Two Owners Battle With Chrysler Over Sludge

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Sunday, March 06, 2005 Christopher JensenPlain Dealer Columnist

Judy Elardo is from Brook Park and Karen Suchy is from Pittsburgh. They’ve been sludged, each has lost thousands of dollars and each is way beyond angry.

Their stories, which center on Chrysler’s 2.7-liter V-6, provide some lessons for consumers, lessons Elardo and Suchy learned at great expense.

Elardo bought her 1999 Dodge Intrepid in May 2002 with about 43,000 miles on it. Suchy bought her 2001 Dodge Stratus new.

Elardo’s 2.7-liter V-6 failed around 73,000 miles. Suchy’s died around 31,000 miles.

The suspect was sludge, which is basically a thickening of oil typically resulting from a contaminant build-up that breaks down the oil, causing it to gel. That may reduce the oil’s ability to flow through the engine, causing excessive wear or complete failure.

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, says its Web site at www.autosafety .org has gotten more than 400 complaints about failures of 2.7-liter V-6s from the 1998 to 2002 model years.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center, has described the engine as "a nightmare for consumers" and demanded that Chrysler offer an extended warranty and reimburse consumers whose engines failed.

Chrysler, which has denied that there is a design problem, said an incredibly small number of engines have had problems and suggested that poor maintenance is the cause. But the automaker has also said it is reviewing complaints on a case-by-case basis as the result of Ditlow’s request.

Elardo and Suchy each have records showing they had their oil changed about every 3,000 to 4,000 miles, but Chrysler denied their claims.

Elardo, a single mother with three children, was told it would cost about $4,200 to put a used engine in her vehicle.

Since she still owed about $5,000 on the vehicle, she faced a nasty problem: Was it worth almost $10,000 for a vehicle that would have another 2.7-liter V-6 that might fail again?

She decided it wasn’t, so she took $10,000 out of her retirement account, ate the withdrawal penalty and bought another used vehicle and donated the Intrepid to a charity. In the end, she said, the mess has cost her more than $15,000.

Elardo said that when she called Chrysler’s consumer help line for that case-by-case consideration she was told she wasn’t eligible because she failed to have the vehicle fixed.

"What is the difference? I am still out the money one way or another," she said in a telephone interview. "I am furious. It has put me in an awful lot of debt."

She also wrote Attorney General Jim Petro but got a letter back saying nothing could be done: Chrysler was denying the claim because the vehicle was outside the warranty.

Chrysler’s Sam Locricchio said that one problem with vehicles purchased used is that the automaker can’t be sure the vehicle was properly maintained. "A second owner gets the sins of the first," he wrote in an e-mail.

But what about Suchy, who bought her Status new and purchased an extended warranty from Chrysler? She also had proof that the oil changes had been done (although not at a dealership), but she said Chrysler would not help her.

In a complaint filed with Ditlow’s organization, Suchy said a Chrysler consumer representative told her that "the person changing my oil didn’t do it correctly," which caused the sludge problem.

Chrysler’s Locricchio declined to comment on either Elardo or Suchy’s cases, saying it would be inappropriate because the automaker was looking into their cases.

Ditlow said that Suchy, having purchased the vehicle new and done the oil changes, is "the poster child of Chrysler oil sludge abuse." That glory apparently is little consolation to her.

"They totally shut you down and talk to you like you are dirt," she said in a telephone interview. In the end, she paid about $2,700 to have a used engine put into her vehicle.

So, what are the lessons here?

Think long and hard about buying a used car with a 2.7-liter V-6 unless you are given detailed records showing that all the maintenance – including oil changes – was done.

Regardless of the kind of engine in your vehicle, follow the recommended maintenance in the owner’s manual and keep your records.

Be glad you are not Judy Elardo or Karen Suchy.