable, competition-proven company with innovative features and outstanding quality.
- High flow filter element and high-quality anti-drain back valve
- Extensive catalog of applications for most vehicles
- Built-in nut is worth the extra cost alone
- Everyday drivers may not need a high-performance filter
- Premium quality oil filters demand a premium price
Why Trust Us
Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
How We Tested Oil Filters
This isn’t the first time folks on the internet have sliced and diced spin-on oil filters. Cutting open the steel casing satisfies morbid curiosities, at the very least.
Pro mechanics, racers, and pilots crack open oil filters all the time to get a better idea of what’s happening inside their engines. Jet black gunk means the engine runs rich. Collapsed pleats or milky goo can indicate moisture or a bad head gasket. Flecks of metal usually means something inside the engine is chewing itself up.
The thing is, while the diagnostic benefits are obvious there’s no way to tell if one filter works better than another just by looking at it with the naked eye. We don’t have superpowers to see things at the 20-micron level, or the specialized equipment to measure oil flow efficiency. So we didn’t base our selections here solely on what we discovered inside the canisters.
It was pretty cool to see what was inside each filter, but we chose our best oil filters based on a combination of quality, features, and real-world experience with the brand.
Let’s be clear: We do not doubt that all of our test oil filters get the job done. None of these companies would still be in business if they didn’t. We did, however, find that different companies take different approaches to oil filtration. And of course, we found that a higher price doesn't always add up to higher quality.
Benefits of Oil Filters
- Live Long and Motor: Today’s engines run cleaner and longer between oil changes, so using a quality oil filter is more important than ever. Sticking to the recommended oil and filter change schedule is the key to trouble-free motoring.
- Avoid Warranty Woes: Neglecting recommended oil and filter service intervals, using the wrong oil and filter, or never changing your oil at all can result in a warranty claim denial. Thanks to the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act, it’s against the law to deny warranty claims if you change your oil and filter. But you still have to change it.
Types of Oil Filters
Self-contained spin-on filters gained popularity in the mid-50s, and have been the status quo in automotive engine oil filtration for the last half-century. Unfortunately, their ease of use has resulted in mountains of used, non-biodegradable oil filters clogging up landfills and shop yards. Combine that and the decline of large-displacement gas-guzzlers with today’s smaller, higher-revving engines, and their popularity is waning.
The cartridge-type oil filter is making a comeback. Its removable and reusable housing, combined with a replaceable filter element, results in far less waste. While slightly more labor-intensive, they’re cheaper to maintain than spin-ons. And far more eco-friendly.
Modern cartridge-type oil filter systems are not without fault, however. Some manufacturers use lightweight plastic filter housings that not only require a special tool for removal but are notoriously unforgiving and can sometimes break apart when overtightened.
Bosch Automotive is an OE supplier for automakers worldwide, and its extensive line of aftermarket automotive parts meets or exceeds original equipment quality and performance standards. Find the right Bosch oil filter or any other part for your ride at the Bosch store.
Purolator is (apparently) a contraction of “pure oil later.” Ernest Sweetland and George H. Greenhalgh patented their first automotive oil filtration system in 1923, and Purolator was instrumental in developing the first spin-on. Check out the Purolator store for the complete lineup of oil, air, transmission, and cabin filters.
FRAM designed and introduced its first easily replaceable cartridge-type oil filter in 1932 and manufactures an extensive range of automotive parts today. Head over to the FRAM Store for everything from oil, air, and fuel filters to PCV valves, crankcase filters, and transmission modulators.
Founded by motorcycle racers, K&N has been synonymous with performance for over 50 years. K&N introduced the first wrench off oil filter in 1988, and the K&N Performance Gold filter earned our best performance pick. Check out the K&N Performance Store for oil and air filters, complete intake kits, and even home filtration solutions.
Beck-Arnley founder Irving Beck established the company in 1914, and the company supplied the US Army with sidecars and spare parts through two World Wars. Beck-Arnley today specializes in foreign marques with over 24,000 OE quality parts that cover 80 manufacturers and nearly 1,800 models. Find your part at the Beck-Arnley store.
Oil Filter Pricing
- Under $5: Picking up 2-for-1 oil filters at the 99-cent store may seem like a terrible idea, and it usually is. Still, there are some decent aftermarket oil filters in the sub-five-dollar range.
- $5-15: This is the sweet spot for aftermarket, OEM, and premium oil filters. Size does matter with auto parts; more steel, rubber, and filter media add up to higher cost.
- Over $15: High-performance, premium, extended life, and giant oil filters fall into this price range. Extra-large oil filters are simply more expensive to manufacture.
Spin-On Oil Filter Anatomy and Features
Baseplate and Gasket
The thick steel baseplate at the bottom of a spin-on oil filter is where the filter meets the engine. The threaded center puts the spin in “spin-on,” and the baseplate gasket (or o-ring) seals in oil. Dirty oil enters the filter through the outer ring of base plate holes, flows through the filter into the center tube, and back into the engine through the threaded center of the mount.
Anti-Drain Back Valve
These valves close to prevent oil from returning to the engine while the engine is shut off. One valve sits between the base plate and the bottom end cap on the intake; the second keeps clean oil from being siphoned back into the engine from the center tube.
Filter media is the core and most important part of the oil filter. The pleated material wraps around a center tube, and the filter assembly can be held together by steel or cellulose end caps. Some newer filters are bonded to the center tube with adhesives and have no endplates. Manufacturers use wood-based cellulose, synthetic filter media, or a combination that best meets the engine’s demands.
The bypass, or pressure relief, valve is the filtration gatekeeper. High oil pressure opens the valve, so oil bypasses the filter during cold startups. The valve closes once the oil pressure normalizes; only then does oil flow through the filter. A dirty, clogged-up filter can block flow and create enough pressure to trick the bypass valve open; using the wrong oil filter can do the same. In either case, your oil is not getting filtered.
Canister and Spring
The self-contained spin-on oil filter uses a steel canister bonded to the baseplate. The canister contains the filter assembly. A coil of leaf compression springs inside the canister keeps the internal assembly working together as a whole.
Best Oil Filter Reviews & Recommendations 2021
Tips and Tricks
- The single most important trick is never over-tighten any oil filter. This holds true for both spin-on and cartridge-type oil filters. Always tighten spin-on filters by hand, or you won’t get it back off again without a removal tool (or stabbing a screwdriver through it and turning, but you didn’t hear that from us).
- Overtightening a spin-on oil filter can result in oil seal failure, oil loss, and catastrophic engine damage. Overtightened cartridge oil filter housings can fail or, at best, disintegrate during removal. Use a torque wrench to install cartridge oil filter housings.
FAQ About Oil Filters
You've got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: Do I need a new oil filter with every oil change?
A. Yes. Today’s engines run clean enough that manufacturer recommendations of 7,500 to 10,000 miles between oil changes are increasingly common, so a new oil filter is mandatory. Some older engines only needed a new filter every other 3000-mile oil change, but these days a new filter with every oil change is best practice.
Q: Are OEM oil filters better than aftermarket?
A. Not necessarily. Automakers often source parts like oil filters from original equipment suppliers like Denso, and brand them as their own. Some of those companies (like Denso) offer the exact same parts in the aftermarket, and they match OEM quality in every way except the branding. Some aftermarket companies improve on OEM shortcomings and engineer a better filter.
Q: Will these oil filters fit my engine?
A. Yes and no. Oil filter part numbers must match with your specific engine. You'll need to check your owner’s manual for the specific part number. Likewise, most auto parts stores will have your make, model, and engine size on file and can tell you what fits and what doesn't.
Q: Do I need to use a synthetic oil filter for synthetic oil?
A. Yes, especially if your engine came full of synthetic oil from the factory. Standard cellulose oil filter media will work in a pinch, for a little while. But an oil filter with hybrid or synthetic filter media will hold up through the longer service life of synthetic oils. Play it safe and follow manufacturer guidelines for oil and filter.
Q: How do I know when my oil filter needs replacement?
A. By following your car’s maintenance schedule. There is no way to check and see if a spin-on oil filter is dirty without cutting it open. Some cartridge-type filters can be inspected without draining the oil, but unless it’s obviously clogged up a visual inspection doesn't tell the whole story. Replace your oil filter with every oil change. Then you’ll know for sure.
Today’s longer oil service intervals, as well as more and more new cars being delivered from the factory with synthetic oil, make getting the right oil filter more critical than ever. Going with a genuine or OEM oil filter is an excellent choice, even if you have to spend a little more coin. Picking up an OEM-quality oil filter from an original equipment supplier is the next best thing. Aftermarket oil filters can meet and even exceed OEM specifications, but quality counts more than the brand name. Look to high-performance oil filters if track days, drag racing, or towing and hauling are in your future.