The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has expanded its consumer hotline as a way of replacing its popular "Car Book," which was canceled last year by NHTSA Administrator Raymond A. Peck. By calling the number, consumers can obtain free information on auto safety recalls and can register complaints, as in the past.

But the NHTSA will now also send out fuel economy ratings, crash test results, tire quality ratings, maintenance costs comparisons and publication lists--by return mail within 24 hours, the agency says. Crash test results no longer will be provided as a simple "pass" or "fail." Rather, consumers will be sent a three-page report with the exact numerical results and a fine-print description of what the numbers mean.

The number to call in this area is 426-0123 (or 800-424-9393 outside the metropolitan area). Twelve operators are supposed to be on duty between 7:45 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.

The new program was attacked by the Center for Auto Safety and Jack Gillis, a former NHTSA employe who resigned to continue publishing the "Car Book" on his own.

Gillis noted that more than 1.7 million copies of the government's "Car Book" have been distributed to the public and that if the NHTSA gets that many telephone calls it will need several dozen operators to handle them at a cost of more than $3 million in staff time, postage and other costs. The book, he said, could have been sold at a reasonable price that would have covered all costs to the government.