Toyota Motor Sales (TMS) has announced a new so-called “customer satisfaction programme” that extends to 2002 models and eight years the coverage of a “Special Policy Adjustment” (SPA) announced in mid-February.

The February SPA, valid for only a year, covered "certain 1997-2001 model-year vehicles with four- and six- cylinder engines" affected by oil sludge (or “gelling” as Toyota calls it), provided owners could produce "reasonable evidence of regular engine maintenance".

Reasonable evidence, the magazine Automotive News said at the time, was proof of one oil change a year. The magazine also said that the affected vehicles were the Camry and Camry Solara, Avalon and Celica cars, Sienna minivans, the Highlander and Lexus RX300 SUVs and the Lexus ES300 sedan with the 1MZ V6 and the 5S-FE in-line four in vehicles built between July 1996 and July 2001.

The latest “customer satisfaction programme”, announced by TMS yesterday, covers 1997 to 2002 Toyota and Lexus vehicles equipped with 3.0 litre V6 or 2.2 litre four-cylinder engines, according to a company statement.

TMS said it was taking the latest “action” because a “very small number” of customers have reported engine damage from oil gelling, “a result of oil change intervals delayed beyond the factory-recommended schedule”.

“While any make of vehicle can suffer from this condition if the oil is not changed often enough, Toyota has initiated this programme to ensure owner peace of mind,” the statement added.

As with the SPA announced in February, the latest programme will cover repair costs and incidental expenses for which a customer has paid or could incur as a result of damage due to oil gelling but the period of cover has been extended from one to eight years from the date of first sale or lease without a mileage limitation.

In addition to the costs of repairs, reasonable incidental expenses, such as car rental, and other out-of-pocket expenses will be covered.

TMS is also planning a publicity campaign “to communicate to customers the importance of assuring proper maintenance schedules for any automobile”.

The company is also asking US customers whose engines have needed repair in the past to contact it on toll-free numbers for details on obtaining reimbursement.

In February Toyota said that oil gelling occurs mainly because engine oil is changed less frequently than recommended though frequent stop-and-go-driving cycles and driving in cold weather can also be factors.

Symptoms of oil gelling include blue tailpipe smoke and/or excessive oil consumption, which may cause a malfunction light to illuminate on the affected cars.

"We're not aware of any cases of oil gelling in properly maintained engines," TMS group vice president and general manager of customer services Bob Daly said at the time.

However, Automotive News cited several Toyota owners who had been denied expensive engine repairs under their powertrain warranties due to oil sludge, despite being able to produce to dealers receipts from independent lube shops.

The newspaper cited two independent experts as saying that the concentration of the sludge build-up problem in the two engines suggested a design flaw or quality problem.

But Toyota denied there was a problem with its engines and said that the change of heart was all about encouraging correct vehicle maintenance and calming owners' fears about oil sludge.

Toyota and Lexus owner's manuals stipulate oil changes every 7,500 miles or six months, whichever comes first under normal driving conditions, and 5,000 miles or four months under severe operating conditions. The 5,000-mile, or severe schedule, should be adhered to if a customer drives on unpaved or dusty roads, tows a trailer or makes repeated trips of less than five miles in cold temperatures.

Also in February, Toyota spokesman Mike Michels told the Los Angeles Times that 3,100 complaints about oil sludge problems had been received.

"We are talking about 0.01% of the owners," he told the newspaper from Toyota's Torrance headquarters. "If this were a pervasive problem, we would have known about it long ago. Quality surveys from J.D. Power and others would have reflected it."

Michels declined to speculate on the potential cost to Toyota but said many of the engine problems could be repaired by simply changing the oil several times to flush the sludge.

"A valve job might be the most expensive thing. An engine replacement would be very rare," Michels said in the LA Times interview.