What do the viscosity numbers really mean on a bottle of motor oil?
Viscosity is the oil's resistance to flow or, for the layman, an oil's speed of flow as measured through a device known as a viscometer. The thicker (higher viscosity) of an oil, the slower it will flow.
You will see oil viscosity measurement in lube articles stated in kinematic (kv) and absolute (cSt) terms. These are translated into the easier to understand SAE viscosity numbers you see on an oil bottle.
A W on a viscosity rating means that the oil’s viscosity has been tested at a Colder temperature. The numbers without the W are tested at 210° F or 100° C which is considered an approximation of engine operating temperature. In other words, a SAE 30 motor oil is the same viscosity as a 10w-30 or 5W-30 at 210° (100° C).
The difference occurs when the viscosity is tested at a much colder temperature. For example, 5W-30 motor oil performs like a SAE 5 motor oil would perform at the cold temperature specified, but still has the SAE 30 viscosity at 210° F (100° C) which is engine operating temperature.
This allows the engine to get quick oil flow when it is started cold verses dry running until lubricant either warms up sufficiently or is finally forced through the engine oil system. The advantages of a low W viscosity number is obvious. The quicker the oil flows cold, the less dry running. Less dry running means much less engine wear.