Piston Slap: Preventative Maintenance or Over Medication?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

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?

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 36 comments
  • DweezilSFV DweezilSFV on Jul 14, 2012

    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 !

  • Andy D Andy D on Jul 16, 2012

    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.

  • FreedMike Needs MOOAAARRR POWER.
  • Mgh57 I should just buy an old car where everything is analog.
  • FreedMike You mean, the "Hellcat all the things" plan failed?
  • Fred I've only had it for about 7 months and I like it. Mostly because I have a hard time seeing my phone screen. So even tho my Honda's screen is 6" it's a lot easier to see than my phone.
  • Cha65697928 I'm 48. Both our cars have it, I'm never going back. Being able to activate calls, messages, music, nav, opening/closing garage doors all via voice command is awesome. Now if Audi would just allow Google maps to mirror in the middle of the driver's display instead of only allowing the native nav...