By on December 5, 2011


Dave writes:

Hello Sajeev,

I just bought a 2000 Saturn LW1 6 weeks ago.  It has a L4 2.2 Liter engine with 200,000 miles on it.  After 3 weeks out of the country I came back and started it up.  Was a little rough then smoothed out.  I just changed parking spots.  Did this one more time.  The third time starting it up it would not fire.  No strange noises, just no running engine.  I suspected bad ignition coil.  I had just changed the spark plugs before my trip and they had about 50 miles on them.  Ignition coil was fine at all four points using a ignition tester.  I even put new plugs in again.  Fuel rail has the specified 60 PSI.  Theorizing that may the fuel injectors were shut down i tried starter spray in the air intake.  The motor will not fire.  A compression test with a gauge picked up at advance gave me less than 10 PSI on the two outer cylinders and about 24 on the two inner.  The Haynes manual is very unhelpful and only states for compression specs. that the lowest compression cylinder value should be no less that 70% of the highest compression cylinder value.

I read on-line (  the same but that no cylinder should be less than 100 PSI.  While cranking the engine there was some light smoke visible behind the engine above the exhaust manifold, but unable to determine the source.

My question is: are you aware of catastrophic head gasket failures on these engines?  I am surprised that the engine will not fire at all even if the head gasket does have a problem.  I have removed the valve cover and see that the timing chain is still there and working.

When I changed the plugs last month I applied anti-seize thread sealant to the plugs as instructed in the manual.  I am now having wild imaginings that the anti-seize thread sealant got into the cylinders and impregnated the gasket and is somehow responsible for this catastrophic failure.   I am going to tear into the engine tomorrow and try to replace the head gasket, because i need to get this car running again ASAP.  I am being hopeful and unrealistically optimistic that I cold get some input/ thoughts from you before morning when I start this laborious task…


Sajeev Answers:

You are in a tough spot: a seemingly severe mechanical failure. This is when we tend to trust everything we see or read, even if we shouldn’t.  It’s not your fault, but you need to verify what you are seeing.  It’s like getting a second opinion when a doctor tells you that you have 6 months to live. Because the lack of compression has sent you down a path of diagnostic madness. Which truly sucks.

So try another compression gauge.  I don’t know why, but these things are terribly unreliable and not durable. Bang it around in a toolbox in your garage (or the rental counter at your local parts store) and the needle won’t move nearly as much as before. The odds of you losing that much compression on all cylinders that quickly just doesn’t add up: so I think the tester is bad.

I think you need to check for spark the old-fashioned way…put a screwdriver in the end of a spark plug wire and lay it near a piece of metal…you should see a spark when you crank, and it should be pretty strong.  Google this for more information.

Good luck.  I suspect the ignition module finally crapped out.  Did yours ever get the recall?

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

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

43 Comments on “Piston Slap: I’m on tonight, you know my Gauge don’t Lie!...”

  • avatar

    Doing a compression test while spinning the motor with the starter is not always a good idea you can do even more damage if something is actually broken.

    A leak-down tester is far preferable, you can manually turn the motor over and check each cylinder and valve.

    Does this car have any pending check engine light codes? It’s OBDII.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    …….I agree on the old school spark plug test, but make sure the screwdriver has a rubber handle, and turn your pacemaker off, if applicable. Don’t like the sound of that “smoke” deal while cold cranking, though……..that’s got head gasket fail written all over it, but with that little compression, the motor would be cranking noticeably faster, another sure sign………good luck to him anyway.

  • avatar

    Crank Position Sensor for $100 Alex.

  • avatar

    If non of the above work, do a Murilee Martin and swap in a working lower mileage donor motor. If time is critical, this is probably a quicker alternative than buggering around over several days trying to work out what is wrong and then trying to fix it, especially if it’s a head gasket.

  • avatar

    I missed our part about the low PSI cylinder #’s. Those numbers are so low that something is horribly amiss. Are you sure your guage is accurate and you are using it properly?

  • avatar

    once i had the valve burnt out in my 86 190e on #1 cyl, at first I thought the gauge was dead it says zero. Then moved to 2nd then realize my worse fear!

    I was driving though, delivering to car to buyer too, thank God it happened before delivery, if it went few days later then is going to be a big mess.
    These kids need the car driven across canada.

    Even if Head gasket went it shouldn’t have such a low compression.
    keep us posted.
    God bless

  • avatar

    Likely based on the description that the multiple very short “trips” caused carbon deposits to be dislodged and hold the valves slightly open. Seen it happen on high mileage Hondas quite often. Put a jumper on the battery (or a fresh battery) and crank the heck out of it with the throttle completely depressed. Extended cranking should help dislodge the carbon and the open throttle helps to make up for the likely pooled fuel in the intake/combustion chambers (also helps it crank a bit faster). Usually takes a lot of prolonged cranking to get it to light, so stop every 30 sec. or so to rest the starter/battery.

  • avatar

    I seem to recall that some cars have problems with the oxygen sensors when anti-seize compounds with copper are used.

    No idea if this is the issue here, but I throw it into the mix anyway.

  • avatar

    All that talk about possible head gasket failure…are liquids OK i.e. coolant and oil are not mixed up anywhere? Probably electronic problem me thinks.

  • avatar

    I think your timing chain jumped and/or the timing gears stripped.

    I’ve seen this happen at startup on cars that were running just the night before. It is exceptionally unlikely that anything else would do this on all four cylinders.

    Sensors don’t affect cylinder pressure, and it would be a freak of nature to have carbon deposits suddenly pry open all the valves at the same time.

    It’s also very unlikely that you’d buy a bad gauge at exactly the same time as the engine fails.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      “Sensors don’t affect cylinder pressure”

      + over 9000!!11!!!

      He’s got fuel and spark, the magic isn’t happening because he doesn’t have (any) compression there.

      If he’s removing the head, he’ll find the broken chain you mentioned.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, it’s the chain, a common problem on these piece of crap motors.

      • 0 avatar

        They can’t be that crappy if it went over 200K…a Quad 4 this isn’t… Ok, compression went away basically overnight…would a failed head gasket take out compression in all cylinders??? Sensor failure won’t make compression go away either…I’m in the valve actuation problem camp. Carbon holding open the valves seems plausible, but holding open at least one valve in each cylinder all at the same time might be a tough meeting to arrange…

    • 0 avatar

      Yep. Thats what Id check. Pull the valve cover. Is there a timing chain?? The ecotec motors have been pretty reliable overall. The only failures seem to come from lack of oil changes.

    • 0 avatar

      The only good design element in the engine is the valves don’t hit the pistons when the timing chain goes. The clue is in the identical readings of pairs of cylinders, the inside pair move together and the outside follow each other.

      Good news is it might not be as catastrophic to repair but still a PITA. I can see timing belts breaking but chains? Great job GM.

      • 0 avatar

        didn’t break. i think it just jumped. kind of wish it had broke except for the debri factor. if the chain was broken, i never would have removed the cylinder head ! you’re right about one thing though… P I T A.

    • 0 avatar

      Does this engine have a timing belt or chain? Sounds like valves partially open (broken belt) and thus low to no compression.

    • 0 avatar

      hey gslippy,

      i’m the sucker with the saturn in this forum and i’m 99% sure you hit the nail on the head. i unfortunately already pulled the cylinder head just before my uncle’s mechanic suggested the same source of the problem. explains everything. the fact that the chain wasn’t actually broken and LOOKED good threw me. i bought a new timing set and should be installing it tomorrow. weather and parts delivery has slowed me down. will update ASAP.

  • avatar

    I can’t believe that nobody has mentioned this yet, but with all four cylinders reading that low on compression, it’s most likely a timing chain failure which was apparently not uncommon on this model (and it may even still have the original chain/guides with 200K miles on them):

    EDIT: I see that gslippy beat me to the post by 4 minutes!

    • 0 avatar

      Glad I’m not alone on this one.

      My nephew had a Saturn 2.2 trash a timing chain in the driveway, and my friend’s Buick 3.8 did it as well. On the Buick, the plastic gear teeth went into the oil pan, and ultimately ruined the engine when they clogged the lifters and caused a connecting rod bearing to spin. That’s the short version of many nights we spent trying to resurrect it. Goodbye, Buick.

      • 0 avatar

        If you find a bad timing chain/gears/chain guide (per my story above) you MUST remove the oil pan and clean out all the debris from this incident.

        My friend did not do that on his Buick, and successfully repaired the cause (chain & gears), but not the effects (plastic/metal baddies going up into his oil system after he got it restarted). I came into the project after the damage was done and it was too late.

  • avatar

    This is not a catastrophic engine failure, it is a catastrophically bad car. If you’d had your head on when you’d bought it, you would have noticed that more of these cars have engine noise and/or excessive smoking than those that don’t by this age. Take it out and shoot it, and on the way to the scrapper shoot every other one you see.

    • 0 avatar

      Now there’s some tough love. The world will be a better place if you take ‘anonymic’s advice.

    • 0 avatar

      the engine sounded great w/o smoke and i was told it got synthetic oil changes every 3,000! seemed believable. this is the reason i bought it. ironically i considered a pre-emptive timing chain replacement, but in my maintenance schedule in the owner’s handbook and the haynes manual, there was no mention of a timing chain replacement for the 4 cylinder ( for the 6 cylinder yes! ). i therefore assumed it was supposed to last as long as the engine. only paid 1.150 for the car… now it’s pushing 2 grand. more than i would have paid for a 200k car, but i didn’t plan on this fun !

  • avatar

    Threw the timing chain on my 2002 vue. Working great. Then about 2 minutes into the drive to work it just stopped.

    Pickapart offered $700. Not close to what I spent in repairs on that miserable excuse for a car. I loved that ____ car and that car loved ____ me.

  • avatar

    Pull off the valve cover and inspect the timing chain. If it looks OK, turn over the engine by hand and watch the valves opening and closing. Yes, timing chain failures are common on the early Ecotecs in the L-Series. I have two of these, both with high mileage and no chain breaks. They usually get quite thrashy and noisy before the chain skips or breaks. This is your clue to change the chain. It is better than a belt in that it does last somewhat longer and gets noisy prior to failure. Replacement (used)engines are plentiful and cheap because GM used it in just about everything from 2002 on. If the chain failed you will have a head full of bent valves and maybe some damaged pistons.

  • avatar

    Well, being a tow truck driver and listening to this gentlemens story and the clue “I had just changed parking spots” I’d try pressing down 1/2 to full on the gas peddle and cranked for 10-15
    sec. (clear flood mode) it sounds to me like he has a flooded engine.

  • avatar

    Lots of advice regarding timing chain and, not being familiar with this engine, I suppose that might be it. But the symptoms and the circumstances leading up to it (short duration run) sound preceisely like those that sometimes occured to the early B6304 Volvo engine in a 960 I used to own. In that engine, a sort duration run after the car had been sitting for an extended period, such as pulling it out of the garage and switching it off, would lead to the hydraulic lifters locking up. It took copius amounts of cranking over an extended period to free them up. Compression was down, engine would turn just fine, but no start, a bit of rank fumes out the exhaust etc. I learned not to shut it down unless it had run at least 5 minutes.
    Like I say, its a different engine, but it sure sounds like the issues I had….

  • avatar

    If it’s getting plenty of fuel and spark and all cylinders are low on compression then it looks like it jumped time.

  • avatar

    1. He said no spark, as it won’t fire with starting fluid down the air intake, that’s probably correct.

    2. Incorrect pressure gauge? Probably not, but even if it is, it’s consistent, with the inner 2 at 10, outer 2 at 24, that’s a huge variance.

    3. He has the valve cover off already, so bring #1 to TDC, and check the timing marks, if the timing marks are out of line, then it’s jumped time. But, even if jumped time, he should get SOME kind of reaction when turning it over, if there’s spark. Unless it’s REALLY off, even then it should ‘kick’ even if only back thru the intake (good way to lose eyebrows, but let’s not go there). I would definitely check the timing marks before taking the head off.

    4. Local auto parts stores will rent an OBD tester to see if it’s got any codes.

    It does sound like he jumped time, given the sudden compression failure, and if, as several have said, these engines are known for bad ignition modules, then he may just have hit the jackpot.

    Reminds me of a 1997 Sebring convertible that we towed in, it ‘just quit’ on the freeway. Heck, it had committed suicide, needed a new ECM, intake manifold gasket, MAP sensor, and 2 injectors, but the owner swore it’d been running fine up until it died. Go Figure.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s possible it may not spark if the timing is way off or not moving the camshaft at all, if the crankshaft and camshaft position sensors don’t agree on what’s happening.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    I just read about a similar problem in an electronics mag blog. In this case, excess tread lubricant was pushed onto the spark plug electrode when the spark plug was tightened. After running the engine a short time, the heat of combustion will vaporize and burn the grease leaving a metallic residue that froms a short to the base of the electrode. So instead of the electric charge jumping the gap, it runs back along the insulator to the block.
    Ergo no spark.
    Remove the spark plugs and replace with new ones. Do not use any lube on the threads.

  • avatar

    Is the check engine light on? (Make sure the bulb is not burned out, it should always light up momentarily when you first turn the ignition on.) If the light stays on rent/borrow a code reader and see what it says.
    Compression tests are most useful when the engine runs but not very well. Unlikely to help with a no start condition. Don’t waste any more time with this.
    Since you have determined the timing chain is intact, and it won’t fire with starting fluid, ignition is the prime suspect and the screwdriver test is indicated.

  • avatar

    Sajeev – don’t forget a not so long ago piston slap…

    The 2.2L Aluminum heads are notorious for going “porous” and not exhibiting any other signs of head gasket failure: sometimes it’s limited to reduced compression, and sometimes it’s limited to oil/coolant mixture. Have you tried pressurizing the coolant system with the coolant topped up, and draining the oil to look for coolant (Stupid Dexcool…) Not to sound alarmist but I’ve seen this on 2.2L anywhere from 80K to 250K…

    • 0 avatar

      No need to drain the coolant looking for oil. Can run a hydrocarbon test, most shops will do it for free, some auto parts stores will do the test or sell a test kit. If hydrocarbons are in the coolant it turns yellow, the more yellow, the worse the contamination.

      I have it on my list of “must dos” when considering any compression related issues and evaluating the soundness of a used car. If hydrocarbons are present, then I move on to a compression test.

  • avatar

    I bought a 2001 LS200 brand new and put 150K miles on it in 3 years. I never had one problem. Traded it for my Vue in 2004. Two of the cheapest to drive cars I have ever owned. Both have the 2.2L 4. My ’97 SL3 was even cheaper to run because of the high MPG. Hit and run ended that SL3.

  • avatar

    bad battery.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • 28-Cars-Later: Taiwan remains to be scene and has a much bigger impact on the overall world so I expect things to be...
  • Verbal: V for Vendetta.
  • JD-Shifty: “Sooner China takes Taiwan, sooner we can fix America” I don’t want Americans dying and...
  • pmirp1: It depends on leadership in America and the west. Attack on Taiwan is attack on the western system. Over...
  • MRF 95 T-Bird: I’ll take a nicely sized CTS-V wagon over this lumbering mastodon. Manual too.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber