Ford Motor Co.'s 3.8-liter V-6 engine has been a modern-day workhorse, used in such popular vehicles as the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable mid-size sedans, the Ford Windstar minivan and the Lincoln Continental luxury car. But many mechanical experts and consumer advocates say it is troubled by a major defect.
Failure of the engine's head gasket is so common that many independent garages are doing a booming business replacing it. Good mechanics can diagnose the problem from their office chairs: billows of white smoke coming out of the tailpipe, and the engine misfiring and overheating. Sometimes, the cylinders fill with coolant and the engine refuses to turn over at all.
Repair costs can range anywhere from $800 to $4,000, depending on the amount of collateral damage that the head-gasket problem causes. In some cases, the heads crack or the entire engine block is destroyed by overheating.
In a letter Nov. 24 to Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., the Center for Auto Safety demanded that the company warrant the gaskets for 120,000 miles on all cars equipped with the 3.8-liter engine from model years 1988 to 1995. The group says it alone has received more than 115 complaints about head-gasket failures on the 3.8-liter, an engine used on hundreds of thousands of Ford vehicles.
"Ford continues to lead all auto makers in covering up defects and exposing consumers to safety risks and expensive repairs in order to limit financial exposure for remedying defects," the letter charged.
The six-page letter, written by the center's executive director, Clarence Ditlow, is filled with case histories of Ford owners, who on average experienced head-gasket failures at just 65,000 miles, while Ford's own maintenance schedules show that the part should last more than 120,000 miles.
Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for Ford Motor's Customer Service Division, says the company has not yet responded to Ditlow's letter but plans to do so in the future.
But in the meantime, Ford denies that the 3.8-liter V-6 is defective.
"We absolutely disagree with Mr. Ditlow that there is a head-gasket defect with the wide array of vehicles with this engine spanning many years," Vaughn said.
Nonetheless, Ford did issue a service bulletin, advising its dealership mechanics of a problem with head gaskets in the 1994-95 Taurus and Sable twins, the 1995 Windstar and the 1994 Continental with 3.8-liter engines. Under an extended warranty designated Program 98M01, Ford agreed to cover the head gaskets for up to five years or 60,000 miles on the Taurus, Sable and Windstar models and five years or 75,000 miles on the Continental. Ford's basic warranty on the Taurus, Sable and Windstar was three years or 36,0000 miles.
Ditlow calls the program "inadequate and discriminatory" because a wide range of vehicles outside those years are experiencing head-gasket failures. Many Internet sites also carry woeful accounts of Ford owners with blown head gaskets that are not covered by the company's limited extended warranty.
Vaughn says Ford limited the warranty extension to only those years because the company had "noticed a blip" in complaints involving those model years. Vaughn declines to call the "blip" a defect. The problem was related to an unspecified engineering change, he says.
Sam Memmolo, a nationally recognized automotive repair expert in Douglasville, Ga., says head-gasket failures in Ford 3.8-liter engines "are real common." Typically, the head gasket leaks and allows engine coolant to drop, raising the risk of engine overheating.
A head gasket is a thin, flat seal that is laid between an engine head and the cylinder block. It must withstand tremendous heat and pressure in holding in engine compression. It also provides a seal for coolant in the surrounding water jacket. A failure requires disassembly of the entire top end of the engine, a job that takes seven or eight hours of labor.
One factor that contributes to the head-gasket problem, Memmolo says, is Ford's basic design on all 3.8-liter engines, using a cast-iron block and an aluminum head. Aluminum heads are lightweight and cheap to make, but they expand and contract at a faster rate than the cast-iron block. That leads to a lot of movement, which causes wear and stress on the head gasket, Memmolo says.
Head gaskets have improved tremendously from the days when they were pieces of dense cardboard. Some of today's designs have steel or graphite cores and silicon beading to help with the sealing job.
But engines are running hotter than ever, resulting in fewer emissions. That stresses the gaskets. Poor vehicle maintenance can make matters worse. Because newer cars have less reserve cooling capacity than older models to cut weight, dirty coolant can block radiators and allow engine temperatures to creep up even more.
Most mechanics advise motorists to change out the gaskets on both heads if one blows because the extra cost is relatively modest. Owners with older Ford 3.8-liter engines should carefully monitor their coolant levels. Regular loss of coolant when no leak is apparent in the cooling system is one sign that a head gasket has begun to fail.
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, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.