By on May 4, 2011

Brian writes:

Hey Sajeev – as a TTAC reader, and a consummate “I’m an enthusiast, but my wallet says otherwise” tinkerer, I’m currently in a dilemma that could use your opinion and the reader’s.

I have a 2001 Saturn L200 2.2 liter that blew a head gasket. Strangest blown head gasket I’ve ever seen: no loss of power, no other signs than an intermediate low coolant light. This eventually culminated in my adding 2 gallons of (idiotic) dex-cool and then driving it 2 miles, and looking for leaks, only to discover the low coolant light was on again. That the point at which I discovered the dex-cool oil mixture that had inundated my crankcase. I had been putting off diagnosing and fixing what I thought was a minor and intermittent coolant leak (sure is cold in Minnesota this time of year, heated shop or no) but now I have no choice. The car has 190k on it. I had become determined around 160k that I was simply going to drive it into the ground.

Yes it’s a blah car; a 4 cylinder automatic, with unexciting styling, but it still gets 32 mpg and is 10 years old and just keeps going. The Saturn polymer body is in excellent shape, and the leather interior has worn VERY well when compared to Saturn’s with cloth interiors. I just put new tires on it this fall, struts all the way around last summer, I replaced a bad air-con compressor last spring, it also had the factory recalled “redesigned” timing chain compliments of Saturn at around 140k – I’ve been through this car end to end and I can tell you what I have and haven’t replaced. Before “cash for clunkers” the 2.2 l ecotec could be had for $300 on craigslist with around 70k miles, but now they’re fewer and farther in between.

My quandry is this: Do I DARE do a head gasket job on this motor, possibly have the head rebuilt or find a used one, and then risk the chance of a spun bearing in my near future thanks to dex-cool hell?

Or if I can find a motor (for less than the car is presumably worth) to live out 200k Saturn dreams with a transplant?

Sajeev answers:

The sheer volume of new parts on this Saturn makes it a fine candidate for a replacement engine. And, well, I do like this car on it’s front-end styling and Saturn-honest plastic panels. While it isn’t the uber-sleek, perception-altering, Saturn SC with covered headlights and two-tone paint, nothing really is!

So fix it, but forget the head swap: the time/labor involved in sending the head to a machine shop to ensure it’s straight and true isn’t worth it. Such is the life of an aluminum cylinder head with (shockingly pricey) torque-to-yield bolts. Most modern engines are considered throwaway motors for this reason.

Witness the reason: less than 1 minute on www.car-part.com netted suitable replacement engines ranging from $500-1400. And, like the old sales pitch went, you can’t beat that Saturn with a baseball bat on a plastic fender.

Send your queries to [email protected] Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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36 Comments on “Piston Slap: How to Save a Saturn...”


  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    I’m with Sajeev – get a replacement motor. Don’t bother trying to fix the head, it’s far far far more hassle than its worth.

  • avatar

    Can’t believe you didn’t suggest the LSX swap!

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    If driving it into the ground was the goal, the time to dump it was when the A/C broke. You certainly don’t replace the suspension on a car that is bein ‘driven into the ground,’ nor do you even think about addressing a dead engine. It is in the ground. What did he mean when he determined to drive it into the ground? Isn’t fixing what breaks the opposite of a death sentence for a car?

    • 0 avatar
      sastexan

      Replacing struts is a fairly inexpensive way to give new life to a car. Besides comfort, it keeps the vehicle safe to drive – which should be the greatest priority, no matter your intentions with the car (unless you plan on it never being roadworthy).

      “Driving into the ground” means to me when repairs or needed repairs exceed the value of the car (including the cost of buying something new). Generally, that’s an engine or transmission but wrecks can make that calculation swing easily widely.

      • 0 avatar
        johnny ro

        I thought drive into the ground had an aircraft connotation, whereby you are barely in control, and care less about the vehicle than the passengers, and set down with wheels up and skid to a stop and laugh about it on the tarmac as she burns.

        This guy is not driving anything into the ground, he is nursing a 90 year old man of a car. Not saying thats bad, though. I vote whole engine swap.

  • avatar
    MarcKyle64

    Don’t spend more than $1,500 fixing it, then advertise it for $2,999 and be willing to negotiate. Sell it to someone who got their tax rebate.

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    Do the swap, if you do the top end on the original you should (with that sort of mileage) do an overhaul on the whole thing; so Sajeev is right. Just be sure you know how to check a replacement to make sure it doesn’t have the same issues.

  • avatar
    PaulE

    To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, “there are things we know that we know; these are known knowns…” He knows the motor and the rest of the car. Before pricing a used motor or head work, do some measuring at home with a good-sized straightedge and measuring tools (I used a carpenter square and a couple sheets of paper as a gauge to measure the head for warpage).

    On the last GM car I limped home/fixed/flipped (Grand Am w/3400 V6), the heads were fine, but the coolant leaked past the gasket into the cylinders when warmed up; compression tests indicated nothing out of line, but it pressurized and belched it out of the overflow tank when warm. One gasket was breaking down between cylinders 3 and 5.

    New TTY bolts and a head gasket set (aftermarket-I’ve had good luck with FelPro) aren’t THAT ridiculously expensive, and it was a good selling point on the flip side.

  • avatar
    HoldenSSVSE

    At ten years old and almost 200,000 miles, the L200 owes you nothing. These were built as near disposable cars as it was.

    My father had an expression for these sorts of situations, “they use to shoot horses.”

    With all that said you had vowed at 160K miles to drive it until the wheels fell off – I’d kind of say you are there.

    If you’re Hell bent for leather to keep the sucker going, swap the engine as recommended; the rebuild of the heads is not going to be worth your time and you’ll likely end up spending the same amount of money.

  • avatar

    Ask yourself- what would have to happen for you to consider this car dead? If you can’t identify that criterion then you are not being rational. Are you simply honoring sunk cost at this point?

  • avatar
    mikey

    Go with the engine swap. If you rebuild the top end and not the lower end, the increased compression will suck oil up past the worn piston rings. Its going to smoke and possibly oil foul your plugs. You may, or may not, of f—ked up your crank berrings.

    Why take the chance? With all the new parts, its well worth the engine re and re…..IMHO

  • avatar
    GarbageMotorsCo.

    These big Satuns were some of the worst cars to come out of the early 2000’s. I knew 2 people who had this happen to them well before the 100k mark, and one of them had their breaks fail while doing about 75 on the highway. All sorts of electrical problems too, what nightmares. One got traded for a Nissan Altima, the other a Toyota Camry.

    This engine was also found in Cavaliers and Pontiac Sh1tfires from the same era so at least the OP is in good company with the problems.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    I think a different phrase applies here: better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

    If you can do the work yourself (ie labor cost = zero) I’d pull the motor, check out the rod bearings (hopefully ok), check head and block for flatness (again hopefully OK) and put the motor back together with new gaskets.

    If you need a lot of hard parts, yes it’s time for another used motor.

    Either way you’ve bankrolled another 100,000 miles of motoring for what the sales tax is on a new car.

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely brilliant: “either way you’ve bankrolled another 100,000 miles of motoring for what the sales tax is on a new car.”

    • 0 avatar
      Brian

      I love it – If the repair costs $600 that’s only one month payment on the replacement CUV the wife wants to replace this ride with right?! so if it runs for longer than a month… money in the bank!

    • 0 avatar
      Jellodyne

      On the other hand, if you pull the motor and discover the head has a case of ‘bacon neck’ and the rod bearings are shot, then you’ve already done half of the motor swap.

    • 0 avatar
      JustinM

      Labor cost is never zero because of opportunity cost. You’ve spent time on it that you could have been spending doing literally anything else, and that has value.

  • avatar
    snabster

    Exactly how did the price of a used Saturn L200 change because of Cash for clunkers…when that car didn’t qualify?

    • 0 avatar
      HoldenSSVSE

      Go bad and reread what he wrote…

      Before “cash for clunkers” the 2.2 l ecotec could be had for $300 on craigslist with around 70k miles, but now they’re fewer and farther in between.

      With the death of Jeeps and Explorers and other vehicles in Cash for Clunkers the demand for GM ECOTEC engines have gone up post-CfC because they are the new long term clunkers.

      Despite a couple of troll grade rants above and below the GM ECOTEC engines are generally pretty reliable, easy to work on, and tweakable (that is not to say it compares to the Toyota 1.8 or Honda 1.5 of the same period) but it isn’t a “bad” engine. Given that for all the faults of the Cobalt/Cavilier/Grand Am there are a lot of survivors around – people need parts, so the demand for those junkyard engines has gone up – hence the price has gone up.

      • 0 avatar
        snabster

        funny, I though people didn’t want to drive Jeeps, Explorers and large SUVs because of $4 gas. Or that possibly demand for Ecotec engines is also related to gas prices.

        I agree with you explanation, but it is equally possible that the original poster thought C4C applied to cars like his, which it didn’t.

    • 0 avatar
      Brian

      As the OP I was simply observing the price of used parts, for many many older model cars, this one and others in my stable, has skyrocketed as a side effect of CfC…

      If my car applied, it would have been GONE!

  • avatar
    rem83

    I’d definitely replace the engine. I have an ’03 LW200, and I love how open the engine bay is on it. Only repair I’ve ever had to do was swap a/c compressors after the clutch died, but that took ~45 minutes and all of the maintenance has been super easy as well. Used ecotecs are cheap, and I can’t imagine it will be remotely difficult to swap engines. Get one out of an ’03 or later and you’ll get the better timing belt setup as well.

    Also, not sure what the problem is with the cloth interior – mine looks new with ~130k on the car.

    • 0 avatar
      Brian

      The cloth seats all tear where the side bolster is because of the sharp metal plate inside, in the design.. I’ve seen multiple Saturns with this poor design, and the cloth seats and the headliner are the first signs of end of life.

      Cheers on caring for yours better than we’ve cared for ours :)

  • avatar

    unless you really really love this car, even an engine swap to me wouldnt be worth it. i’d junk it on CL. someone will snatch it up for $1000.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    You didn’t mention what transmission the car has. I’d consider the lifespan of the automatic (or MT clutch) before doing an engine job. If it needs an AT next year, you’ve wasted your money on the engine work. A clutch isn’t so bad, but now’s the time to change it. If you do it later, it will just nickel and dime you to death.

    In either case, don’t mess around with just the cylinder head; you’re very likely to have bottom-end damage from the coolant debacle.

    Depending on where you live, if there is salt used on the roads you’re at risk of replacing brake lines, and other steel undercarriage parts. This is totally unfun, and not so cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      The OP mentioned it’s an automatic.
      That means a 4T40.

      When this box started out in the 80 X car as a THM125 it was a real piece of sh!t. However by the time it had evolved to a 4 speed in the late 90s it was quite robust. If it was working OK before the engine demise, I’d say pull the pan, put in a new filter and oil, and bolt it back in.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I used DuraSeal for a blown Quad4, and it lasted around 2 years. Then it blew up again in spectacular fashion.

    So I bought a junkyard engine that supposedly had less than 60K on it. It only lasted for about 2 years before it blew up. I’ve had very bad luck with junkyard engines/transmissions.

    —–
    Later on, I put DuraSeal in my blown 3300 (my fault) and it lasted around 17 months before the problems returned. I DuraSealed it again, and it lasted until the car completely disintegrated a year later.

  • avatar
    grzydj

    That’s usually the miles and condition when I buy my cars and rebuild them.

  • avatar
    MBella

    If you buy a used engine, now you have an engine that you don’t know the history on and can have the head gasket fail again soon.

    You don’t have to rebuild the head if it has not given you any issues. Cleaning the head up, installing new valve seals and reinstalling is all you need as long as the head is straight. You can also lap the valves in to get a better seal. Now you will have your engine back up and running, as opposed to some junkyard motor that can blow up again soon.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    I’m going to go against most of the others here. You’ve already driven in into to the ground well under ground. To make things better you need to start digging up instead of further down by pouring more money into it. I’m a mechanic and I’ve seen way too much good money thrown after bad fixing a car like this.

    The best thing you can do at this point if you are at all mechanically inclined is to find another lower mile example that has a ratty interior and is due for tires and/or struts or will be soon.

    Then weekend 1 pull the interior and depending on when they were last replaced/condition the starter, alternator, AC compressor, axles, battery, coil pack, window motors & switches, exhaust, rotors ect. Weekend 2 pull or swap the tires and struts as an assembly. Grab the headlights and taillights too as they are nice to have and E-bay well. Then get the scrapper to haul it out Monday.

    You’ll have a similar car with your new tires, struts, and leather interior and a shelf full of the parts to keep your costs way down keeping going in until you run it in to the ground.

    If you are going to keep it then find a good low mile engine and trans and stick it in as an assembly and don’t do anything more than oil changes or things that prevent it from running and driving, until you wear out those tires and then dump it.

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