Photo credit: Scion. Art by Jason Torchinsky

Jalopnik has received a bunch of tips about Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ engines failing after being taken in for a valve spring recall. Yes, you read that right: The cars aren’t breaking and being recalled as a result, they’re allegedly being fixed under recall and then, as a result, breaking. Here’s what’s going on according to The Drive, whose author actually experienced the issue.

Chris Tsui from The Drive has a nice explanation of what’s going on in the world of 2013 Subaru BRZs and 2013 Scion FR-Ss. Roughly 35,000 of those vehicles (~9,500 BRZs and ~25,300 FR-Ss)—along with some 2012 to 2014 Subaru Imprezas and 2013 Subaru XV Crosstreks—were recalled in November because they contain engine valve springs that, as documents on NHTSA’s website put, “may fracture causing an engine malfunction or a possible engine stall” as a result of an “improper design of the valve train.”

To compensate for the high stresses in this valvetrain, the springs were changed in May of 2013 to increase the “lower limit of the tolerance of the valve spring wire diameter,” one of the documents reads.

Image via Remedy Instructions (NHTSA)

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For the cars built without these new springs, Toyota and Subaru agreed to notify owners and have dealers replace all the valve springs for free; the recall began the day after Christmas, 2018, and—per the remedy instructions posted to NHTSA—the repairs were slated to take 12 hours per vehicle—clearly tearing the engine open and replacing valve springs is a hell of a job.

Photo credit: Michael Tsui

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Chris Tsui, author of the article on The Drive, took his 2013 FR-S, which he’d purchased in late 2016, to a dealer in February of this year after researching what the fix involved. He was concerned about the risks that might accompany such a repair, writing in the story:

In that time, I researched the procedure and was concerned enough about its complexity that I double checked with the dealership that the technician had done it before. “The technician that will be working on your vehicle has done the recall before and is factory trained by Toyota so I hope this does help ease your mind,” came the soothing response.

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But then, after dropping his car off and getting it back two days later, he drove around for two weeks, and disaster struck:

...picked [my car] up on February 8, and thought nothing of it for two weeks until it started to bog down during a spot of spirited driving one chilly morning. An ominous knocking rose up, and a few hundred yards later the poor thing died and refused to start. Exactly as the forums described—though most of those threads haven’t even been started yet. Like other owners, I was in the dark.

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Tsui told me over email that a root cause has yet to be determined, though the dealer claimed to have found a “scored crankcase and cylinder walls.” The photos of his connecting rod bearings look especially bad:

Photo: Chris Tsui ((The Drive)

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Tsui’s case doesn’t appear to be particularly rare, as he notes in his story that, per the thread “Failure After J02 Recall: Registry Thread” on the FT86 Club forum, 17 owners have reported engine issues—and even total engine failures in some cases—after having had the recall fix done. Fifteen of those cases, he states, involved Scions, while two involved Subarus. Since then, the thread’s claims have jumped to 24, with three being BRZs and the remainder FR-Ss.

Hop onto NHTSA’s 2013 Scion FR-S complaints database, and you’ll read stories like this one by an FR-S driver from Vermont:

412.8 miles after having J02 valve spring recall work performed, while driving, the vehicle began making a ticking noise. Within 2 minutes of driving, this escalated to loud metallic knocking. I pulled over immediately and had my vehicle towed to the dealership that performed the recall work. That was on February 18th, at 9 am in 2019. My vehicle has 53,610 miles. It is now march 8th, 2019. The dealership still has taken no action after determining that rod bearing #4 was spun.

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And this one by someone from California:

Received safety recall notice from Toyota, to bring my car to any Toyota dealership service center...

Dealership performs work. Vehicle dies while commuting to work about 1,000 miles after recall work performed. Vehicle towed back to Toyota of Santa Cruz. Juan and Mike relate to me that they will troubleshoot and, if they deem that the problem is from the recall work, they will fix the car for free.

Several days later, they said the engine has a spun bearing on the #4 rod.

Image via Remedy Instructions (NHTSA)

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What exactly is going on isn’t clear, though other images of failed engines do show scored bearings, like Tsui’s, indicating an oil starvation issue. One prevailing theory on what might be causing the problems involves two factors. First, some think that Toyota dealers don’t have the experience working on these Boxer motors, which is why FR-Ss appear to be failing at a higher rate than BRZs—more than the roughly 2.7-to-one ratio that one might expect based on the how many more FR-Ss were recalled compared to BRZs. This is a tough one to prove, since it’s hard to know how many of each vehicle have been repaired.

The second theory that some forum members have brought up is that perhaps this inexperience could have caused Toyota dealers to improperly apply RTV sealant to the engines during reassembly. The notice above in Subaru’s repair instructions is quite clear about the risks associated with liquid RTV. Loose pieces of cured sealant, the caption reads, could clog oil passages, “restricting oil flow and potentially causing damage.” Further down in that document, which you can read here, Subaru mentions sealant again:

VERY IMPORTANT: It is critical to make sure all the original sealer is removed and the affected sealing surfaces completely clean and dry before applying any new sealer. After cleaning, a thorough inspection of the inside surfaces of the cylinder head area around the valve springs, inside the front timing cover and inside all the cam caps for any small pieces / bits of removed sealant or any other contamination is essential to providing a quality repair. Any contamination left behind can cause the Check Engine light to illuminate and / or other issues to develop resulting in a comeback

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So perhaps this is just a matter of technicians using too much sealant, and it clogging oil passages? That seems like a fairly simple issue.

We’ve reached out to Toyota and Subaru asking what’s going on, here. We’ll update when we hear back; in the meantime, check out Tsui’s story on The Drive.