Piston Slap: How to Save a Saturn

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap how to save a saturn

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 mehta@ttac.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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2 of 36 comments
  • MBella MBella on May 04, 2011

    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.

  • Scoutdude Scoutdude on May 05, 2011

    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.

  • Tassos Subaru really knows how to take fugly to ever higher levels, and sell every one of the (of course very few) it makes. As if the number of sales negates the fugliness.Don't hold your breath. I bet this will NOT be the vehicle James Bond arrives at the Casino in Monte Carlo with in his next flick. (if any)
  • ToolGuy Government overreach. Park the Ford in your air-conditioned garage on a maintenance charger and this won't be a problem.Here's some (old) general background if you are interested.@ILO, there are 3 Fords, and Ford Pro™ is the one with the bright future 🙂
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