By on December 19, 2011

Dave writes:

Hello Sajeev,

Well, better late than never.  I did get my Saturn running again.  Due to weather, parts delays and misdiagnosis I spent a lot more time and money than I planned or had to, but she does seem to be in good shape now.  Although the timing chain was still in place and looked OK, I replaced it.  I actually did the whole timing set replacement, which includes chain, crank sprocket, two cam sprockets, fixed guide, top guide, adjustable guide and chain tensioner.

The timing chain alone costs about 50 bucks and the whole set was 150.  I briefly considered just getting the chain to cut down on costs that I had already put into this high mileage car, but then realized how stupid that would be.  Closer inspection of the old timing set parts also revealed clearly that they were totally worn out and the reason for my jumping chain.  The adjustable timing guide was made out of some kind of hard plastic and had deep grooves in it.  The guide at the top of the timing loop which must control chain jump between the cam sprockets was also damaged.  I thought it was just metal, but when installing the new one I realized there was supposed to be a hard plastic contact service that clipped on.  This had worn so badly on the old one it had broken off.  I had seen a piece of it early on in the job after I had removed the valve cover, but didn’t realize at the time what is was.  Once I realized it had broken apart in the engine, I did as one of the commentators on your blog suggested and removed the oil pan to look for the rest.  I did find some, but not enough to reconstruct the whole piece.   I am hoping most of the rest of it had already left the car during previous oil changes.

I had a brief scare after putting the car mostly back together.  I ran a preliminary compression check with the newly installed timing set and had expected/hoped to see vastly improved compression values.  Although they were better than before and one cylinder was a bit above 100 psi…they were not good.  After calming myself from a brief panic, I decided to put the rest of the car back together in the hopes my compressions were just bad, because the car had been sitting so long.   That proved to be the case as it fired right up.  Checking the compression again after the engine was warmed up gave me values for all four cylinders between 170 and 190 psi.

I am now in Calhoun, GA having driven the car from Maryland with no issues.  I will be traveling onto my end goal of Texas in a few days.  I anticipate no further difficulties on the journey, but if I have any, I’ll be sure to drop you a line.

Thanks for the help!

Sajeev Answers:

This website (and others) occasionally stuff our comments section with the notion that America is full of auto-wieners that wouldn’t know a master cylinder from a smog pump, and never did an oil change in their lives.

Dave and is Saturn L-series Wagon is proof to the contrary.

Too bad neither him nor I knew to ask Google the right keywords about the Saturn’s initial diagnostic failure.  Sorry about that. I had no idea it has the same colossal timing chain failure of the Cadillac Catera. Thanks to the Best and Brightest, we (collectively) nailed it. A question remains: does Dave have any compensation/recourse because this was a recalled item? 

Thanks Dave, your epic roadtrip to Texas gives me a lot of faith in automotive humanity.  If Houston is in your travel plans, dinner is on me.

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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14 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Saturn Wagon’s Bad Timing (Update)...”

  • avatar

    Now that’s a deep Saturn love! Most would’ve junked the car given the same situation, or maybe look for a whole motor from the junkyard. I hope the thing repays your effort with years of faithful service.

  • avatar

    Having done the work himself he is not going to be reimbursed for anything. There is no labor bill he paid and they won’t reimburse parts unless he bought them all from the right place, if at all. If he took it to a dealer after discovering the recall information he might have gotten a free repair, but it would have taken a while. They also would probably not drop the pan to remove debris.

    It’s running, he’s in GA, all is right with the world.

  • avatar

    Since your compression didn’t return until it warmed up, you may want to run some Seafoam or GM Top Engine cleaner through it. These products can help loosen piston rings, which I suspect may be a little gummed up on your car. The smoke they temporarily generate makes them entertaining to try.

    Glad it worked out so well – I wish you many happy miles.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Sorta the same only different. My future DIL’s 99 CRV developed a code for a miss. After a compression check, revealed a low#4 cylinder, that didnt rise when oiled. I diagnosed burnt exhaust valves. The engine is a 16 valve twin cam. The CRV is a junker. A professional head replacement would be about what the CRV is worth. Ny son was finishing school and buying another car was problematic. I volunteered to do the job . Aaron ordered a valve grind gasket set and 2 new exhaust valves. I removed the head after a struggle to get the manifolds off. If I ever do this job again, I will leave them on and take them off afterward. The Honda twin cam 4 is a beautiful engine. But a real PITA to work on stuffed wrong ways under the hood. I just lapped in the #4 exhaust valves and re-assembled. It was a struggle, mostly due to my unfamiliarity with the engine. I had taken the time to reference mark the distributor,so that went OK. The wiring and vacuum hose were easy,once I realized that Honda idiot proofed the process by using different terminals for evrything. It was just a process of finding the connection within reach of the wire or hose. Still i was astounded that the engine started easily and ran smoothly. It has been 3 yrs and the CRV is still their daily driver.

  • avatar

    Good for you Dave in repairing it and also for updating us. I’m still wondering why this problem would not have shown up as a check engine light, any ideas?

    • 0 avatar

      As I commented in Dave’s initial post, I believe the timing chain jumped at startup – a failure mode I’ve seen before. Since the engine couldn’t fire after that, it didn’t have an opportunity to run and show a CEL.

  • avatar

    I love Piston Slap…

  • avatar

    This should encourage others to get in there and fix problems. Not everything is a death sentence.

  • avatar

    If you’re wondering about the excess wear, the original design had a valve that would gum up and starve the chain of oil.

    I’ve replace mine twice – after paying $1600 the first time, I decided to do it myself. It was a good learning experience.

  • avatar

    I remember some GMPT folks telling me the Ecotec design was an unfriendly collaborative between GM Motown, Opel, and Saab. And eventually the Corp brought in Lotus as a consultant / referee.

    Another case where bad organization likely trumped good engineers.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the update! I’m glad that the car is up and running again. It’s nice to be right once in a while as well.

  • avatar

    Sajeev, I think you are confusing two engines here. The Saturn L series did share a V6 engine with the Catera (and the ’99-’03 Saab 9-5 V6 in turbo form), but that engine uses a timing belt, not a chain. The 4cyl L-series uses a version of the Ecotec, which does use a chain obviously.

    • 0 avatar

      ^^^ this.

      Indi500:The 2.2 ECOTEC was hardly an “unhappy collaboration”. The Ecotec, after suffering from a timing chain oiler that was inadequate in it’s early usage [00-03]has proven to be long lived,reliable and versatile.

      It’s used in the Malibu as the 2.4 today and there are millions of them on the road providing dependable service in all of it’s versions.

      This is one part of GM’s engine line they got right. Mated to GM’s 4 speed auto they’ve been bullet proof in the hands of their owners.

      The rest of the product is typical GM parts bin garbage, unfortunately.

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