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Engine Sludge Failures Blackening Toyota’s Reputation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Toyota Motor Corp. has carefully crafted the image of its Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the U.S. market, appealing to customers who expect their cars to deliver unparalleled quality and reliability.

But engine sludge seems to be blackening this pristine picture.

Internet sites are abuzz with allegations about failures of Toyota engines because of crankcase sludge, formed when oil becomes so contaminated and worn that it thickens to the consistency of jello.

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Although some crankcase contamination is normal in most engines, severe sludge will starve lubrication to bearings, sleeves, bushings and pistons.

Toyota representatives say the problem is owner neglect and abuse, though customers are insisting that they changed their oil regularly and that the Toyota engines either must have defects that cause the formation of the sludge or are simply less tolerant of sludge.

Toyota acknowledges that it has received reports of 3,000 engine failures and problems but says no defects in its products are responsible.

When Milwaukee investment broker Mike Reed bought his 1999 Lexus RX 300, it was his second Toyota product. But for the last three weeks, the Lexus has been at a dealership with a dead engine. Reed said he followed the instructions in his owner’s manual that advised oil changes every 7,500 miles.

The bad news for Reed was that his local Lexus dealer wanted $16,000 to replace the 3.0-liter V-6 engine--an engine similar to that in the Toyota Camry.

After some haggling, Toyota agreed to replace the RX 300 engine for $8,000, still a pricey proposition.

Despite reports of engine failures on such top-selling models as the Camry and the Sienna minivan, Toyota says there are no defects in design or workmanship.

“If you don’t change the oil in an engine, it doesn’t matter whose engine it is,” said Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. “If you run it 20,000 or 30,000 miles without an oil change, the likelihood of an engine failure is pretty strong. It is an issue of maintenance.”

But many owners say they are astounded by the company’s insistence that they have abused their vehicles.

Why, they wonder, would Toyota owners be more inclined to abuse their cars than owners of Hondas, BMWs or Buicks that don’t have known engine problems?

“Toyota is jerking around its customers big time,” said Robin Burpee, who lost the engine in her Sienna after 30,000 miles. Toyota disputed her warranty claim but eventually agreed to replace the engine just days before an arbitration hearing. Burpee says her husband performed the oil changes, as he has on prior Toyotas the couple owned.

Toyota’s reputation has taken some uncharacteristic knocks, including a negative rating by the Better Business Bureau of the Southland that covers Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“Based on our standards, we rate this company as having an unsatisfactory business performance record. Complaints contain a pattern of allegations concerning warranty and repair issues. Some customers complained they experienced repeated problems with certain components, found zone office representatives unwilling to help with repair costs, or were dissatisfied with extended warranty claims procedures,” the BBB report said.

Michels said the company is “very concerned” about the findings and is working to clear up a “communication channel” breakdown with BBB that left a number of consumer complaints unresolved.

Earlier this month, Toyota issued a new warranty on all its 1996 and newer vehicles equipped with the 3.0-liter V-6 and 2.2-liter inline-4 cylinder engines.

Under that new policy, Toyota will repair or replace engines damaged by sludge, if the owners can prove they changed the oil at least once a year.

It is mailing notifications of the goodwill policy to 3.3 million customers who have bought vehicles equipped with those engines. The letter also emphasizes the importance of oil changes.

Michels cites industry surveys that show car owners change their oil an average of every 9,000 miles, meaning that many stretch the change interval above that average. At some point, engine oil loses its ability to lubricate.

But many engines will tolerate dirty oil in a crankcase and can go far beyond 10,000 miles on an oil change without triggering a catastrophic engine failure.

Norm Hudecki, a retired Valvoline oil researcher and among the best-known lubrication experts in the nation, said sludge--also called gelation--begins to form about 12,000 to 15,000 miles after an oil change.

The top-rated oils contain many additives that prolong their life. Two of the most important types are detergents and dispersants. The detergents help wash crud and varnish off engine parts, and the dispersants keep the dirt suspended in the oil.

“Most oil will last probably between 12,000 and 15,000 miles, even if it is in a vehicle driven [in the city] by somebody like a cab driver or police. If you are out on the highway, most oils will last 15,000 miles with no problem,” Hudecki said.

Not long after the 15,000-mile mark, however, the oil is full of crud and the dispersants are saturated.

The oil becomes thicker and thicker, a particular problem in cold areas where water condensation builds up and causes additional contamination.

Of course, modern engines make unprecedented demands on oil. They produce more power in compact designs than ever before, putting stress on the oil, said Dick Clark, a lubrication specialist at the American Petroleum Institute.

Newer engines are like highly bred horses, sometimes neurotic and badly behaved.

They have overhead camshafts with cylinders served by four or even six valves. Blocks and heads are made of cast aluminum, rather than iron, and are more vulnerable to heat damage. Internal temperatures are sometimes intentionally set high to promote fuel efficiency.

Oil in any engine will eventually get dirty and wear out. But some engines have better piston rings, valve guides and gaskets that keep contamination out of the crankcase. Some have better crankcase ventilation systems to remove combustion gases that blow in the crankcase. And some engines simply handle sludge better than others.

“Are some engines more forgiving to dirty oil? Probably,” Clark said. “I can’t say that there is a hard and fast rule that this one is and this one isn’t. Every engine type has its strong points and weak points.”

Meanwhile, some Toyota owners worry that they will be the next victim of sludge. Charlene Blake, a Virginia schoolteacher, said engine oil analysis on her Toyota found fuel contamination at 32,000 miles.

Michels said Blake has placed thousands of Internet postings about the company, even though her Toyota engine is fine.

But she retorts: “I have been disillusioned with the quality.”

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.


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