By on March 19, 2009

Confused1096 writes:

I have a 2001 Ford Windstar LX that is slowly driving me (and two mechanics) crazy. I have an intermittent issue with hard starting and rough idle on initial start up. The problem will clear up after the van has been running about 4 or 5 minutes. There are no codes in the computer’s memory. I’ve been chasing this for a month now with no luck.

The van has 76,000 miles; it is equipped with the 3.8L V6 and a 4-speed automatic. Other than this issue it has ran great since I bought it three years ago. The battery is new, recent tune up, fuel filter, IAC valve, PCV valve, and coolant sensor. This thing has been babied since purchase (I’m a regular here, after all). Any suggestions would be appreciated.

It knows I’m car shopping. Could it simply be jealous?

Sajeev responds:

I have three guesses.

Guess one: the Windstar is totally pissed at you. Ford products can do that, especially if you use them to run around town reviewing cars for TTAC. Believe that.

My second, more intelligent, guess: cracked vacuum lines on the EGR system, intake manifold and air box duct work. Often the pre-bent hoses crack and leak, checking them is easy/free. Replacing them isn’t much worse: you might replace the pre-bent parts with plastic “T” fittings and universal vacuum line. Both are dirt cheap at the local parts store if you get a person behind the counter who knows their inventory. There should be a box of Gates-branded fittings for this need at any parts place.

Third, most likely, guess: the EGR system isn’t operating properly. This could be a bad valve, a coked-up intake manifold (around the EGR port or the individual intake runners) or maybe a problem with the vacuum lines. With (somewhat) low miles and a low revving engine in this case, my money is on the coke deposits.

I’d take a look at the intake with the EGR connection removed, or better yet, SeaFoam the living daylights out of that van. You should Google “SeaFoam smokescreen” if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Keep your foot to the floor and grab a gas mask.

Mike writes:

My ’02 Ford Explorer stumbles a bit and stalls sometimes at intersections. The local repair shop finds no codes pending or real, and can’t make a guess why.

Sajeev replies:

Hey Mike, I can guess why: your Explorer’s been talking to someone’s Windstar.

Seriously, do a tune-up if it’s getting close to that time: replace the plugs, fuel filter, PCV, etc. as stated in the owner’s manual. Also check out the vacuum line information presented above. Consider Seafoam (cheap) or some sort of intake de-coking too. If it still stalls, the IAC valve (somewhat expensive) is suspect: it can crap out and not throw a code.

And if that fails, there is some EGR problem (mentioned above) that de-coking didn’t resolve.

[Send your technical car conundrums to [email protected]]

[As someone who has SeaFoamed his engine, my advice is do it in a sparsely-populated area away from traffic as the profuse white smoke creates a drving hazard.—Jeff P.]
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33 Comments on “Piston Slap: Coked Up and Stumbling in Dearborn...”


  • avatar
    KatiePuckrik

    Although this is slightly off topic, this is why I only use Shell V-power or BP Ultimate in my car.

    It cleans the fuel system and prevents carbonaceous deposits building up on the inlet valves.

    Could it be using a cheap petrol cause these coke deposits? And that using a premium fuel with cleaning properties could fix it?

  • avatar
    philbailey

    EGR or PCV problems will immediately show up as fault codes in the ECM, so this is NOT the answer.
    Equally, vacuum leaks will upset the oxygen sensors and place a fault code. Don’t forget that this is an intermittent problem, not a permanent one, which indicates some sort of malfunction in the electronic controls. This type of symptom can drive technicians crazy. Especially if you keep the car for a week and the symptoms never appear.
    The bad gasoline guess is just that and has never been proven as a factor in the real world..

  • avatar
    confused1096

    The owner of the possessed Windstar here.
    1. I’ve replaced the vacuum lines. No luck.

    2. I forgot to add that this only comes up if the van has been sitting a few hours, then started.

    3. Amusingly enough I picked up a can of Seafoam last night and it will get put in today.

  • avatar
    SpeedJebus

    If it’s only intermittent, will the problem be enough to actually trigger a CEL? Doesn’t it have to happen X number of consecutive times? Am I off my rocker?

  • avatar
    friedclams

    Let me chime in: I have a low mileage Mazda Protege that had the same problem. No fault codes came up on the scanner. A visit to a Mazda forum suggested a removal and cleaning of the EGR valve (which took all of 20 minutes), problem solved. Don’t ask me why no fault codes came up; to SpeedJebus’ point, in my case it wasn’t intermittent but pretty consistent.

  • avatar
    philbailey

    To clarify the ECM issue. ECM software, known as OBD2 is very sophisticated, but is not blessed with AI (artificial intelligence). Consequently, it will not set fault codes if it is the cause of the malfunction. It doesn’t even know it has done anything wrong. For example, in these cases, if the ECM is misinterpreting a signal from a temperature sensor and cutting back on fuel supply too quickly on a cold start, it won’t know. If the misfire continued for a long time, it might eventually report a misfire code.

  • avatar
    stevesloc

    Same Problem with my 2001 Ranger. Clearing it up took cleaning the MAF. It took clearing the ports inside the housing, and not just the sensor itself.

  • avatar
    cardeveloper

    Month before I traded in my full size Bronco, it shredded a tire from road debris. Week before, the aux trans oil cooler developed a major leak. They know when the love is gone and will punish you :)

  • avatar
    ConejoZing

    I wish you the best of luck with your nutso Windstar! Get that thing up to speed, ok?

    (Nostalgia of a certain Ford Aerostar filling my brain)

  • avatar
    picard234

    I live in Dearborn.

    It has been cold lately.

    Let it warm up for 4-5 minutes and the problem will go away.

  • avatar
    relton

    If the Windstar only has a little stalling problem, count yourself lucky. You have been spared:

    1. The broken transmission selector cable
    2. Failed tranmission internal parts
    3. Blown head gaskets, ruiined engine
    4. Blown timing cover gasket, ruined engine
    5. Broken rear axle
    6. Electrical fires
    7. Broken front spring that shreds the tire

    My advice? Live with or trade the car. In the meantime, to quote Ford Motor Company, “do not park in or near a structure” (recall letter sent to over 17 million lucky Ford owners).

    Good luck.

    Bob Elton

  • avatar
    radimus

    This might help your problem:

    http://leckemby.net/windstar/windstar01.html

    The Windstars have a known issue with the EGR ports in the intake manifold getting clogged. This is what they look like on your van:

    http://leckemby.net/windstar/14a.jpg

    The symptoms you describe are a dead ringer for this. Right after startup, the EGR valve is opened to allow some exhaust gases into the intake for easier starting and smoother idles. From what I can find in my research, it seems that you may not get a trouble code unless the issue gets bad enough to cause cylinders to misfire.

    The full page has instructions on how to get the intake plenum off so you can get to them. It’s much, much easier to do this if you remove the windshield wipers and get the cowling out of the way. If you’re going to do this, go ahead and order the parts he specifies at the top of the page, minus the valve cover. If you have not replaced it yet, pick up a new PCV valve grommet while you’re at the Ford dealer for the other parts. They dry out and stop sealing well at about the age of your van. If you’re handy with tools, and are able to keep track of the parts, it’s not a very difficult job to DIY. Been there, done that.

    The reason I say to go ahead and get the other parts is because if the factory isolator bolts have not been replaced you’ll want to replace them while you have the intake plenum off. The isloator bolts hold the lower half of the intake plenum to the intake manifold. The factory bolts have a black seal, and their replacements have a green seal. I recommend this because the seals on the factory bolts will eventually fail and cause an air leak in the lower intake plenum. That will cause the ECM to report code P0171 and P0174. You’ll have to remove all this stuff anyway, so might as well head off this problem while you’re at it.

    One more thing to take care of while you’ll have the intake plenum off. Check the little white plastic clips that hold the linkages to the servo for the intake manifold runner control (IMRC) valves. The IMR’s are a set of butterfly valves that are down inside the intake ports. You can see them down inside the back row of ports in the picture I linked to above. The plastic clips I am referring to are also visible in that picture off to the left of the intake manifold. There you’ll see the linkage arms with the white clips in them. Order a set of those clips while you’re at the Ford dealer. You’ll need six of them. That way you’ll have them if your clips look pretty beat. When those clips fail the links can fall out and you’ll end up with another check engine light, not to mention you can loose those link arms. Been there, done that too. Thankfully, I saw the loose link arm before it fell off somewhere.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    radimus is right. In addition, you also may want to get a transmission cooler for the Windstar. Several auctions add these to this particular model as a transit vehicle for picking up customers. It seemingly works magic on the transmissions.

    Speaking of which…I would also switch to synthetic. It also helps with the shift quality on these models. Overall, if you take care of these issues with the Windstars they can last for quite a while. I wouldn’t trade it because they’re really not worth that much at all. Maybe $2000 to $3000 unless it’s got leather.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Sajeev—could you report back to us with the correct answer once the problems are solved? That would make Piston Slap complete.

  • avatar
    radimus

    Stevem is dead on regarding the transmissions. Ford barely built the AX4S trannies well enough to haul their own weight, and the internal cooler in the radiator isn’t really up to the job. Also, get the tranny flushed every 30k miles, and get it done right. Take it to someone who will properly flush it and change the filter when they’re done. I always had this done at my local Ford dealer because I knew it would be done to Ford spec and that they would put the exact fluid in it. Combination or universal fluids in a Windstar tranny are verbotin. Pay the money and use the dealer stuff.

    Take care of it, never ever let the 3.8L engine in it overheat, and that Windstar will probably serve you pretty well. If you’re still on the factory transmission then baby it. Install the cooler and don’t go towing anything. If you’ve already replaced the transmission then take good care of it and keep on truckin’.

  • avatar
    Runfromcheney

    Katie:
    “Although this is slightly off topic, this is why I only use Shell V-power or BP Ultimate in my car.

    It cleans the fuel system and prevents carbonaceous deposits building up on the inlet valves.

    Could it be using a cheap petrol cause these coke deposits? And that using a premium fuel with cleaning properties could fix it?”

    I know what you are talking about with cheap fuel jacking up a car’s system. Back when my mom was driving our (Then young) Dodge Caravan, she would put 84 octane Sunoco “Economy” fuel because it was the cheapest in town, and would always fill it up when it hit a quarter of a tank, never lower. Yeah…. by 100K miles there were problems abound with the fuel system, that eventually led to the Fuel Injectors, fuel pump, and eventually the gas tank being replaced (Because all of the gummed up sediment from that shitty Sunoco fuel that had been in there for years kept getting sucked up into the injectors and clogging them). We had the injectors replaced/cleaned three times before the gas tank was replaced and the problem went away.

    I learned a lot from my mom’s fuckup. With my Escort, I always drive it until it is nearly empty, and I am willing to pay more for the proper fuel. And I learned that you are not supposed to full up a V6 powered minivan with the cheapie economy fuel that is meant for mopeds and Yugos.

  • avatar
    gregaryous

    Since you’ve “babied this car” try cleaning the engine piston walls with “Marvel’s Mystery Oil”. This cleaner will help free-up the pistons so they move more freely and should help solve your problem especially since you baby it – it’s probably all gunked-up with sludge and other build-up. Plus, this is a CHEAP fix, about $3.

  • avatar

    mfgreen40 : Sajeev—could you report back to us with the correct answer once the problems are solved? That would make Piston Slap complete.

    Good idea. I will email the people (who originally emailed me) to do just that.

    Sounds like the Windstar has a plugged EGR system in the intake.

    Steven Lang and radimus bring up some good points: these vans are cheap and as long as you get 2000(?) and newer models with redesigned head gaskets, you should be in for many more trouble free miles. You are not gonna like the trade in value if/when it comes to selling your van.

  • avatar

    radimus: can you clean those EGR ports with a can of Seafoam (the whole thing) or is removal mandatory?

  • avatar
    NickR

    It sounds as though they are some promising solutions here. If not, and I have never been able to explain it: an acquaintance bought into the hype about ‘Splitfire’ plugs and installed a set. Immediately started to experience strange starting problems. Yanked them out and replaced them with ordinary Champions and all was right. I won’t even speculate as to why…

  • avatar
    radimus

    Sejeev, I have not heard of reports on any success with Seafoam. Maybe it works, but I have not tried it and every report that I’ve read from somoeone who has worked on this issue is that they had to get in there and clean them out. It probably can’t hurt so it’s probably worth a shot. If it doesn’t work you’re not out much.

    BTW, on the Windstars the head gaskets ceased to be an issue from the oddball 98 model (the one with the tip-n-slide drivers seat) through 2003. It was 95 through the early 98’s that had the head gasket issue. Transmissions are a bigger issue from 95-2001. In 2002 Ford beefed up the AX4S design. Still not ideal, but better. From what I’ve read, the Freestar’s drivetrain was much better built.

    And yes, the values on Windstars stink but they’re great bargains if you know what to look for. One of the best deals in the used minivan market is a Windstar that someone else paid to have the tranny rebuilt or replaced.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “Combination or universal fluids in a Windstar tranny are verbotin. Pay the money and use the dealer stuff.”

    Correct Mercon fluids are available aftermarket. Some Fords call for regular Mercon, others for Mercon V. While I agree with staying away from the universal fluids, you don’t need to go to a dealer to get the correct spec fluid.

    “In 2002 Ford beefed up the AX4S design. ”

    Ford’s FWD automatic transmissions were troublesome since the very first Taurus.

  • avatar
    confused1096

    Radimus: Dead right. I bought this thing at 40000 miles. The transmission had been replaced (under warranty) at 36,000 miles. However trade in value is bad, bad, bad. At this point I’m considering keeping it as a second car and just buying a toy.

    I’ll try the EGR fix in a week or two, when my work schedule allows.

    I’ve heard a lot of complaints about these vans but honestly it’s been a decent appliance. The only real problem I’ve had with it was repeated failure of the blend door actuator (no heat!). After the second one I pulled it apart and figured out why it was conking out so soon and did a shade-tree fix on it.

  • avatar
    MBella

    With the gas, it doesn’t have to be V-power, or Ultimate. The companies use the same fuel additives in all their fuels. In my experiences Shell and Mobil tend to have less ethanol then the others. Also using a fuel injector cleaner every 3-5 thousand miles won’t hurt either. You will keep the fuel system clean that way.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    I’d have someone replace the intake manifold gaskets. I don’t know if your vehicle has aluminum heads, cast iron block, or plastic intake manifold, but sealing between the intake and heads can be difficult (especially on V8, V6 engines) due to the different thermal expansion rates of these materials.

    Just a guess, but I bet there’s been an improvement for the intake manifold gasket design for your engine. Oh, and change the EGR when you’re doing the gaskets.

    I’d also have the fuel pressure checked. There should be a port off the injection rail that can be attached to a gauge. Obviously the car will have to be cold for the test. Your symptoms could be a sign of a failing electric fuel pump.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    I have seen this problem on three Fords all in the 2001-2003 vintage. On the two Winstars with 3.8 liter V6’s it ended up being a hair line crack in the ignition control module. Both vehicles would exhibit hard starts, rough idles, hesitation and occasional transmission shifting problems. Remember the powertrain control module takes care of both engine controls and tranny shifting! The Explorer which was a 2003 had a dirty MAF which causing similar symptoms. Have these two things checked out for sure.

  • avatar
    ktm

    I do not know how Seafoam would work on an EGR valve. EGR valves recirculate exhaust gases from the exhaust manifold into the intake manifold. The Seafoam has already done its job in the cylinder by the time it reaches the EGR valve.

    How on earth does recirculating exhaust gases help with starting (exhaust gas is almost non-existent and is, at best, ambient until ignition) and a smoother idle? It does not help with starting if the car has already started. As for idle, this still makes no sense. An open EGR valve during idle is the cause of a poor idle. EGR valves are a pollution control devices.

    Do the 2001 Windstars come with an idle air control valve?

  • avatar

    ktm : I do not know how Seafoam would work on an EGR valve. EGR valves recirculate exhaust gases from the exhaust manifold into the intake manifold. The Seafoam has already done its job in the cylinder by the time it reaches the EGR valve.

    Seafoam is added to the engine via vacuum line, and circulates through the entire intake system, including the channels that the EGR uses. I’ve had to de-coke with a screwdriver before, and Seafoam won’t get that…but it has worked magic before…and its cheap enough to give it a shot.

    Yes, it has an IAC, and since its been replaced, its probably fine.

  • avatar
    confused1096

    The Seafoam worked! Thanks!!!!!

    Seafoamed, then let the beast sit for five hours. Started up in cold, rainy Knoxville weather and it didn’t gripe. I think the damn thing’s fixed now.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Right after startup, the EGR valve is opened to allow some exhaust gases into the intake for easier starting and smoother idles.…

    At idle, there should be NO EGR at all.

  • avatar

    confused1096 : The Seafoam worked! Thanks!!!!!

    Seafoamed, then let the beast sit for five hours. Started up in cold, rainy Knoxville weather and it didn’t gripe. I think the damn thing’s fixed now.

    Cool! Make sure to put your right foot on “carbon burning mode” and run it hard sometimes. Now that’s a spicy meatball!!!

  • avatar
    confused1096

    Sajeev: Not a problem. I’m thinking of taking this thing to the local autocross group, just for the laughs.

  • avatar

    RE: the Explorer:

    It could be several different problems, but one interesting culprit that caused this on my ’95 was a failing 2nd gear shift band in the 4R55E transmission. Combined with an about-to-go torque converter, the engine would begin to stall at rolling stops as it would not appropriately downshift into 1st gear and the TC would not adequately take up the slack. Since the 5R55E is fundamentally the same trans used in 98+ Explorers, it may be something to consider. How many miles, and what engine/trans is it?

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