Reviews

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 26, 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.

Best Overall
Beck-Arnley
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Summary
Summary

An aftermarket filter with consistent quality, from a company that specializes in imported vehicles.

Pros
Pros
  • OEM-quality and factory fit
  • Correct canister volume for older engines
  • Sealed and pre-lubricated o-ring base gasket
  • Service reminder sticker
Cons
Cons
  • Can be difficult to find and more expensive than economy-grade oil filters
  • Domestic applications often not available
Best Overall
Beck-Arnley
Best Value
Genuine or OEM
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Summary
Summary

A genuine spin-on filter direct from your car’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM) leaves no questions or doubt.

Pros
Pros
  • Assured performance from the same company that built your engine
  • Factory correct bypass valve pressure
  • Competitive price over aftermarket filters
Cons
Cons
  • Engineered for use with newer engines
  • May not be the best choice for older vehicles
  • Watch out for counterfeits in the online marketplace
Best Value
Genuine or OEM
Honorable Mention
K&N Performance Gold
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Summary
Summary

A high-performance filter from a reliable, competition-proven company with innovative features and outstanding quality.

Pros
Pros
  • 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
Cons
Cons
  • Everyday drivers may not need a high-performance filter
  • Premium quality oil filters demand a premium price
Honorable Mention
K&N Performance Gold

THIS IS A DRIVE HANDS-ON REVIEW

Mike Bumbeck

When he’s not wrestling with one or more first-generation Mitsubishi Monteros and other fine ‘80s-era Japanese cars and motorcycles, Mike Bumbeck evaluates a constant variety of automotive products from The Drive’s clandestine Science Barn testing facility in New England.

Why Trust Us


All of our reviews are based on market research, expert input, or practical experience with most products we include. This way, we offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.

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Mike Bumbeck

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.

Oil filter
Mike Bumbeck

Our best overall oil filter after its work was done. One of the reasons we chose this filter is its anti-drain back valve. The filter held onto a canister’s worth of used oil even weeks after removing it from the engine. Tip: Punch a hole in the valve and let the filter drain before recycling.

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

Spin-On

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.

Cartridge

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.

Oil Filter
Mike Bumbeck

Like many modern cars and trucks, our early Eighties Honda CB900F Super Sport motorcycle uses a cartridge-type oil filter and reusable aluminum canister housing. Always replace o-rings, seals, and gaskets when changing out cartridge filters.

Featured Brands

Bosch

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

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

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. 

K&N

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

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

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. 

Bypass Valve

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.

Mike Bumbeck

Better filtration and flow is always welcome, and the built-in nut on the K&N Performance oil filter can be a real lifesaver when it comes to oil filter removal. It also came in handy with our Longacre oil filter cutter. Just don’t use the nut and wrench to tighten the filter!

Best Oil Filter Reviews & Recommendations 2021

Best Overall
Beck-Arnley

Quality and a perfect fit earned the Beck-Arnley spin-on oil filter our Best Overall award. We’ve used dozens of these filters on everything from a turbocharged 4-cylinder to naturally aspirated V6s with excellent results. Consistent quality and performance keep us coming back for more.


We hadn’t ever thought to slice one of these filters open, so we put a new and a used filter into the cutter for comparison purposes. Beck-Arnley’s thick steel canister nearly defeated the oil cutting tool; it took a few tries before giving up. The anti-drain valve worked perfectly; the used filter canister was nearly full of used oil even after weeks on the oil drain pan and the filter media trapped plenty of dirt and crud. 


Every Beck-Arnley part we’ve ever used meets or beats the OEM dealer part, and the oil filter even comes with a service reminder sticker.

Best Value
Genuine or OEM

You might think we’ve blown a gasket by recommending a manufacturer or OE part as the best value. But time after time every OEM filter, while perhaps not the cheapest, always works the way it should. So unless you've got a compulsion to pay more or really enjoy changing your oil filter a lot, the OEM filter is usually the best deal on the market.


Using genuine OEM products takes the guesswork out of the oil and filter equation, especially as manufacturer oil and filter service intervals stretch well past the 5,000-mile range. True, OEM parts are generally more expensive. But for this test, we consistently found that OEM oil filters were actually competitively priced than their aftermarket equivalents. Some even cost less.


The photo above is a genuine Mitsubishi folder filter, which beats aftermarket competition on both quality and price. However, any OEM product will meet your needs.

Premium Pick
K&N Performance Gold

The K&N Performance Gold oil filter carries the higher cost of performance and quality, but those features make it an attractive upgrade. The welded-on nut is its most familiar feature, but K&N always packs plenty of the good stuff inside the canister, too. 


The thick steel shell was tough to get through, and the internal components were clearly a cut above the rest of the oil filters in our test. The parts looked similar at first glance, but extra rows and larger diameter passage holes, and a unique center tube design, clearly demonstrate K&N designed its oil filters for improved performance. 


K&N claims their synthetic filter media and end cap design allows 10 percent more oil to flow through the filter than the competition, and considering the company’s vaunted racing heritage we can sure see the advantage in that. And for what it’s worth, after fighting to remove way too many oil filters in our day the welded-on end nut alone makes K&N worth the extra cost.

Best Aftermarket Oil Filter #1
Purolator

Choosing the best aftermarket oil filter was a tough call. BOSCH, Purolator, and WIX oil filters are all great examples of why you should buy auto parts based on quality over a brand name. You really can’t go wrong with any of them. 


All three steel canisters put the oil filter cutter to the test, and all featured high-quality anti-drain back valves, filter media, and construction. All three filters used conventional base gaskets. 


We do not doubt that any of these filters would keep your oil clean over the long haul. We picked Purolator in what amounted to a roll of the dice or pull on a slot machine.

Best Aftermarket Oil Filter #2
Denso

It’s not a household name, but Denso is an original equipment supplier to major automakers (such as Toyota). And we found its oil filter for our application was a close match to our OEM part. Cracking open the heavy-duty steel canister revealed dual-layer filter media, a silicone anti-drain back valve, and a pre-lubricated o-ring seal.


Denso Auto Parts brings OE-quality parts like this oil filter to the consumer market that meet or exceed original equipment specifications and fit. We found availability was the only drawback to Denso, as its most popular filters were often sold out.

Honorable Mention
FRAM

FRAM swears on a set of connecting rod bearings that their cardboard cap and adhesive bonded filter media setup works as well or better than any other oil filter, and we won’t argue. For years, we reached for the orange box through two small-block Mopar V8s, and saw nothing but clean internals whenever we cracked open those engines. Finding FRAM Extra Guard or FRAM Tough Guard oil filters was never a problem, and the grippy end cap material made removal and installation easy. 


We would have kept reaching for the orange box — but lost confidence after seeing one of those cut-open-oil-filter videos way back in the Y2K-scare era. We couldn’t tell if FRAM worked better than the others just by looking at its guts back then, and we still can’t. 


Even though we used them for years and never had a problem, seeing those two cardboard end caps and glue didn’t exactly inspire confidence then. Cracking these two FRAM filters open 20 years later and seeing that things haven’t changed still doesn’t.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.