By on July 28, 2014

20140618_104104

TTAC Commentator Weltron writes:

Hi Sajeev!

The car I am writing about today is my winter beater, which is a 1999 Ford Escort SE sedan which says it has a tick over 155,000 miles. (Pictured above) The problem I’m having with it is it it getting dreadful gas mileage. My average tank is about 19 miles to the gallon (in comparison that is what my twin turbo straight six Volvo gets around town). Over the winter I replaced both of the o2 sensors and got a marginal improvement (about .4 mpg).

And here’s the kicker: the dumb thing runs perfectly. No error codes or anything. Idles smooth and everything (well as far as Escort refinement goes). When I go on the highway (which is fairly often) I can see upward of 21… If I’m lucky.

Help please! I’m debating on whether to sell it or not due to this gas mileage problem for something bigger (thinking an Oldsmobile Eighty Eight/LSS or if I’m feeling lucky … an Aurora if I do end up replacing the Escort.) Thank you in advance for your help.

P.S. Here’s a list of what has been replaced/cleaned since the fall.

Mass air flow sensor cleaned
New air filter
New spark plugs/ plug wires
New o2 sensors (both upstream and downstream)
New muffler
New tires

Sajeev answers:

It’s funny how well-maintained vehicles occasionally have an obvious problem that’s impossible to diagnose.  But going to the beautiful, enjoyable yet expensive and complicated Northstar powered Oldsmobile is the wrong move!

You’ve done the basics, kudos to you.  That makes our job easier. Considering your Volvo drives in the same manner (presumably) there’s certainly a minor problem outside of driver error. And I wouldn’t be so adamant if it didn’t happen to me:

Try changing the fuel filter first, then get new/reconditioned fuel injectors.

That’s it.  I know you’ve slooooowly been losing power and efficiency.  Perhaps you notice a mysterious fuel smell?  The injectors are no longer turning on/shutting off correctly. And when you get ‘em installed, ZOMG SON, note the instant acceleration improvement and the later MPG lift.

So go ahead and keep it, even if the cylinder head might be a problem in the future.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

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86 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Rather Thirsty Escort?...”


  • avatar
    Mr Imperial

    My random thoughts:

    1. Have you checked all of the brakes? Are any of them dragging? If you’ve got a rotor or a drum scalding hot to the touch, that could be affecting MPGs.

    2. Have any friends with a OBDII code scanner (or have one yourself)? Hook it up and see if there’s an issue that the MIL won’t indicate. There are lots of codes that won’t trigger the light.

    3. How do you describe your driving habits?

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Check the exhaust system, particularly the catalytic converter, for a blockage.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      A clogged catalytic converter would produce drivability issues. They’ll usually run OK at very light throttle but fall flat on their face ad mid/high throttle openings.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      I agree that the catalytic converter is a likely suspect; if it is original there is a good chance it is getting plugged up.

      Before doing anything, including taking out the injectors, I’d try putting a can of Seafoam in a full tank of gas and running that tank of gas to nearly empty. I used it in my boat every spring and was always surprised how it well it cleaned out the fuel system; it was basically a tune up in a can. People have been using it for decades (there are even before and after YouTube videos) and it really does work; for less than $10 and almost no effort it is worth trying.

      Good luck.

      • 0 avatar
        MBella

        I don’t agree with the cat. If it was plugged, he would feel it in the performance. The brakes would be my first place to look. Also the wheel bearings would be a good place to look after that. Where all those things listed as replaced, replaced after you started having fuel economy issues or maybe one of the replacement parts are the cause.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Wow, with mileage like that out of that 2L, I’d be looking for a fuel leak. All the Escorts of this vintage I’ve known could score in the 30s.

    It’s possible you have leaky injectors, but I’d expect a misfire or at least an O2 stuck rich DTC.

    Check the coolant temperature sensor reading with a scanner, if it’s stuck reading cold or cooler than it should be, your fuel maps will be richer than necessary.

    I wouldn’t expect an intake or exhaust blockage to cause this issue, if anything, that would increase fuel economy. Dragging brakes, low tire pressure and whatnot or a possibility, but once those thigns have been ruled out, keep looking at the engine management for anomalies. You might need to get someone involved who has a trained eye for this stuff.

  • avatar
    TR4

    Fuel leak, thermostat operation, compression, ignition timing, valve timing, cam lobe condition, transmission shifting at correct speeds…

  • avatar
    Kaosaur

    My RX-7 has been running really rich and I’ve been getting 10mpg and I’m pretty sure it’s the injectors in my case too. I’ve been putting off getting the new injectors in because after getting to them I might as well do an engine rebuild, replace the exhaust and do any transmission work that’s needed. That’s a scary amount of labor that I don’t really want to think about.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed, but that’s the right move.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I concur, I’d suspect it of running rich. I read in my Volvo’s Haynes manual that the computer in it (the 240) will prefer to run rich instead of lean in the event of a problem. In the case of my car, its primitive OBD system doesn’t throw any codes and it otherwise runs fine, but I get 14mpg consistently. I would start with a new fuel filter, Lucas fuel injector cleaner in the gas tank, and then clean the fuel injectors themselves (look into a Seafoam solution in-car maybe?). This guy claimed a 3 mpg hwy improvement after cleaning his:

      youtube.com/watch?v=F8x_qA7rK5I

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        I thought that was the general setting in cars – when there’s a problem default to rich. Do more modern cars have a lean setting?

        • 0 avatar
          Kaosaur

          Well, I’m also having hot start issues despite having a good compression test. I know my gutted cat and rusted out exhaust is part of the problem with fuel economy as well, but my mechanic and I have both been suspecting injector issues for a long time.

          I have all the parts I need except the Racing Beat exhaust. I just need time/money for the labor.

          This car is my DD, so I’ll need to pick up some beater to get me to work before I even consider it.

          • 0 avatar
            FormerFF

            Another option is to pick up an RX-8 in better condition. Their current resale value is low enough to make that an attractive option.

            Not all that many of us have the time, shop space, and tools to do much in the way of heavy mechanical work.

          • 0 avatar
            Kaosaur

            FormerFF: RX8s are nice and all but an entirely different ride. I honestly can’t imagine giving up my 10th Anniversary RX-7 for anything short of it being a heaping wreck or it totally breaking my bank account and forcing me to pass it on to someone better financially able.

          • 0 avatar
            FormerFF

            If you totally love it, I understand, just be aware that restoring an old car is a lot of time and/or money, especially if you are paying retail labor rates.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          I don’t honestly know, you would think so but you would also think it would throw a OBDII code if this was the case. The 240 is on the cutting edge of 80s technology so I could see it not throwing codes if there was a problem but simply adjusting itself in order to protect the drive-train.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      If it’s running rich, that should be obvious by looking at a spark plug. He’s already swapped the plugs, one hopes the old ones were inspected and didn’t indicate a fuel issue.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    If a catalyst equipped car’s mixture is off, generally you’ll get that rotten egg smell from the exhaust.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    My guess is that it isn’t air- or spark-related, but is tied to either fuel or else something that isn’t in the motor.

    I’d start with the fuel filter and fuel lines (which may not throw a code if they aren’t working properly). If that doesn’t help, then perhaps the brakes or possibly the transmission (if it’s an automatic) are worth a look.

    • 0 avatar
      zamoti

      I keep seeing fuel filter replacement as a recommended fix, but fuel filters accumulate crud as they age. This crud slowly constricts the amount of fuel that is able to pass, so I’m not sure how a bad fuel filter would permit more fuel through if it were indeed the problem. Seems like a plugged fuel filter would result in a fuel starvation issue, not poor mileage.
      I believe that the injectors could be part of the problem, but they’re about $60 each at rockauto. Is the $240 worth spending on a winter beater?

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        “I believe that the injectors could be part of the problem, but they’re about $60 each at rockauto. Is the $240 worth spending on a winter beater?”

        I would want some definite confirmation before spending that cash, but it seems that the OP doesn’t really have must issue diagnosing by parts swapping, so load up that parts cannon! If I had absolutely no other diagnostic tools at my disposal, I’d at least hit the local pick-a-part and grab a rail with injectors. You can grab an extra injector pig tail and test each injector individually for peace of mind if need be.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Clogged fuel filter –> reduced fuel pressure –> fuel injector issues –> needs more fuel to operate

        It’s possible to have some performance loss without it throwing a code or being completely obvious.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          No clogged fuel filter will not cause it to need more fuel to operate. The computer will use the O2 sensor to keep the mixture right and once it reaches a point where it needs to add too much fuel to do so it will turn on the CEL.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        You are correct a partially plugged fuel filter will not cause bad mpg. It will cause the engine to hit a wall when it needs more fuel than the filter can flow.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    Are you sure that is correct? I mean do you have some crazy sized tires throwing your odometer off or something? Only other thing I can think of that hasn’t been mentioned is does it have a thermostat stuck open (or removed)? If it isn’t getting warm enough perhaps it isn’t kicking off the o2 sensor and is staying in open loop mode which is rich.

    • 0 avatar
      ex-x-fire

      My experience on cars that run too cool (150-170*) is that they do use more gas. A hot running engine can run very lean under light loads, like cruising.

  • avatar
    greaseyknight

    Hook up a scanner that shows the long term and short term fuel trim and see if the computer is compensating for anything. At idle, both should be in the neighborhood of zero. The short term will flucuate a little bit up and down, but the long term should be steady at a low number.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I had a Bobcat that typically got 14 mpg around town. I gave up after rebuilding the engine and transmission (each for other reasons), and replacing all the peripherals. The brakes and tires were fine. It was simply a bad dog.

    I’ve never had a worse car for gas mileage, including a V8, and numerous 6s and 4s.

    You’re driving a 15-year-old car, which you describe as a “winter beater”. If you only drive it in the winter, maybe it’s just too cold outside and you’re getting normal fuel economy for the conditions?

  • avatar
    Weltron

    (Former) Owner of the car here

    So I wrote this about a month or so ago, and here’s an update:

    I ended up trading the car away to my dad, and I took his Saturn SW. Even though the Escort was a a winter beater, it still got driven year round. Hes been driving it for about 3 weeks now and has been saying that hes been getting 32 with it with a couple cans of Seafoam through the system. So whoever said something about injectors may have been on to something…

    And to address mkirk, that is the actual car in the picture. No outrageous wheels to be seen here! (unless you consider 14 inch steelies with hubcaps outrageous ;)

    And to Sajeev, yeah I know about the Aurora’s story. Still would like one though (I have an old S80 and I want a Aurora. Am I a glutton for punishment or what?)

    • 0 avatar

      Definitely a glutton for punishment.

      You know, I considered mentioning SeaFoam…kinda kicking myself for that now.

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        I’m curious as to what people think Seafoam does for a car. I’m extremely skeptical it does anything other than to improve Seafoam’s bottom line,

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          It makes a TON of smoke and almost shakes engines off their mounts when GTI owners use it to try and remove carbon build up on the intake valves. So, if you want to do that….

        • 0 avatar
          Toad

          Most additives (fuel, oil, etc) ARE snake oil…but SeaFoam works. I think it is basically a detergent that cleans out residue and varnish allowing things like carburetor floats and internal injector parts to move better.

          SeaFoam is the only additive I buy; it is great for gas engines that sit for awhile because it cleans the fuel system, keeps new crud from building up, and removes accumulated moisture from stored fuel. It is good to add to the fuel of something your are going to store/not use for awhile (lawn mover, boat, generator, seasonal car, etc) or to clean out a fuel system that has accumulated various residues.

          Not bad for a product that you can get on sale at 3 cans for $20.

          BTW, Weltron: your recent fleet includes an Escort, a Saturn, and you desire an Aurora? You are definitely a masochist.

        • 0 avatar
          mikeg216

          It cleans out your engine like a ghost chili cleans out your intestine, carbon varnish you name it, I had a 98 explorer with 213k on it when I sea foamed it, never seen that much smoke it my life.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Thanks for the update. That 32mpg is right in the ballpark from my experience.

      You’re not alone on the sadistic love of the Aurora. In spite of my experience with them, I still kinda want one with throaty mufflers on it. Has to be a first gen one, not that botched 2nd gen version which mostly have the V6 shortstar.

      They’re so dirt cheap now, it’s almost worth the investment just to drive the wheels off one for a while.

      • 0 avatar
        bball40dtw

        I flipped a 2002 Aurora 3.5L last year. I had a customer pass away that owned one that had 13000 (Not 130000). His family was going to trade it in to a dealership, but I told them I’d beat any dealerships offer. I bought it, fixed some very minor isses, drove it for a summer, and then sold it within one day of putting it on Craigslist.

      • 0 avatar
        Weltron

        See I completely agree on the Aurora. There ridiculously cheap where I am at and it’s very tempting. And strangely enough I like those Second gens. I think they look really good.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      @Weltron

      I think you need a Jag V12 to complete your trio of masochism.

      • 0 avatar
        Weltron

        Goodness no. I’m not that crazy. Though I have thought about a XJ6…

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          This is the one I would realistically recommend.

          en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_XJ_(X300)

          Late X308 as well but don’t go near them until MY01.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            You stop it!

            I love that blue one at the top of that article. It’s the right shade of blue with the right wheels. Just needs an all-around matching tint.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I need about $17,000 more dollars to keep feeding my car habit. So financially speaking, is that better or worse than a cocaine habit?

            Btw, I drove an X308 in 2000 which looked nearly identical, the only difference was the shade was a tint of green instead of blue (and it was an X380 and not an X300 although those are built on the same chassis).

    • 0 avatar

      I wonder if the aura of the Aurora will replace Panther Love…

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      I’d say it was a combination of the nut behind the wheel and the temps it was driven it. If the injectors were that dirty that they would cause that big of a difference in the mpg there would have been driveability issues.

  • avatar
    Truckducken

    I’m so disappointed. Based on the headline, I was expecting this article to cover Jack’s weekend adventures.

  • avatar
    PonchoIndian

    Transmission? I haven’t seen this said yet (I think)

    Is it an automatic or manual?

    Are you sure that it’s shifting in to overdrive and the torque converter is locking up? If you aren’t seeing overdrive and not seeing a locked up torque converter that might be you’re problem.

  • avatar
    matador

    There’s a lot of stuff on Escort problems here, so I’ll focus on the one thing that there seem to be no comments on: The option of replacement.

    Whether to do it or not is of course, up to you. But, I can tell you about the Oldsmobile 88, though. I have a 1995 LeSabre (Same car, with the Series 1 3800). I paid $700 for it three years ago from a junkyard/fix it up guy. It’s the best car I’ve ever owned. It gets about 28MPG on the highway with the A/C on, and it’s more comfortable than my couch.

    I’ve been tempted to look into an Aurora, but for sheer reliability, the H body cars are some of the best.

    I prefer the Buick, though, because Oldsmobile’s don’t have Dynaride. ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      Weltron

      If I ever get an Eighty Eight, it would have to be an LSS. And your points you list about the 3800 are all true. I think myself the Eighty Eights are the best looking of those H bodies. I listed the Aurora because I really do love the things, but rationally I’d have to go with the Eighty Eight.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        Agree on LSS, nice styling.

        Agree on second gen Aurora*.

        *Pearl white only. And they seem to always have electrical issues.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          I like how everyone still wants an Oldsmobile.

          • 0 avatar
            matador

            Actually, I just said that I’d prefer the Buick.

            I would drive an 88 in a heartbeat, though.

          • 0 avatar
            sgeffe

            On other threads on TTAC, I along with others have suggested that GM just have “GM” dealers, with different “brands” with different models (with little or no platform-engineering and overlap). Take the Impala, put old Olds-esque cues onto it, and call it a real Cutlass!

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          Note of caution on the LSS as my father had one back in the day….the brakes sucked!!! Otherwise a great handling large car.

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    Check the ECM for engine codes.
    Get a tailpipe smog test to determine fuel burn efficiency.
    Unnecessary to change out downstream O2 sensor as its function is to check the upstream O2 sensor and burn efficiency. Unless a CEL downstream O2 sensor.

  • avatar
    Beerboy12

    I would have suspected a fuel leak in the return lines.
    Cold weather plus a short commute would definitely return bad MPG to. A faulty thermostat that does not block water from the motor in the warm up faze could add to the problem to. Basically the engine block and oil never get to running temp. so the car is running on it’s electronic little “choke” all the time.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    I had 2000 Scort for a beater and had the thermostat replaced, and that helped mileage. But I also agree with fuel filter and injectors.

    It’s 15 years old, so age wears a motor out also.


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