Piston Slap: Throwing (Ignition) Parts at a (Fuel) Problem?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

Chris writes:

Hey Sajeev,

Long time lurker here. Since you asked so nice, here’s a problem that I haven’t managed to troubleshoot myself, and so far my own searches & forum postings haven’t nailed an answer. My girlfriend drives a 99 Mazda Protégé. If driven for an extremely short distance (like from the street into the garage), it will not start the next morning. It turns over just fine, but doesn’t catch.

I’ve found that I can eventually get it to start by holding the gas pedal to the floor & cranking, followed by easing up on the pedal slightly (maybe 1/2 or 3/4 of the way down) & continuing to crank. This process takes 5 – 10 minutes, so there’s lots of breaks in there as well.

Almost everything on the spark side has been replaced for different reasons (I was chasing engine codes the wrong way). So I’m pretty sure it’s not battery, spark plug/wire, or coil pack related. Simiarly, I’ve changed the MAF, O2 sensors, cat, & the acordian hose that feeds from the intake to the throttle body (the hose being what was actually causing the codes, BTW). None of these changes seemed to affect this particular problem.

This lead me to believe the problem must be fuel delivery in some way, but now I’m second guessing myself. The problem seems to happen most often when it’s cold & damp outside (by Georgia standards).

Normally I’d have changed the fuel filter by now, but it’s not a separate unit. It’s attached to the pump & sits in the tank. That’s probably going to be my next step. Before I do that I wanted to run this by you. Any ideas? Someone suggested the the charcoal canister could be trapping water vapor (since the engine is never hot), and then forcing that vapor into engine when I try to start it the next morning. I’ve never played with that before, but if that’s right then shouldn’t there be a hose I could disconnect & see if the car starts?

Anyway, if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. This isn’t an urgent problem, but it’s one I’d like to be able to solve.



PS, here’s another write up of the problem, just in case I missed something. Mine’s the 3rd post.

Sajeev answers:

Thanks for your letter. I like the post on the Mazda Forum, especially since you did my homework for me. And by your own admission, you threw parts at a problem instead of finding the proper diagnostic for the engine codes generated. Are the codes still present?

Your problem sounds like a lack of fuel, and I seriously doubt that’s a stretch for me to armchair analyze that from my remote vantage point. Check the fuel pressure with the key on, engine off. Compare the reading on the gauge to what your EFI system needs to run properly. If you are at the lower end of acceptable (or worse) you have found your problem.

Maybe a bottle of fuel system cleaner in the tank is all you need. Or maybe a fuel filter. Or maybe the fuel pump itself. Or maybe the fuel injector’s resistance is out of spec. Or maybe the fuel pressure regulator, or its associated vacuum plumbing. My point is, this is hard to guess from my laptop.

My advice is to start with a fuel pressure tester and buy a filter, maybe a pump after that. Also make sure the vacuum lines to the regulator aren’t fossilized, gooey or cracked. If they aren’t as soft/pliable as the rubber on your shoes, replace them.

Good luck on your hunt, I am sure your girlfriend appreciates your hard work…provided you never, ever throw parts at a problem again. Never again, son!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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2 of 22 comments
  • Moparman426W Moparman426W on Mar 15, 2012

    It's most likely the fuel pump or the pressure regulator. The fuel pressure should have been checked before throwing all of those new parts on it.

  • 406driver 406driver on Mar 15, 2012

    My car has done this a couple of times and I think the problem is caused by petrol flooding. There were no ill effects afterwards so the comments about faulty parts didn't apply in my case. The best cure is, as someone has already said above, to avoid driving it a very short distance.

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X As much problems as I had with my '96 Chevy Impala SS.....I would love to try one again. I've seen a Dark Cherry Metallic one today and it looked great.
  • Susan O’Neil There is a good reason to keep the Chevrolet Malibu and other 4 door family sedans! You can transport your parents and other somewhat handicapped people comfortably and safety! If someone can stand and pivot you can put them in your car. An armrest in the back seat is appreciated and a handle above the door! Oh…and leather seats so your passenger can slide across the seat! 😊Plus, you can place a full sized wheelchair or walker in the trunk! The car sits a little lower…so it’s doable! I currently have a Ford Fusion and we have a Honda Accord. Our previous cars were Mercury Sables-excellent for transporting handicapped people and equipment! As the population ages-sedans are a very practical choice! POV from a retired handicapped advocate and daughter! 😊
  • Freddie Remember those ads that say "Call your doctor if you still have...after four hours"?You don't need to call your doctor, just get behind the wheel of a CUV. In fact, just look at one.I'm a car guy with finite resources; I can't afford a practical car during the week plus a fun car on the weekend. My solution is my Honda Civic Si 4 door sedan. Maybe yours is a Dodge Charger (a lot of new Chargers are still on dealer lots).
  • Daniel J Interesting in that we have several weeks where the temperature stays below 45 but all weather tires can't be found in a shop anywhere. I guess all seasons are "good enough".
  • Steve Biro For all the talk about sedans vs CUVs and SUVs, I simply can’t bring myself to buy any modern vehicle. And I know it’s only going to get worse.