By on July 3, 2012


TTAC Commentator Silent Ricochet writes:

Hello Sajeev,

You’ve helped me greatly in the past, and I once again turn to you for your knowledge of used cars and reliability.

To refresh your memory, I drive a 2002 Chevy Cavalier Z24. It’s a 5-Speed Manual, with the 2.4L Quad 4 motor in it, not the lifeless 2.2. I’m about to hit 145k and I’ve got a few concerns about the car and what I should exactly do with it.

I’m currently in my third year of college, with another 3-4 ahead of me. So far my Cavy has been the most reliable car I’ve ever owned and it’s been with me through thick and thin, never complains, and even enjoys being tossed around a few corners and some light to light action on the weekends. I’ve maintained everything I could afford on this car (for a full list look here)  And that list is old too, since then I’ve replaced even more, Synchromesh in the gearbox and I’ve switched to ACDelco Oil Filters to name a few. And not those crappy ECore designs either). I might be a little crazy with all the maintenance but at the end of the day, I love my car, and it shows. Always starts, engine is smooth and full of life, the gearbox is smooth but firm, and the ride for a 11 year old sport suspension is predictable. I believe this car has the potential to live well passed 200k at the rate it’s going, but 55,000 miles is a long ways away.

Here’s the problem: The paint, is starting to show signs of it’s age, chips in the hood, clearcoat coming off the roof, little things like that. Furthurmore the paint below the gas cap and near my side skirts is starting to bubble a little. So to make it simple, the rust has begun. Combine this with a mysterious leak of some sort under the car (which I’ve identified through reading as the Water Pump weeping a little, they’re known for that) and a thought of maybe selling this car comes to mind. It’s a tough thought for sure. My step father in my hometown operates and owns a Towing Business and Repair Shop, so any repairs that need to be done, are done by him and at a much discounted cost (buy him lunch and it’s a done deal kinda thing).

But the car is starting to get to that point where, if I gotta replace the water pump, then I might as well replace the timing chain while I’m in there. And while I’m in there, might as well change the head gasket too because it’s literally like 8 more bolts. AllData puts a water pump at almost 8 hours labor. Something tells me that’s not going to be a freebie job. My step dad thinks that I should sell my car this spring, before it’s “unsellable” with the amount of mileage on it and what not. I’m kind of torn.

So this places me in a weird position. In one hand, I think my step dad has a point. In the other, I’ve put so much into this car, it runs so well, and I love it, that I believe that I should keep it. My original plan was to hang onto my Cavy until I get out of college 3-4 years from now, and then buy something much newer / nicer. But who knows what could happen in the 3-4 years between now and then. A thought had crossed my mind earlier this year to get an early 2000’s Camaro (V8 of course, can you tell I’m a Chevy guy yet?), but I decided to stick with my Cavy purely because of love and reliability.

So? What do you think? Any insight?

Thanks in advance!

Sajeev answers:

This series is no replacement for deep diving into the appropriate car forum to find the truth.  I occasionally point that out because my half-assed Googling has a hard time justifying your deep engine dive.  Timing chain?  Head Gasket?

Timing chains rarely have problems, and I am not familiar with any chronic chain problem with the QUAD 4.  (puts on flame suit) And you never, ever touch a 100% functional head gasket on a modern motor…the only time I’ve seen this as (necessary) preventative maintenance is on iron block/aluminum head motors from the early 1990s, when the gasket material changed composition from asbestos to whatever stopgap non-cancer causing material was used immediately after.  These days, head gaskets aren’t a big concern.

Obviously you are a stickler for upkeep.  You love to keep your ride in tip-top shape.  But are you over thinking this time ’round?


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36 Comments on “Piston Slap: Preventative Maintenance or Over Medication?...”

  • avatar

    A water pump is hardly a reason to consider getting rid of the car. It is a typical repair. Showing its age? Call it “patina” and enjoy it. You say you love it, so why are you talking yourself out of it?
    If it has the potential for 200k, swap out the water pump and go.. Like Sajeev said, you are over thinking this one.. and.. dont fix it if it aint broke!!!

    • 0 avatar
      Silent Ricochet

      The main thing here for me was the object of money. The Water Pump on the 2.4L Twin Cam is gear-driven. In order to get to it, you have to take apart the entire timing chain housing and assembly. 8 Hours labor, plus parts isn’t going to be cheap.

      And it wasn’t. 2 Months ago (although I submitted the letter quite long ago) on my way home from school for a doctor’s visit the Water Pump finally gave out (the plastic thermostat housing also failed spectacularly), spilling coolant and whatnot all over I-80. I forced my step father to send a tow truck 2 hours away to pick me up in the middle of Pennsylvania. Total cost of the repairs and tow: Close to $1500 ($1483 of which I didn’t have at the time).

      • 0 avatar

        Yikes! I was quoted $900-1100 to do a timing belt, tensioner, water pump and camshaft seals on a four cam V-6 Camry.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        A little confused. You say that the repair and tow cost $1500. Yet you’re also saying that a family member does the repairs on the cheap?

        As for the car, keep it and heed the lesson.

        Always take care of little problems before they become big. Everyone here has overlooked a little issue at one time or another. You’ve just joined a very big club and hopefully, you’ll look at the next repair need as an investment in your freedom.

        Keep the car. These vehicles can handle abuse surprisingly well.

      • 0 avatar

        From what I have heard, the water pump is the Achilles Heel of the GM Twin Cam 2.4L engines. And for the reason above… when it goes, it’s a lot of work to replace.

        How much of the $1500 was the tow?

        Sounds like the decision now is easy… hold onto it for another 100k+


  • avatar

    The 1st time I ever heard that changing a head gasket + chain is preventive maintenance. The only engine in the last 10-15 years that had relatively wide spread head gasket issues were certain vintages of Subaru’s flat 4.

    Fix what’s broke and don’t push your luck.

  • avatar

    Ordinarily I’d say sell it while it’s still worth more than scrap value, and get something with more useful life ahead of it. I definitely don’t subscribe to the “drive it into the ground” cult that shows up on this board.

    But you’re a college student. This is the worst time in 80 years to be a college student. When you finish school and pass the six-month mark at a stable job in your field, knock yourself out. That may still be five years away.

  • avatar

    Our daughter owned a 1997 Cavalier, a “Cockroach of the Road”© and loved it while she was in school. An absolutely bullet-proof car and well worth hanging onto – your studies are much more important at this point.

    That being said, I turn you over to one of our finest commenters, GEOZINGER, who is all things Cavalier/Sunfire…


    • 0 avatar

      I recently came very close to getting a 97 for free (fiance’s family already had 1 other extra car and didn’t want it sitting in front of the house anymore) to use for commuting to work. The thing ran like a champ.

      Unfortunately, a couple days before I was going to pick it up, someone flew around the corner and smashed into it, totaling it.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought I heard someone calling me…

      Both of my daughters are veterans of my old 97 Cavy Coupe, the younger one still drives it (when she needs a car). It just runs and runs and runs. I loaned it to a family friend who was in a jam this past winter. She liked it so much, when she got her $$ situation straightened out, she went and bought a 2005 Cavalier sedan for her daughter.

  • avatar

    I’d say keep it, especially if you love it. Fix the water pump, and maybe repaint if you can get it done at a fair price. Maintain it in you college years (thank your stepfather for that) and get something new after you graduate. Forget about resale value… you might get more than fair market value at a dealer trade-in if they’re trying to move metal.

    I’m keeping my student car (’99 model year, 1.5 years after graduating), and it could use a repaint but if I do that I might as well hang onto it for another 5 years at least.. it’ll be worth keeping because like yours, it’s a nice trouble-free drive.

  • avatar

    Every time I hear “Cavaliers are reliable cars” I get confused. How on earth did my wife’s ’01 Cavalier (bought with 75k miles) go through 1 waterpump, 2 alternators, 3 fuel pumps and 1 power steering pump in the 50k miles that she owned it? Being responsible for fixing that damn car constantly in my free time almost singlehandedly made me break up with her. I guess she just had bad luck, but because of it she absolutely refuses to consider a GM product. I can’t blame her.

    Would you trust this car to take you across the country tomorrow? That’s always my metric for “do I keep this car or not”. If the answer is no and you have the means, get another car that you can trust.

    • 0 avatar

      You really can’t blame the manufacturer for the reliability of a used car unless you know the previous owner very, very well. You absolutely can’t blame them for the subsequent failures of any non-OE replacement parts.

      The concept of a timing-system-driven water pump is certainly ridiculous though. It’s far too much of a wear item for that. I estimate it took me 20 hours to change that out on my mother’s ’99 Sunfire GT, though I suspect I could easily do it in 10 the next time! I went with an AC Delco pump, as it was the only one I could find with name brand (Made in Canada!) bearings. I did it at 120k miles and she’s at 180k miles now. I thought I might have to change some timing chain components – specifically the guides – but everything in there looked clean with minimal wear, so I left it alone.

      It has been a reliable vehicle and sees a lot of highway use. She has no fear of long-distance drives, as it’s never left her stranded in the 10 years she’s had it and still runs as good as the day she bought it. It feels cheap and unrefined but the engine is strong, the 4T40 transmission is excellent, and I’ve replaced few parts. Even the entire front end is still original and in good shape.

  • avatar

    Pending problems or not, if you love this car keep it. For all its flaws – including a broken core support and a blown head gasket – I still pine for my 1988 turbo Shadow. The day I sold it, part of my youth went away.

    Your car is probably worth more to you than it would be to someone else so selling it won’t bring you much anyhow and if you buy another used car you may just be exchanging a known set of problems for ones unknown. I say do the minimum work it takes to get by for the next few years. Fix the water pump, touch up the paint chips and sand/spray the rust bubbles.

  • avatar

    Click and Clack say that you as long as you love the car, you need to keep fixing it. The time to get rid of it is when you are no longer in love. I have a 1995 Golf with 250,000 miles on it, my mechanic keeps fixing it, it keeps running well. And I really like thte car. Everything can be fixed if you want to.

    • 0 avatar

      I think they also tossed out $2,000/year as the threshold for where repairs stop making sense. $2,000 doesn’t cover the financing costs of even a fairly basic new car, but at that rate the inconvenience has to be worth something.

  • avatar

    If you are dependent on Dad for cheap repairs then you need to respect his opinion and sell it.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. If your source of cheap repairs is telling you to tap out, that’s likely his way of saying “I’m sick of spending my spare time fixing this heap.”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Typical GM, fix the problems with the Quad Four, rename it “Twin Cam” and then discontinue the engine. I really would really love a “Twin Cam” with a 5-speed manual in a 90s N-body Cutlass Calais coupe with the FE3 suspension package…

    You’re a college kid, fix it, keep driving it, go till you get a decent job and can afford something else. Right now I don’t think you could even afford a used car.

  • avatar

    I don’t think I know of any water pump that leaks that isn’t trying to fail. It’s like the warning strip on a brake pad. You ignored it and it bit you.

    Since you have done the repairs the question of what to do is moot. It sounds like you may have something that will get you through school if you don’t continue to ignore warning signs.

    Purolator or someone used to have an ad. Pay me now or pay me later. I guess this is live and learn.

  • avatar

    Ok ok I see Silent’s point now. Yes, the fix is pricey but then we have to get into alternatives (buying new, used etc..) and we all know 1500 dollars doesn’t buy you squat nowadays. Looks like you went the cheap route and fixed it. At least now you can get at least your money back for the repair if you wanted to part with it. Tough call.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure how much they vary location to location, but I got a very nice repaint job on my 15 yr old Saturn from Maaco for 300 bucks.
    Had swapped the rear bumper, trunk, and rear fender after a crash.

    It was white and they used the same paint they used on FedEx trucks.

    One of those rare times when you’re surprised on the positive side.

  • avatar

    I’ve had some experience with these cars…

    You’ve already had the second worst case scenario happen with the engine, the water pump giving out. The first worst case scenario would be the #3 crank bearing going out. Go easy on the crappy Isuzu 5 speed trans, if you break it, you’ll pay hell trying to find another one.

    It sounds like you maintain it well, and other than cosmetic issues you like the car. I agree with others, Maaco does a pretty good job repainting cars, spend the $400 or so to have it done.

    I’ve got a 95 Sunfire GT with the 2.3 and ~ 170K miles on it, and a 97 Cavalier Coupe with the 2.2 slow and 253K miles on it. Both have been good runners for me.

    Unless you get real lucky, you’ll hardly find a cheaper car to maintain and operate. Any car you finance will ding you pretty good, along with the huge increase in insurance.

    My $0.02.

    • 0 avatar
      Silent Ricochet

      Yeah I’ve read the #3 crank bearing likes to spin out on these engines. No idea why, I’m hoping there’s some kind of warning signs before this, god forbid, happens to me one day.

      Also, I have the Getrag F23 transmission, not the crappy Isuzu. It’s actually quite the solid performer, very smooth. Notchy, but smooth.

      I’m inclined to agree with you on the maintenance side of things with my car. I see all of my friends driving various makes and models making trips back and fourth to the shop almost 2-3 times more frequent than me, and up until this Water Pump fiasco, I only went to the family shop for free oil changes. Btw, how is that 2.3 in the sunfire? I’ve thought about grabbing some secret cams.

      • 0 avatar

        WRT: #3 bearing failure: they’re supposed to start knocking pretty heavily before they go, but they go shortly after. I think the other warning sign is sudden oil starvation, but I’m going from memory of what I’ve read. I’ve not had it happen to me.

        I have a 1995 2.3, the last year of that displacement; the good cams are on the 1990-92 HO models. Those were in N-bodies (Cutlass Calais 442, Beretta GTU, etc.), not the later J-bodies like ours. They ARE the motors to have, but are getting harder to find as time goes on, at least in boneyards. If I were bucks up and wanted to swap motors, I’d be looking at an Ecotec swap instead of farting around with the Q4. I love the Q4, but the Eco has way more stuff you can play with.

        For a 17 year old motor, I still rev mine to near redline in the lower gears everyday (merging with 70+ MPH Michigan traffic), no worries. Maybe I’ve been exceptionally lucky, but both my J-bodies have been very inexpensive to run and I’m not too easy on the Sunfire. I’d forgotten you had a 2002, they switched back to Getrags by then. I wish they’d never used the Isuzu in the first place…

        I think you made the right choice, get or keep your finances in order, after you get that bangin’ job once you’re done with school, you can throw down on something really nice. Bonne Chance!

  • avatar

    Stories like this make me long for the death of the mechanical water pump buried in depths of the engine. I had a similar experience on an Accord V6 — $800 to replace a regular wear part, and might as well change the timing belt since you’re there already. Toyota makes an electric water pump for the Prius. I see no reason the water pump couldn’t be an electric device attached to your radiator. You might lose some slight efficiency by using the alternator to convert mechanical power to electricity and back. You gain some back by running at a lower speed on startup, in cold weather, etc. You could eliminate the thermostat (another not uncommon source of failure) and just vary the speed of the pump as needed. You gain mechanical simplicity and ease of servicing, but requires slightly more electronic complexity.

    • 0 avatar

      Many cars are already straining their alternators, plus the mechanical pump is probably cheaper “at the time of manufacture”. The Leaf uses two electrical water pumps in series, if one fails the remaining one can handle the load.

      Lots to be said for the Prius.. no alternator, no starter, no bands in the AT, no AT, no water pump, no belts and an electric AC compressor that will not leak.. plus the brake pads usually last a long time.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    If you love the car fix the water pump and keep it. I think everyone on TTAC had a car they wish they had back.

  • avatar

    I can’t think of the Quad 4 without laughing at GM for giving it a “maintenance-free” timing chain…that has to be removed when the cheapo water pump fails.

    The irony of this is usually lost on the GM loyalists who knock Hondas for having timing belts.

  • avatar

    I’d say keep it and drive it until you can’t anymore. Water pumps are expensive to replace on the Quad but leaks that so many of my customers “forget about” wind up almost always leading to blown head gaskets and overheating.

    Fix the water pump and spot repair the rust and keep on truckin…

  • avatar

    Chevy and Cavalier = Dump it.
    GM = money pit

  • avatar

    99 Cavalier was my first new car. Never a problem in the five years I owned it. Wish it hadn’t been totalled, I’d have it today.
    An inexpensive mode of transport through college. Don’t take on additional debt for an unknown quantity.

    $1450 or so more than you could afford for a repair is giving you your answer: you can’t afford to make the switch right now at all !

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Gotta know when to hold to hold them, know when to fold ’em . A used car’s conundrum. Definitely, a first world problem. Horror stories like this keep me clear of wrong wheel drive cars in general. GMs in particular.

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