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Ford Will Repair Problem Engines as Owners Howl

March 08, 2000|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing a consumer backlash over its defective 3.8-liter V-6 engine, Ford Motor Co. has agreed to extend its warranty to 100,000 miles or seven years on some models to cover a rash of blown head gaskets across the nation.

The warranty extension is one of the biggest in the industry in years, covering 717,680 vehicles produced in 1994 and 1995, though it still excludes prior-year models that used the 3.8-liter engine.

Ford, the world's second-largest auto maker, said this week that it was taking the move "in the interest of customer satisfaction." The company did not have any estimate of the potential cost of the repairs. Independent experts and consumer advocates say that as many as half the Ford vehicles under the recall experience head-gasket failures by 100,000 miles.

If such estimates are correct, Ford could get stuck paying for more than 350,000 engine repairs that run as much as $4,000 apiece--meaning the repair program would cost Ford hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps approaching $1 billion.

Ford's extended warranty covers the 1994 and 1995 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, the 1994 Lincoln Continental and the 1995 Ford Windstar minivan.

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The problem, by now familiar to mechanics across the country, involves failure of the head gasket that provides a seal between the engine block and the cylinder head. The failure allows engine coolant to get into the combustion chamber, causing overheating, cracked heads and sometimes block damage.

Ford had already extended the warranty on the vehicles to 70,000 miles, but consumer advocates complained that program was insufficient, since Ford's own maintenance documents indicated that the gaskets should last 120,000 miles.

Ford's vehicle service and programs director, Ann O'Neill, said the additional warranty coverage was based on what she termed "new data" showing that owners were having failures outside the first warranty-extension program.

No doubt that new data involved a deluge of dissatisfaction on the part of owners, who have flooded the Internet with complaints and filed a class-action lawsuit in Chicago. After Highway 1 published two columns (Jan. 19 and Feb. 9) discussing the program, The Times was inundated with more than 100 letters, phone calls and e-mails from outraged Ford owners.

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Among those readers were many who own 3.8-liter V-6 Taurus, Sable and Ford Mustang and Thunderbird models built before 1994 and not covered by any extended warranty.

"I now have 76,000 miles and have had to spend $8,730.81 on repairs alone," wrote Pattee Chapman, who said she replaced her engine as well as her transmission, power steering pump and other items on her 1992 Sable. "I'm a retired senior and enough already."

Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said the earlier models were not included because engineering changes in the model-year 1994 vehicles accounted for a higher failure rate. Those changes involved the water pump, cooling system, air-conditioning refrigerant and head-bolt tightening specifications.

"We believe we have gotten to those vehicles with the highest failure rate, but we are still looking at the failures because customer satisfaction is our No. 1 priority," he said.

The company redesigned the engine in 1996 and began supplying an improved aftermarket gasket for repairs in 1998. Still, scores of owners say they have experienced multiple head gasket failures.

Under the extended warranty, Ford will repair or replace the engines. If the company is unable to supply enough engines, it will buy back the vehicles at wholesale value and provide customers with a $3,000 discount toward a new Ford product, Vaughn said.

Owners who have already had the repairs made can take their receipts to Ford dealerships and obtain reimbursement, Vaughn said. Consumers can contact the company's customer assistance center at (800) 392-3673.

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