The Case of the Missing Oil

I have a 2003 Civic EX with 100,000+ miles on it that I’ve taken very good care of. I have to put a few quarts of oil in every few weeks because the oil seems to disappear. Now, I’ve spot checked for leaks. I’ve even had the dealer and a few other mechanics look at the engine to see if there were any. No luck. I don’t seem to notice any odd smells or black smoke coming from the car. The only bit of information that I have is that around every 1000 miles I could be very low on oil. The most recent incident had me at 2 weeks and almost completely out of oil. If I get the car up to 4000 rpms in 5th gear, the engine will let me know it isn’t happy. I’ve been told that it’s the VTEC telling me there’s no oil. What is happening to my oil? Has anyone ever experienced anything like this? The mechanics have said that it’s an internal engine problem. It would require them to take the engine apart, and take a look. I get very anxious about my car when even the mechanics can’t tell me exactly what I need to do and that they’ll need to investigate. I’ve been told that it will be very expensive just to investigate because they’ll have to take the engine apart. I’ve also been told that it may be cheaper for me to just buy a new engine. I’ve been thinking of just trading the car in for a new one, but I’m not sure what to do. I would like to try to get a few more years out of the car, but if a new engine or months of investigating need to take place, wouldn’t a new car be a better answer? Thanks for your help in advance.

“The most recent incident had me at 2 weeks and almost completely out of oil.”

If you are aware that the car is using oil–whether from a leak, or from “burning”, or from a head gasket problem–it behooves you to check the dipstick every few days. If you allow the situation to get to the stage of “almost completely out of oil”, then you have contributed to excessive wear of the engine. Allowing the oil to be almost completely depleted is one of the best ways to kill an engine that is already a piece of damaged goods.

If you want to keep this car running, then you have no choice but to either repair the engine or replace it.

From your description, I do not predict a long life for this car in its current condition, so you really need to decide whether to repair/overhaul this engine, replace the engine, or buy another car.

You’re right, I should have been more proactive in my car’s health. One of the options I’ve been given is to use a heavier oil that might burn slower. But, the scenario asks for me to be responsible and get the problem fixed. Do you see it lasting months or years? Is this something I should immediately worry about? Or can I salvage and make up for it by continually checking the oil every few days? It’s just funny because my car runs just fine, I don’t notice any pressure changes, and I always had the oil changed at 5000 miles (occassionally earlier).

So, I guess my real question might be this:

Get a 2009 Civic, or repair/replace the engine. What would you do?

What would I do? I would have not allowed the oil level to get to the stage of being “almost completely out of oil”. But, since you can’t turn back the hands of the clock, that is not an option at this point.

As to whether the engine will last for months or for years, I think that you should be thinking in terms of months, but even this is only possible if you check the oil every couple of days and make sure that it never drops more than 1 qt below the full level.

As to what you should do, that depends on your financial situation. If you can afford to pay cash for a new car, that may be your best option, but only if you are willing to properly maintain that new car.

If you will have to finance or lease a new car, then your best option is probably to have the engine overhauled on your present car.

Don’t put yourself in the position of having to finance or lease a new car. You will be lightyears ahead if you save your money until you can afford to pay cash for a new car.

Get it checked by someone else, it might be something simple like a pcv valve or oil leak at a sending unit or valve cover gaskets leaking and the oil is burning off or blowing away should get taken for a proper diagnosis for a proper answer. The heavier oil is not my recommendation, as that is a band aid approach for a solution to an unknown problem. It will help if it is because your piston rings are worn, but then you will be committed to that weight oil because your piston rings will adjust to the heavy weight oil, and wear faster to accommodate the heavy weight oil. Given your maintenance I would say that is a bad idea, as you do not need to prematurely wear your piston rings down with no apparent value in my book.
Get it checked and as I say for myself, hope for when good things happen to bad people.

I have a 2003 Civic EX with about 90K miles. So far it uses no oil between 5,000 mile oil changes. Generally this is a good car, but something is going on with your Civic.

Oil has to go somewhere, it can leak out, it can get into the coolant, or it can burn off and come out the tailpipe. You’ve check for leaks. Some leaks only occur with the motor running and may not show up on your driveway. Still a leak usually leaves evidence somewhere. Has the car been up on a lift and really carefully inspected for signs of oil on the frame, or underbody of the car?

The coolant in the Civic is a long lasting type that is to be changed at 120K miles for the 1st time. The only way to look at the fluid is in the plastic resourvior. A mechanic should open up the radiator cap and draw out some coolant for a close inspection. Oil coming out the tailpipe is hard for the driver to spot. You can have a friend follow you for a trip on the highway, changes speeds with some stomping on the gas after letting the car glide for a bit, say going down a long hill and find out if there is smoke coming out of the tailpipe and the color of the smoke.

Running the car low on oil could have done some addtional damage, so it is hard to say exactly what is going on with your motor. If your finances are in OK shape it might be a good time to trade the car in for a new one.

Good advice. I may have given too little info as to how I was handling the oil situation. I don’t want you to think I was totally irresponsible. I was marking the oil levels on a calendar after the first instance of this actually occurring. The dealer let me know they couldn’t find any reason for the oil to be low, but they wanted me to find a pattern in oil loss for them (make an oil journal). So, I started to find that around every 1000 miles or so I would be around 1 quart low. I started keeping a 5 quart oil container in my car with a funnel and around 1000 miles I would check the levels. Low and behold, I was 1 quart low. So, I started developing a pattern in my mind. But, that’s a human mistake. There actually was no pattern. I developed a pattern where there was none. The oil situation varied by use and I just didn’t pick up on it. It just so happened that the oil was about 1 quart low every 1000 miles. I started to just check / fill at 1000 miles. Well…that’s when the 2 week “almost completely out of oil” happened. That’s also when my anxiety levels for my car started going through the roof! So, I really appreciate your feedback. I think an overhaul is in my future, but since the financing options are pretty stellar right now, I thought I would ask. I can’t pay cash for a new car, but since I already bought this car with 9 miles, paid it off, and lived with it this long, I wanted to see what my options were. I’d hate to see my car go.

I’m glad you think it could be a simple fix. I’ll bring it to another mechanic and try to highlight some of these things. My second opinion mechanic said putting in a heavier oil would keep me from having to keep getting an oil change / adding oil, but I’m really glad I didn’t take his advice. He claimed to have been a Civic owner and he couldn’t figure it out. He told me the engine looks “new”! Your advice makes me feel a little less stressed out about it. Thanks!

With your advice, and with Waterboy’s I’ll take it to yet another mechanic and have him/her look over the highlighted areas you’ve pointed out. I feel a lot less stressed now. I’m surprised they haven’t looked there. They’ve looked everywhere else. In fact I think I saw them looking in the trunk for my oil…

But, all kidding aside, my worst fear is that they’ll have to remachine something, or take the engine apart, or even suggest I get a new engine. At that point I’ll have to ask myself, “keep adding oil every few days, or get a new car”?

Thanks, I’ll keep you updated.

I had it looked at again today. This time I went to someone who was completely unfamiliar with my car and I asked him to look at everything that we’ve discussed here. When the mechanic called me on the phone to discuss, he said he couldn’t see anything wrong with valves or the coolant. His suggestion…wait for it…drum roll…heavier oil with an oil stabilizer. That’s the first time I’ve heard about the oil stabilizer, but not the first time I’ve heard about heavier oil. He said I could run the car another 100,000 miles if I checked the oil every few days. I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with that, so I’m going to trade it in. Thanks for your input everyone.

Thanks for getting back to us, I think you are avoiding potential future disaster trading it in, happy miles in your new wheels.

Has any of your mechanics performed a compression test or a leak down test on your engine as of yet? This is how you are going to determine if its a piston ring or a valve issue that is causing the oil to “vanish”.

The oil is going somewhere.
It is either leaking out, either while the engine is running, or while it is sitting still, or it is being burned by the engine, or it is being forced into the cooling system. If it is not one of those things, that means someone is stealing your oil. :wink:

If you can do it yourself, pull out the spark plugs one by one, and see if one of them is black.
Check the vacuum hoses that feed into the intake manifold to see if the inside of one is oily.

When was the last time the car had work done to it, like a tune up, oil and air filter change?
Can you take a look at the condition of the air filter and see if its black and clogged?

The compression check and the leak down test are your best tests right now.


Change to 15-40 oil. Add a can of “Restore”. Monitor oil consumption. Have someone else drive the car while you drive behind it observing for blue smoke…

Honda’s reputation FAR EXCEEDS their performance…