2003 Toyota Camry Blown engine. What happened?

  • 4 CYL
  • FWD
  • 84,900 MILES
I have faithfully serviced my car at my local Toyota dealership. It started making an engine noise intermittently at stops with the drive engaged. The rear end would shudder. I took it in for service and inspection and asked them to look into the problem and change my oil. When I picked up my car, I was assured that it was a problem encountered with toyotas as they age and that the A/C compressor would cause the annoyance and that it was perfectly normal. All fluid levels had been checked according to my service slip. Everything great. I drove the car approximately 900 miles. Then on my way to work one morning the service light came on. I looked at all my gauges. All normal. My car was in cruise control and all of a sudden it revved up into the red on the RPM. I turned the cruise button off. And began hearing a clicking noise. As I tried to make my way off the freeway it gradually decelerated until it stopped completely. I had it towed to the same dealership for diagnosis. Their conclusion was that the head gasket must have been a faulty part or got worn out. And just blew. (Huh?) I had them run the code and it was P0117 engine coolant temp low circuit input. I was assured that there were no leaks anywhere. They said $5-6K to fix it. I had the car towed somewhere else for repair. The wrecker driver stated that there was oil leaking from my car onto the wrecker (maybe it was coolant? I don't know). There was no coolant left in the engine. They said it all burned up in there because it overheated. The water pump was not defective they said. The cylinders are scarred, the head is warped. Our new mechanic said it looked to him like oil starvation by evidence of how hot the car got. But there was pretty clean oil in the reservoir and a lot of it (overfull) when I went up there the next day after they "diagnosed it" to take pictures and ask questions. The oil filter smells burnt. But so does the rest of the engine. Something just doesn't seem right though. The service advisor seemed very nervous and defensive. And was quick to just give me my keys when I showed up with the tow truck driver. No questions asked. What could they be possibly trying to cover up. Or are they?
Do you
have the same problem?
Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 AT 8:13 PM

1 Reply

Hi amdixon. Welcome to the forum. My first reaction is they are afraid of getting involved with a serious problem with a car whose owner doesn't understand cars. Just like I don't understand accounting or cooking, I have to rely on the word of experts. Most owners don't understand what goes on inside an engine and that can make it hard to know who to believe and who to trust.

A head gasket definitely can be good one minute and start to leak the next. What's worse, the sensor for the temperature gauge only responds to hot liquid, not real well to hot air. That can allow the engine to overheat without you knowing it if the coolant is being burned in the engine. An overheated engine often causes the cylinder head to warp and leak, and a leaking head gasket can cause overheating. It's almost impossible to say which one occurred first.

$5000.00 to 6000.00 is too much for this repair. Half that amount would be about right to remove and rebuild the engine. They might be figuring in a new cylinder head and related parts. The old one will need machine work, will have to be inspected for cracks, and will have to be straightened. Cracks are real hard to see in aluminum heads so a special dye is used along with a black light. Unlike older domestic engines, the head can not simply be machined flat because the overhead camshaft would end up riding on surfaces that are not in perfect alignment. That will cause the camshaft to break. Straightening the head in an oven restores the alignment but is costly. For those reasons, many engine rebuilders just replace the entire head to be safe.

For even less money, you might be able to find a good used engine from a salvage yard. The good news is Toyota has very little trouble with sudden engine failure so your chances of getting a bad one from a salvage yard are very small. They generally provide a warranty with major items like engines and transmissions.

Keep in mind my experience is not with Toyotas specifically, and the last engine rebuild I was involved with at a dealership was over ten years ago. Engines are very complex now so the typical rebuild might cost a lot more than the $2000.00 I am familiar with. Still, I'm sure you can find a solution for less than $6000.00. You might consider finding a local engine rebuilding shop, and asking them for references for other repair shops that have a good reputation for quality work and treating customers fairly. They will know which repair shops insist on quality parts and which shops to avoid. (Most repair shops only remove and reinstall the engine and get it running properly. They take it to the machine shop to be rebuilt, and pick it up when it's done. Each shop sticks to what they specialize in).

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Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 AT 9:46 PM

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