WASHINGTON -- Federal safety officials are considering a request that they investigate Toyota's engine sludge problem as a safety defect.
The request came in the form of a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It says engines that develop sludge are prone to seize up while in operation, creating a safety hazard.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. previously agreed to repair certain engines that experience what the company called oil gelling, if owners report the problem and show they have properly maintained their vehicles.
But if NHTSA determines the problem is a safety defect, Toyota would have to recall and repair all affected vehicles at company cost.
Toyota spokeswoman Holly Ferris said last week that a recall was not necessary.
She said the company is notifying 3.3 million vehicle owners that the repair program is available. In addition, she said a driver has plenty of warning before an engine stops; it starts smoking and instrument panel lights illuminate.
"We're confident that it is not a safety issue," she said.
The petition for a defect investigation was filed by Charlene Blake, a Virginia teacher with a reputation for adept use of the Internet to organize groups of disgruntled vehicle owners unhappy with manufacturers' responses to claims about faulty cars and trucks.
NHTSA said the petition asks for an investigation of 1996-2000 Siennas, Camrys, Camry Solaras, Avalons and Celicas for engines that seize as a result of sludge. The petition also says the vehicles' engine oil often is contaminated with dangerous amounts of gasoline.
The Toyota repair program covers 1997-2002 Toyota and Lexus vehicles with the 3.0-liter IMZ V-6 and 1997-2001 Toyotas with a now-discontinued 5SFE 2.2-liter four-cylinder.
NHTSA is required to answer such petitions within 120 days of filing.