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The black death of sludge

A costly problem

Last updated: February 2014

Engine Sludge
Some 4.7 million engines sold in the U.S. may be prone to developing sludge.
Photo: Rocky Carr

After prolonged exposure to high heat, engine oil can oxidize and break down, forming deposits known as sludge. This gelatinous goo can block vital oil passages, resulting in thousands of dollars in damage or even requiring an engine replacement.

While sludge often results from poor upkeep, notably not changing the oil at prescribed intervals, some engines appear more prone to sludge buildup than others. (See the chart below.)

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, has received over 3,000 complaints about sludge problems covering model years 1998 through 2005. A large majority concern the base 2.7-liter V6 used in the Dodge Intrepid before the 2003 model year. A relative handful came after that or concerned some engines used in the Audi A4 and VW Passat, Saab 9-3 and 9-5, and several Toyotas, again mostly before 2003. Engine failure due to sludge is a major problem for car owners, and automakers appear to have been slow to address it, generally linking it to poor maintenance rather than to a problem with the engine. Still, Chrysler has instituted an arbitration program that offers partial or full restitution to owners who can demonstrate that they changed the oil when they were supposed to.

In a related case, Toyota settled a class-action engine-sludge suit in 2007 that covered an estimated 2.5-million Toyota and Lexus vehicles made between 1997 and 2002. In that case, Toyota agreed to repair sludged engines for up to eight years from the time of purchase. While Toyota staunchly maintained that any such "oil-gel" problems are attributable to owners' abuse or poor maintenance habits it did set up a mechanism to reimburse complainants. The language of the settlement appears to include reimbursement to those people who may have already paid to have their sludge damage repaired.

 

Vehicles affected include:

Model year(s) Make/Model
1997-1999 Toyota Celica 4-cyl.
1997-2001 Toyota Camry 4-cyl.
1997-2002 Toyota Camry and Avalon V6
2001-2002 Toyota Highlander V6
1998-2002 Toyota Sienna V6
1999-2001 Toyota Solara 4-cyl.
1999-2002 Toyota Solara V6
1997-2002 Lexus ES300
1999-2002 Lexus RX300

 

People who bought their car secondhand or thirdhand, though, may never learn of the special service or arbitration programs. Used-car shoppers should also realize that even the most complained-about engines represented less than 1 percent of those made, so the odds of avoiding such a car are in your favor.

Sludge problems demonstrate the importance of sticking to the manufacturer’s oil-change intervals. Keep all receipts and make sure they include the date, mileage, and vehicle identification number. Consumers who own cars with sludge-prone engines should change the oil according to the “extreme use” schedule in the owner’s manual. Doing that and saving the records provides evidence that you did your best to protect the engine, should you ever have to make a claim against an automaker. Also consider using a synthetic motor oil that comes in containers bearing the medallion of the American Petroleum Institute on the label. Synthetics have a higher tolerance for extreme heat.

MODEL MODEL YEAR ENGINE COMPLAINTS
Audi A4 1998-2004 1.8L four-cylinder turbo 26
Chrysler Concorde 1998-2005 2.7L V6 473
Chrysler Sebring 1998-2005 2.7L V6 293
Dodge Intrepid 1998-2005 2.7L V6 1,902
Dodge Stratus 1998-2005 2.7L V6 127
Lexus ES300 1997-2005 3.0L V6 27
Lexus RX300 1999-2005 3.0L V6 32
Saab 9-3 2000-2004 2.0L four-cylinder turbo 33
Saab 9-5 1999-2004 2.3L four-cylinder turbo 20
Toyota Avalon 1997-2005 3.0L V6 24
Toyota Camry/ Solara 1997-2005 2.2L four-cylinder or 3.0L V6 157
Toyota Celica 1997-2005 2.2L four-cylinder 5
Toyota Highlander 2001-2005 3.0L V6 24
Toyota Sienna 1997-2005 3.0L V6 77
Volkswagen Passat 1998-2005 1.8L four-cylinder turbo 36

Source: Center for Auto Safety.


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