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Clogged Fuel Injectors Spark Ad Blitz : Stung by GM Criticism of Gas Quality, Refiners Find ‘Solution’

Times Staff Writer

Exxon’s ad depicts its powerful tiger crashing through a formidable barrier with the ominous label “FOULED INJECTORS.” Mobil’s fuel will “actually unclog dirty fuel injectors.” Arco trumpets a clean fuel injector “guarantee.”

The current advertising blitz for gasoline makes it sound as if the oil industry is heralding some breakthrough in fuel technology. Instead, it is responding to a growing problem with car engines--and the solution is nothing new.

It seems that many brands of unleaded gasoline tend to clog fuel injectors on automobiles, cutting the flow of gasoline by as much as 25% and causing engines to stall. General Motors says gummed-up fuel injectors have become one of its biggest car-related headaches, and virtually every auto maker reported the problem at a recent auto engineering convention.

The answer has been to load up gasolines with detergent, a type of fuel additive that auto makers and others complain has been used in diminishing amounts over the past few years as a cost-cutting move by oil refiners.

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It is a charge that is roundly denied by Big Oil, which uniformly says that its gasoline has impeccable credentials and grumbles that engines are getting too sensitive. But ever since GM called attention to the fuel injector problem last November in a letter to the oil giants, there has been a nice surge in business for the chemical firms that make detergent additives.

While declining to say which refiners are buying them, Thomas Johnston, director of the fuel products group at Lubrizol, a specialty chemicals firm in Wickliffe, Ohio, that makes such a detergent, said: “Let’s put it this way: There’s a much higher degree of interest than we anticipated. We’re going to sell a lot more than we expected.”

Although the problem afflicts most domestic and foreign makes of cars equipped with the widely used Robert Bosch Corp. fuel injection system, it was a letter last November from the vice chairman of the world’s biggest auto firm, GM’s Howard Kehrl, that created all the excitement.

When Kehrl was subsequently invited to speak before the National Petroleum Refiners Assn. in Los Angeles in February, he was amiably introduced as the industry’s “pen pal.” But he recalls that there was an edge to his missive, reflecting a broader dispute between the huge, mutually reliant oil and auto industries over the quality of gasoline generally.

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As automobile engines have become more sophisticated in the wake of government and customer demands for fewer emissions and greater fuel economy, GM and other companies have become increasingly critical of the composition of gasoline. The auto firms have blamed fuel for everything from a rotten egg smell in some Toyotas to generally poor “drivability.”

Popular Science magazine called it “Bad Gas,” and the criticisms have other inde

pendent support.

“We find that the general quality of gasoline does not meet the requirements of modern engines,” said Nick Korens, manager of the energy technology economics program at SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif., research organization.

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While the clogged fuel injectors represent just one part of that problem, Joseph Colucci, head of the fuels department at GM’s research labs, said: “What this has done is bring home to the oil companies that gasoline quality is not as good as it should be.”

The fuel injector, once a creature only of exotic performance cars, is now replacing the carburetor as the device under the hood that moves gasoline to the engine. It is more efficient and precise and improves everything from fuel economy to starting the engine.

GM began using large numbers of them in the 1985 model year and has sold nearly 1 million cars with Bosch’s so-called multiport fuel injection systems--the type having problems. Joseph Borruso, the Detroit-based auto sales vice president for Bosch, said the company was selling the same basic multiport injector system to Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen as long ago as 1967.

The multiport injectors, or those that squirt fuel separately into each engine cylinder, have such tiny openings that the slightest deposit of particles in gasoline can be baked on to the openings by engine heat, clogging them, GM said.

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The clogging problem suddenly became noticeable about 18 months ago, said Borruso, who blamed the clogging then on a shortage of detergent additives in every brand of unleaded gasoline. He says Mobil was subsequently the first to fix its fuel and won mention from GM’s Kehrl in the letter that he wrote to refiners.

Mobil cheerfully took note of GM’s implicit endorsement in its ad campaigns, and the slightly arcane issue was out in the open--touching off a war of words, advertising and one-upmanship in the oil business over what SRI’s Korens has called the “black art” of gasoline additives.

Exxon subsequently rushed to market with a new, detergent-soaked product that it calls XCL-12, “gasolines so advanced they can typically clean fouled fuel injectors in as little as a single tankful.” Similar products are coming from other oil firms, according to GM.

But others--including Arco and Chevron, California’s leading marketers of gasoline--insist that their gasolines have always had enough detergents. They say they have no plans to develop new products in response to the fuel injector problem.

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“The deposit control features of gasoline varies tremendously among manufacturers,” said Donald Beers, manager of gasoline product quality at Chevron USA. “Since the early 1970s, we’ve had a very high level. We’re still convinced that it’s the best one in the marketplace.”

GM’s Colucci replied that “Chevron thinks their gasoline is fine, and that’s great. But I think they’re looking at other additives.”

Arco Offers ‘Guarantee’

Arco, in a marketing move that has attracted some hoots from the sidelines, announced a “guarantee” on its unleaded gasoline: If a car’s fuel injectors require cleaning within 30 days after a motorist has made at least two 10-gallon purchases of Arco unleaded, the company will pay cleaning costs of up to $50.

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But as the guarantee does not count on cars that are still under manufacturer’s warranty--and as the trouble usually turns up quickly and is most prevalent on cars introduced in the last two years under standard three-year, 36,000-mile warranties--competitors sniff that Arco is not likely to go bankrupt cleaning fuel injectors.

“We figured if it was already covered (by the manufacturer’s warranty), there was no use in us doing it, too,” an Arco spokesman said.

Whatever the oil refiners have or have not been doing to their gasoline, there appears to be plenty of blame to go around. Colucci said: “We changed the engine. It isn’t fair to blame it all on the oil companies.”

One reason the problem was not detected before the cars entered production might be that the auto firms are permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency to use special fuels with a heavy load of detergents in their 50,000-mile durability tests, according to Lubrizol’s Johnston.

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“They’ve ended up testing their new cars with a fuel that wasn’t representative of the market at all,” he said. “That didn’t matter with carburetors, because it takes a lot less detergent to keep a carburetor clean. But it means they wouldn’t see the problem with the fuel injector.”

A more important reason, Colucci said, is that the 50,000-mile test is run almost constantly--and does not reflect the type of stop-and-go driving that helps foster the problem.

Auto Industry’s Job

Now that the multiport injectors have entered the mass marketplace, to be driven by average motorists whose driving and maintenance habits might contribute to the problem, Chevron’s Beers said, it becomes the auto industry’s responsibility to make the devices less finicky. “If that system were more tolerant, there’d be no discussion about clogging problems,” Beers said.

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GM said it is working on its own in-house fuel injector. Meanwhile, Bosch’s Borruso says it will bring out late next year a system that is “more tolerant of dirtier fuels.”

GM’s Kehrl said that both the auto and the oil companies “should have caught the damn thing.”

The number of complaints appears to be subsiding as owners get the message about detergents, GM said, but the primarily hot-weather problem stands to recur this summer. Chevron described the problem in most of California as minor compared to that in the South and the desert areas of the Southwest.

Perhaps because dealers are fixing the problems for free, the Automobile Club of Southern California said it can “count the number of these complaints on one hand.”

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Bosch’s Borruso also said the problem appears to be subsiding. But with the multiport fuel injection system becoming more and more common, he voiced concern about the independent refiners, whose unbranded gasoline accounts for about one-third of all gasoline sold.

“The majors have been responsive. How responsive the independents will be remains to be seen,” he said.


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