Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Replace rings/valve seals or keep replacing oil?

Over a year ago, at about 58,000 miles on the odometer, my 2003 4-cyl. Toyota Highlander had burned through virtually all its oil 6,500 miles after the previous oil change. After a year of observation and 3,000-mile oil change intervals (during which it loses about 1.5 quarts), the dealer diagnosed the problem as a valve seal leak: He said I’d need to replace the engine rings, resurface the valves, and replace the valve seals – at a total cost of nearly $2,300 including tax. Here’s the question: What if I just keep replacing the oil every 3,000 miles instead of doing the repair? Would there be any more damage as a result, or would things stay pretty much the same? I’d much rather spend a little under $150 a year on oil changes for a few more years than blow $2,300 on it!

P.S.: For those aware of Toyota’s sludging problems, that was considered as a probable cause of the oil-buring problem. But the inspection revealed only very slight gelling, according to the dealer.

I’m not sure I follow…If the problem was diagnosed as a valve seal leak why do you have to put in piston rings?

I don’t like either option to be honest. I’d rather sell the car or trade it in and put the $2,300 towards a newer car with a warranty and no problems. Can you get a 2004 or 2005 certified pre-owned with a 100K warranty? Once an engine gets torn apart there’s no way to know how well the work was done. On the other hand burning lots of oil will present other problems beside just the need to add oil such as a clogged catalytic converter, coated O2 sensors, and unless you’re good at keeping up the oil level it will contribute to the oil sludging problem.

I don’t know why I’d have to replace the rings; I’m not knowledgeable enough to have even asked the question. I guess it’s a good question to go back to the dealer with, though. Unless there’s some damage to the rings and valves, do you think replacing the valve seals should be sufficient?

It would be just guessing for me to make any recommendations on what the engine needs without having worked on it. So, my answer to does it just need valve seals is: I dont know. What I do think would be a wise decision is to go to an independent Toyota specialist and let him know what the dealer said and see if he can confirm whether the problem is realistic, as well as the solution. If it truly needs to be done he’ll certainly be cheaper than the dealer. Consult the “Find a Mechanic” portion of this website. Good luck.

If I understand your OP, you are using a quart of oil every 3000 miles. I would add a quart every 2000 miles and change the oil on a regular schedule. I don’t see any reason to do engine work if the spark plugs aren’t fouling, and you don’t seem to indicate that this is a problem.

I once had a Ford Maverick that I purchased that used a quart of oil every 300 miles and I did have trouble with the spark plugs fouling. For about $35 in those days, I had new valve stem seals and the consumption dropped to a quart every 1000-1250 miles.

Even with $2300 worth of work, there really isn’t any guarantee that this would take care of the oil consumption problem.

you cant just replace rings (in this day and age ) due to the microfinish ,on the cyl bores,they will never seat.


Either just replace the valve seals (not by the dealer) or just keep driving the car; 1 quart in 2000 miles will not foul the spark plugs.

1 quart every 2000 miles is not abnormal oil usage and needs no repair. The suggested rebuild is totally unnecessary.

However, you need to learn to check your oil periodically. Having gone 6,500 miles without checking, and having subsequently let the engine run that low on oil, you’ve certainly shortened the life of the engine and probably increased the amount of oil that the engine burns. You are very lucky that you still have a functioning engine and not one with frozen mains or bearing knock.

You say you need to add 1.5 quarts of oil before you change the oil at 3000 miles. If its at least a quart low at the time in which you change the oil, then I suspect in reality you are really burning a quart closer to every 1000 miles. Still not terrible, but not good either.

I agree with all the replies that say “just add oil and don’t bother tearing the engine apart”.

However, if you do want to get the oil seals fixed, you may not need to pull the heads. Have an independent repair shop see if they can pressurize the cylinders with air (one at a time) to hold the valves up. I’ve even resorted to stuffing a cylinder with rope through the spark plug hole and then manually rotating the engine until the rope above the piston held the valves up.

Whatever you do, the amount of oil you’re burning is not significant.

Valve stem seals seem to have been a source of leakage on a few Toyotas I have encountered, including my own 6cyl.

If all that is gone are the stem seals, there there is no need to change the rings and all that other jazz. A compression check woudl immediately let you knw if you have a bore & ring problem, and I suspect you do not have a bore problem.
Easy check. Remove the oil cap or dipstick and see if it “blows” gas and oil out the hole. I do not mean splatter a few drops, but blows it out. No, then no blowby.

It’s a 4 cyl. Does it have a Timing Chain or belt?. and how many cams and valves, eg, single Cam, 8 valve.
twin cam, 12, 16 or 20 valve, etc.

If a single cam, 8 valve, AND a belt driven cam (I assume it is an OHC engine and ot a side cam) then it is possible not much of a challenge, and is possible with great care to remove the Cam, springs and exchange the seals WITHOUT dropping a valve.
You get a kit to hold compressed air in the cyl and keep the valves pushed out while changing the seals and you can change the belts at teh same time.
12, 16, etc heads are a lot of work, either on or off the car.
So it you can put up with the plume of smoke on startup… and it is giving no other problem, just keep adding oil.
Oh, you might try an elixer or two.
I reduced the oil consumption on my Camry by switching to full Synthetic oil. It did not eliminate it. However I am given to believe adding ATF to the oil will expand the rubber of the seals. If you had an older engine, say 200Kmls I might suggest that, but given the year and mileage, I’ll not on this occasion.

If a push came to a shove, I would prefer to pay $2300 towards a new OEM “short block” than have a garage rebuild an engine for me, frankly I cannot see how they coudl do it, given todays costs… unless they take shortcuts and put new rings on an old bore which is probably worse than you have now.

Thanks for the suggestion about the compression check. Should I let the engine run a while to warm up before I pull the dipstick, or should I do it right away? (Or should I pull the dipstick before starting the car, and have someone else either start the car or watch what happens at startup?)

You can do it at both;

First on a cold engine, Check the oil level is correct, not over nor under.

On any engine, Blow-by is at it’s worst when cold and at idle. So part 1, start the engine, then 30sec to 1min later check the blowby. If bad and given the oil is stiff and the pistons have not expanded, you should get lots of gas, not much oil.

Part 2, when hot, say after a trip on the highway or a 15~30 min on sity streets, back home and ideling on yor drive, Check again. (let he oil “settle” for 30~60 sec.), so take the shopping indoors while it continues to idle. Then check.

Most engines will send a few drops up the stick tube. It’s a Camry with a reasonably short tube… so should send up a few, if you get a painting (hot oil is very fluid) + lots of “steam”/“smoke” then you have a problem.

If you remove your oil filler cap, you may note a change in engine speed, normal.

If on the other hand, it is sending out plumes of “smoke” and no idle change, I’d be worried.

Compare to a known good car for reference if you wish.

First I would try one of those fancy “additives” that claim to stop oil burning (even if you don’t see it burning). They may be suggesting rings as the value seals may have let you run so low on oil none was being “spashed” into the cylinders as it normally would and thus scoring the walls and trashing your rings.
That is very odd you would have this problem with only 58,000 miles. Are you the first owner? Is there a chance the millage is wrong or someone previously ran it out of oil? Maybe get a CarFax?

Two tests you need the results from are:
A compression test. This will tell you how well the rings are and how well the engine pumps.

The second is a cylinder Leak Down test. This will further help understand where the problem is. If you do this when the engine is ice cold it can tell you if your valve seals are shot quickly. Testing/listening with a leak down tester is an art and most shops won’t spend the time to do this right. You need to find an engine artisan. The best guys I know to “read the tea leaves” of an engine are mechanics who moon-light as go-kart racers. O.K. maybe that is asking for a lot…

There are also shops that have fiber optic scopes. A quick peek into a couple of cylinders can tell you a lot. Dome on the piston would indicate valve stem leaks while scored walls are cylinder problems. All of this should be wrapped up for $200-300 which would be a worth while investment considering the low millage on that mill.

If anything drastic I would suggest a new cylinder head. Since this is a simple in-line 4 cylinder it should be too expensive and probably fix most of your problems versus rebuilding the whole engine. A rebuilt head for your truck is about $600 delivered plus labor to install (including a 3 year guarantee).
Good luck!

I have similar issue with my 2003 Camry 4 cyl 16 valves where it smokes when it?s cold and needs seals replacement. I have 57K miles and my warranty of 5 yrs just expired.
Do you think this is a defect and needs recall by Toyota? I think it?s too early for this type of work on any kind of vehicle especially Toyota regardless of maintenance.
Any advice?

If it were my car, I would leave it alone. Most of that work would be unnesessary and it would take you a LONG time to spend that much on oil.