Volkswagen Will Budge on Complaints About 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 20, 2005 Christopher JensenPlain Dealer Columnist

Borrego Springs, Calif. Volkswagen Passat owners who did not get help from Volkswagen with repairs to sludge-damaged engines should try again, says Len Hunt, the vice president in charge of Volkswagen in the United States.

Hunt said dealers have been told they can be more lenient about helping consumers who were not grossly negligent when it comes to oil changes.

"I think we were a little Teutonic in our rules," he said. "If people feel bad about what happened, let’s have a look at it. I am really keen to sweep them up and say, ‘We still love you.’ "

Last August Volkswagen said the turbocharged, 1.8-liter four-cylinder 1998-2004 Passats would have an eight-year warranty from the time the vehicle was new. There would be no limit on mileage, and secondhand owners would be covered.

Volkswagen said it was acting because some owners have complained about the engines being destroyed by sludge, a thickening of the oil caused by moisture and contaminants. The resulting gel may reduce the flow of oil and cause excess wear or damage.

But to be covered, Volkswagen said consumers would have to prove the oil had been changed every six months or 5,000 miles.

Some owners have complained to the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group in Washington, that Volkswagen treated them unfairly despite the extended warranty.

Sarah Bolek, of Maryland, filed a complaint on the center’s Web site ( in which she said Volkswagen rejected a claim in December because one of her oil changes was 26 miles and another was 290 miles beyond the recommended mileage.

Recently, dealers were told they can be less fussy, said Hunt, who was attending a March 9 media preview of the all-new 2005 Jetta, which goes on sale this month. A review of the new Jetta runs next Sunday in Driving.

"When you’ve got a reputation for not such stellar quality, you’ve to treat the customer properly. Sometimes your rules and regulations and the culture of the company can be a little bit harsh when it gets translated down to the customer level," he said.

"We’ve got to have some latitude in there," he said.

In a telephone inteview last week Volkswagen spokesman Tony Fouladpour explained that under the new guidelines consumers may either have skipped or not be able to provide proof of one oil change. They can also go 20 percent over the recommended mileage, which means 6,000 miles instead of the recommended 5,000 miles. Oil changes do not need to have been done at the dealership.

Consumers asking that their claims be reevaluated should first contact Volkswagen at 1-800-822-8987, Fouladpour said.

Volkswagen is not alone in having problems with sludge. Saab, Toyota and Audi (1997-2004 A4s with the 1.8-liter engine) have all extended warranties on millions of engines. Chrysler has been dealing with complaints on its 2.7-liter V-6s on a "case-by-case" basis but has refused to offer an extended warranty.

While automakers blame poor maintenance, Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, contends some engines have design flaws that make them vulnerable to sludge. Otherwise, he argues, all engines would be having the problem, not just a few.

Buddy, can you

spare a parking lot?

One of the least expensive and most fun things you can do with a car is an autocross. In an autocross, drivers try to negotiate, as quickly as possible, a twisty course marked by pylons. They race one vehicle at a time, against the clock, and even a stock vehicle can compete.

The competition takes place on large parking lots and provides terrific family fun, particularly for parents with teenage drivers or kids who love cars, especially cars with squealing tires.

Autocrosses are also a great way to polish driving skills. The turns are often so tight that speeds one would consider slow in everyday driving can be a real challenge.

The problem has become finding large parking lots to use on weekends, said Tim Obert, the competition director for Corvette Cleveland.

"It is nearly impossible for . . . landowners to fully understand what an autocross is. Because of this . . . thousands of enthusiasts do not have the opportunity to test and develop their skills in an autocross," he wrote me in a recent e-mail.

Obert said clubs can provide certificates of insurance citing a specific location and they are looking for a chance to talk with owners of large lots. If that’s you, send a note to Tim Obert at [email protected] or call 330-603-8801.