Lexus, aka Toyota, dances around poor engine design by talking about "oil gelling".

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 2002

Dear Tom and Ray:

My wife owns a 2001 Lexus RX300. Recently, we received a letter from Lexus on the subject of "engine oil gelling." The following is an exact quote from the letter: "Engine oil gelling occurs when old, dirty oil becomes thick and no longer adequately lubricates the engine. If not properly maintained, it can lead to severe engine damage. Oil gelling is solely a maintenance issue, and we are not aware of any situation in which a properly maintained vehicle has experienced mechanical problems associated with this condition." I have never heard of "engine oil gelling." I am wondering whether this is a smokescreen for Lexus dealers who have used a higher-viscosity oil than is recommended by the manufacturer? What is your opinion on "engine oil gelling"? -- Reinhold

RAY: What's our opinion on engine oil gelling? We're in favor of it! Hey, we've got boat payments to make, too.

TOM: This is not a smokescreen for Lexus dealers, Reinhold. It's a smokescreen for the Toyota Corporation (makers of Lexus), which seems to be having a problem with its most popular engines.

RAY: What it's tastefully calling "engine oil gelling," other people are calling "sludge." The facts are in dispute. As you state, Toyota says "Sludge Happens" -- and that it only happens to people who don't change their oil and who do a lot of stop-and-go driving.

TOM: But other independent engineers claim that there is a design problem that causes some Toyota engines (mostly 3.0-liter V6s) to sludge more frequently than other manufacturers' engines. And furthermore, it shouldn't happen on low-mileage engines. What happens is that the oil turns into a paste, and the engine dies due to lack of lubrication.

RAY: We haven't done any engineering analysis ourselves, so everything we say about this is simply our opinion (are you Toyota lawyers happy now??), but it certainly looks like -- whatever the cause -- Toyota handled it poorly by trying to blame it on its customers.

TOM: Well, the customers didn't like that, and they kept on complaining. Eventually, Toyota decided that the bad PR it was getting from all the noise about its sludgy engines wasn't worth what it would pay to fix the engines, so it changed its policy.

RAY: Now Toyota says that, even though it's STILL your fault, it'll fix any sludged engine for free for eight years if you attest that you've changed the oil on time.

TOM: Toyota has also announced that it's making a manufacturing change to the V6 engine at the factory to help prevent its customers from ruining future engines. Not that there was any problem with the engine. It's just fixing it anyway.

RAY: The vehicles covered are any Toyota or Lexus from model years 1997 to 2002 that use the 3.0-liter V6 engine, and any Toyota from 1997 to 2001 that uses the 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine.

TOM: It's worth keeping in mind that, at least so far, Toyota reports about 3,400 sludgy engines out of about 3.3 million sold. So these are still excellent cars, in our opinion, and we'll continue to recommend them.

RAY: Still, Toyota should have come out right away and said: "We're sorry. You bought a Toyota because you thought it would be worry-free. This is an unusual problem on a new car, and it shouldn't have happened. We'll fix it." It took Toyota too long to do that.

TOM: We don't expect car makers to be infallible. We just expect them to own up to their mistakes. Hey, how hard can that be? We have to do it every week!

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