Lisa Spilker has a shiny white 2001 Chrysler Concorde parked in her driveway, but it isn't going anywhere. The car's 2.7-liter engine was destroyed by oil sludge several months ago and now Spilker can't afford the $6,500 cost of a new engine.
Chrysler officials told the woman, who lives in Medical Lake, Wash., near Spokane, that the failure was caused by neglected maintenance, though she insists she changed the oil monthly and tried to take good care of the vehicle. The engine, which has 72,000 miles of use, seized up a few blocks from home.
"I'm still making payments and paying for insurance," she lamented recently.
Spilker's experience is hardly unique. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has logged more than 400 consumer complaints about oil sludge damage to the Chrysler 2.7-liter engine. The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, has a database of more than 500 consumer complaints about the engine, used in Concorde, Intrepid, Sebring and other models. Internet sites are rife with diatribes against the machine.
Sludge damage is popping up more and more frequently in many makes and models. Experts can't exactly identify the common thread in all these ruined engines, but modern, highly efficient, small engines seem increasingly susceptible to total failure from oil sludge.
In a letter to DaimlerChrysler chief Dieter Zetsche, the Center for Auto Safety called on the company to extend warranties on sludge damage for owners of cars equipped with the 2.7-liter engine. So far, the company is sticking to its original warranty, which expires after 36,000 miles for models before 2002.
But even engines damaged within the terms of the original warranty are not always covered by Chrysler. The company acknowledges that it has refused to make repairs to destroyed engines in some cases where consumers cannot document that they or previous owners did recommended oil changes.
"DaimlerChrysler's response to date has been to stonewall and deny that there is a problem on Chrysler vehicles," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. Ditlow says it is not the owners of the 2.7-liter engine who are responsible for the failures, but the engine design itself.
Chrysler spokesman Sam Locricchio denies that the 2.7-liter engine is defective.
"The majority of cases we have seen [have] been a failure to follow the oil change schedule that is appropriate to the driver," he says.
Exactly what is an appropriate oil change schedule is not entirely clear. The Chrysler Sebring owners manual, for example, recommends oil changes at 7,500 miles for its A schedule and 3,000 miles for its B schedule. The B schedule is supposed to apply to severe or extreme conditions, but a close reading of the criteria suggests that any motorist in an urban environment such as Southern California is in an extreme condition. The manual cites short trips, extensive idling and stop-and-go driving.
Chrysler now recommends its current models with the 2.7-liter engine go no farther than 6,000 miles between oil changes.
If Chrysler is right that owners of vehicles with 2.7-liter engines are abusing them and causing the problem, then why are there so many failures of that specific engine and not all of Chrysler's power plants? Locricchio says that the 2.7-liter engine is a small engine and is often used in vehicles that end up in corporate fleets or rental fleets.
But Ditlow says the engine is obviously defective and that arguments about fleet usage don't wash. The engine is such a well-known dud that several companies are now providing upgrades that put different engines into cars originally equipped with 2.7-liter engines or offer redesigned 2.7-liter engines that have improved oil circulation.
The standard 2.7-liter engine, made in Kenosha, Wis., has an aluminum block and aluminum cylinder head. Although not all aluminum engines are defective, many are proving to be less durable and less able to withstand tough conditions than cast-iron engines.
From the reports he has received, the Chrysler 2.7-liter engine is typically failing at about 60,000 miles, Ditlow says. "You wouldn't expect to see catastrophic engine failures under 100,000 miles," he said. "In some cases, these engines are failing at 40,000 miles, but Chrysler has denied warranty coverage."
In modern engines, oil is called upon to do more than ever before. It contains additives, such as detergents, to help wash crud and varnish off engine parts, and dispersants keep it suspended in the oil. But not long after 15,000 miles in most engines, the oil can become saturated with contaminants, oil experts say.
Whether sludge forms depends on the quality of the engine, whether the piston rings and valve guides keep contaminants sealed from the oil and whether the cooling system prevents oil from cooking at hot spots.
Of course, Chrysler isn't the first auto maker to have a sludge issue. Two years ago, Toyota was stung by hundreds of complaints about its four-cylinder engines. After initially balking, it extended warranty coverage for engine sludge damage on its affected vehicles.
Spilker is hoping Chrysler eventually relents and changes its warranty policy, as well. In the meantime, her family was forced to buy an inexpensive used Ford Escort, while the immobile Concorde decorates their home's driveway.
"I am really disappointed," said Spilker, a payroll clerk at a local school district. "Chrysler is not backing its product."
Ralph Vartabedian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.