By on September 24, 2012

Ted writes:

Here’s what I got: 2002 Saturn L200 156000 miles bought new. Excellent car no problems whatsoever, maintained precisely. Question about timing chain scuttlebutt. Should I change it preventatively , switch to synthetic oil, or just do not worry about?

NHSTA stats report only 7 incident per 1000 of the non-recalled vehicles. Also if chain busts does it just bend valves or can it cause piston damage. Appreciate any advice.

Sajeev answers:

Much like our last reader with some admirable Saturn L-love, I wholly appreciate someone who can love a cool car that most will simply toss aside.  And most Saturns (save for the ION) had a lot of family friendly cool going for them, and the L-series is high on my list. My fav is the original Saturn SC2 coupe in a delicious bronze, or brown (natch)!

Oooooh yeah, what a shape!  So anyway…

I’m not thrilled with the idea of changing a recalled part on a non-recalled vehicle. While the repercussions are stiff (these are interference motors), finding a decent replacement engine from an automotive recycler is a great option. More on that later.

Switch to synthetic oil?  Probably not a bad idea.  At this age and mileage, gaskets might leak because of the switch to an oil with different molecular properties (for lack of a better phrase) but I don’t know. I suspect this car is a “keeper” so make the switch.

About interference engines: often the valves just bend, because the inertia (weight and velocity) of the pistons will literally slap the valves around like a little punk kid.  That’s not to say that piston damage cannot occur, especially since a chunk of piston can fly out, and rip apart the cylinder wall. Ouch.

But most modern engines are “throwaways” because of the expense of machine shops and replacing the torque-to-yield bolts. And when you add the ease and affordability of modern on-line junkyards, it’s a done deal. I spotted several good replacement engines for under $1000 at  So don’t spend hundreds fixing the timing chain when you can get a lower mileage replacement, replace the timing chain/gaskets, and get it done for less than $2000.\

I am getting rightly slammed for my piss-poor advice, so I’m gonna flip-flop on the issue like (insert politician’s name here).  Change the timing chain with the recalled part.  It’s a big improvement over the original design, something I completely overlooked.  While you’re in there, maybe throw a new water pump and fresh rubber hoses/vacuum lines or anything else you unbolt to get to the timing chain.


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20 Comments on “Piston Slap: Recall or Total Recall?...”

  • avatar

    Man that piston reminds me of the carnage I experienced first hand with a built 5 liter. The number 8 exhaust valve retainer fractured at about 4000 rpm. It wiped the motor as the piston broke the head of the valve off bouncing it around the cylinder and chamber knocking a whole in the head and bore. The valve stem seized in the head and stabbed the piston while bending the connecting rod ( polished stock cast rod btw) with resulting chaos spewing oil chunks of various types or metal and coolant all the way past the throttlebody.

  • avatar

    As a Journeyman Mechanic I can’t disagree more ~ .

    All of my cars are old cast offs or junkyard rescues and I always replace the timing belts or chain and sprockets as a prophylactic measure , if the current engine runs well and doesn’t smoke nor leak exsessively it’s well worth the effort IMO .

    The beauty of fully synthetic oils is : they pretty much stop the wear cycle dead in it’s tracks , I have a 1969 Honda CM91 Motocycle with well over 40,000 miles on it’s tiny worn out eninge thanx to synthetic oils .
    it’s noisy and uses oil but faithfully runs well and zips across the Mojave Desert with ease….


    • 0 avatar

      “The beauty of fully synthetic oils is : they pretty much stop the wear cycle dead in it’s tracks . . .”

      I’ve never seen any evidence of such a thing. Synthetic oils typically pass exactly the same wear tests as conventional oils.

      • 0 avatar


        I hate this myth that synthetic oil has some magical properties that prevents engine wear.

        The difference between synthetic and dino is a longer OCI due to less breakdown of the antifriction properties/additives at the molecular level.

        If you change your oil as scheduled, there is no difference.

  • avatar

    I’m assuming that piston was extracted as shown? It looks awfully clean to have been inside an engine at one point.

    • 0 avatar

      Pic is photoshopped – and poorly I might add:

      1. Valves don’t sit directly over the center of the piston – there’s no room for the exhaust valve in this photo.

      2. Valvestem bend angle doesn’t match direction of the piston motion, not to mention the absurdity of the valvestem tip being perfectly machined. (In real life it would have been cut off, or removed when the had assembly was removed).

      3. The piston skirt has a weird haze on it. Looks like someone was trying to cover up something. Maybe a logo?

      Anyway, my advice would be to replace the chain. Replacing an engine after the chain breaks is just bad advice, and shipping your $1000 engine of unknown provenance plus the downtime of not having your car is not worth the hassle of just changing it. BTW, machine shop work is cheap and most TTY bolts can be replaced with Grade 8’s from your local hardware store.

  • avatar

    Change the chain and guides – it’s worth doing; an engine swap is not.

  • avatar

    C’MON SAJEEV! You know enough about these 2.2’s to know that the timing chain was DRASTICALLY redesigned even if it’s not part of the recall, so if it still has the original chain on it that needs to come off IMMEDIATELY and have the redesigned chain put on. The other thing to consider is that these have a tendency for the heads to go porous (see previous piston slap here: so if you do happen to have a chain brake and bend a bunch of valves you will notice that there is a huge shortage of worthwhile/quality heads available for replacement or rebuilding.

    Timing chain kit is cheap, and can be done without removing the head. While you’re in there I would consider doing the gasket anyway at ~160k. Heck, you’re over halfway done with the head job at that point, all you need to add to your cart is a new gasket and head bolts…

    (the Saturn from that previous piston slap now has 209k on it, and going strong :)

    • 0 avatar

      You are right. Man, you are right.

      Well, I can’t win ’em all.

    • 0 avatar

      In the case of the Saturn I have limited knowledge of L200, but if I was poking around in my SL2’s bay I would do the timing chain, water pump, tensioner, and serp belt just as good maint (had all done but timing chain last year). With crampt FWD cars like Saturns, it may not make sense to do an engine swap to fix one or two problems.

      However, Sajeev has a point, sometimes its just easier (and more economically viable) to swap out the whole engine for a low-mile junkyard special. Saw plenty a Northstar, 4100, and 98+ VW I4 swapped because it was just easier using a younger engine which had yet to succumb to various design flaws of those engines.

  • avatar

    Ex owner of a 2002 Saturn vue with the 2.2 and a stick. Chain went at 180k and took the engine. If that should have been fixed by recall I am not happy. I am not happy anyway. I loved that car and it kept breaking. Transmission, then clutch. I felt it was a retirement fund for a Saturn mechanic.

    I wish I had been offered something to love ref dependability with that first year vue. Multiple computers, AC, clutch slave cyl followed by clutch, then transmission. The chain was the final blow but I sure loved that car while it was beating me.

  • avatar

    I’ve replaced two of these on 2.2 Ions – the new parts have a better oil nossels. Takes about 7 hours if you have the tools – you need a pin spanner to hold the balancer while you loosen that hideous bolt. I also replaced the balance shaft chains too. Theres a neat tool to hold the cams, it may help, as I spent about an hour withing I was an octopus to hold everything in place while to tighten the bolts.

  • avatar

    I have a Saturn LS1 and coincidentally have been wondering about what sort of mechanical issues these cars have. Also I have to say that I also like it’s styling. I find it to be nicer than similarly aged Camrys or Tauruseseseses. I am looking to swap the ugly factory hubcaps, though…

    I hope you have good luck with your problem.

  • avatar

    Ok – Advice, I managed to score a 2002 L100 in ’09 with 38k miles for $2,000. It is now at 98k miles, called recall # and was told my VIN was not part of the recall, my brother’s shop quotes replacing the chain at $554. Replace it?

    Oil has been changed religiously every 3k, had 100k maint. done at 80k (car is full of electrical gremlins, don’t like it, but some deals you don’t pass up, my old lady neighbor inherited her sisters park avenue about two days before the engine in my 98′ jeep went, as you can tell she didn’t drive very far and had all of the maint. done at dealer with records, brother owning large shop makes owning GM product of that era less risky)

    • 0 avatar

      Depends on how long you want to keep the car, and if you like to gamble. Ya never know, spending 25% of the car’s purchase price could be pointless if you only keep it for another 2 years/20,000 miles. Or shorter. Or longer, who really knows?

      Or just replace the chain and make things a lot easier.

      • 0 avatar

        In my mind if a car costs you less than $500/year to keep on the
        road its money well spent.

        I see your point on percentage of purchase price/value, but $2,000 for a running car with 38K on the clock at any point in the last ten years is a steal… the actual value of the car when he purchased it was probably double what he paid.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m making arrangements

  • avatar

    Fix it now, but next big repair, junk it. Saturns are orphan cars and not collectible or ‘classic’ by any means. They aren’t Pontiac G8 GT’s. Sat’s are getting crushed and shredded every few seconds.

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