Dear Tom and Ray:
Help! Our third Toyota (1997 Camry with 57K miles) blew a piston last week. The oil light never came on until the last few seconds of the engine's life. The car never leaked oil in its parking spot. We had the car's oil changed approximately every 5,000 miles. I'm afraid we might be getting the runaround from Toyota. The dealership said the diagnosis is "oil starvation." The sales rep claims there was no oil gelling, but he gave no evidence for that determination. He said the most likely scenario is that "one of those quick-oil-change mechanics drained the oil, ran the engine, then added oil to cover up the damage." The service rep indicated that the damage did not necessarily happen at the last oil change, several months ago. Would it take several months for the purported "quick oil change" fiasco to crater the engine? Does this scenario make sense, mechanically? The best Toyota will offer us is blue book value (undamaged) toward the purchase of a new Toyota. My 17-year-old daughter and I are sharing a car until we get this resolved, so any advice you can give us would be much appreciated. (Buying a new car was not in our plans.) -- Suzanne
TOM: Gee, that's an unfortunate story, Suzanne. It kind of puts you between a rock and a car dealer.
RAY: It's not very nice of the Toyota dealer to shirk responsibility here and make up some story about a "quickie lube" fiasco. I mean, he could speculate that aliens in spaceships kidnapped your engine and drained the oil while you slept, but that doesn't make it likely, does it?
TOM: The problem for you is that it's going to be very difficult for anybody to prove what actually happened to your engine, and the dealer is taking advantage of that fact. But given that A) you've changed the oil every 5,000 miles, B) Toyota has had a publicized problem with oil gelling in this engine in recent years, and C) the dealer has presented no evidence of any other cause, I think Toyota should replace the engine for you.
RAY: But taking the dealer to court is going to take a lot of time and money. So here's what I'd do: I'd start by asking to speak to the Toyota zone representative. Tell him this is your third Toyota. Tell him you keep buying Toyotas because they're so reliable. Tell him you've taken good care of it and have done all of the required oil changes. And tell him that, despite all that, your engine is chopped liver after only 57,000 miles.
TOM: If I were Toyota, I would cover your engine under warranty, with the following justifications: A) This shouldn't happen to a Toyota with 57,000 miles, B) the "quick-oil-change guy must have covered it up" sounds like a stretch, and C) doing so would only reinforce your lifelong loyalty to Toyota. And maybe that of your friends and entire extended family.
RAY: However ... the zone rep might tell you to go jump in a lake. And in all honesty, unless you're willing to have the engine examined by an independent mechanic, who would then testify to evidence of oil gelling, and then go to court, there's not really anything you can do.
TOM: So in that case, I'd take the dealer's offer. An LE V-6 is worth about $7,000 in a dealer trade. And maybe he'll be willing to sell you a used Camry instead of a brand-new one. That would be less of a financial hit.
RAY: It's an unfortunate situation, Suzanne. I wish we had better news for you. But maybe Toyota will do the right thing. Good luck.