Piston Slap: Recall or Total Recall?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap recall or total recall

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 car-part.com. [s]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.\[/s]

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.

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

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6 of 20 comments
  • Rnc Rnc on Sep 24, 2012

    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)

    • See 2 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Sep 26, 2012

      @Sajeev Mehta 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.

  • Chicagoland Chicagoland on Sep 25, 2012

    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.

    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Sep 26, 2012

      Very true, although IMO the SLs make excellent beaters; at least this has been my experience.

  • ToolGuy This truck is the perfect size, and the fuel economy is very impressive.-This post sponsored by ExxonMobil
  • ToolGuy If I were Jeep, I would offer a version with better NVH and charge more for it.And then I would offer a version with worse NVH, and charge more for it. (There is an audience for both.)
  • Szi65724742 Not saying dude's not a douche, but Google Maps doesn't show a stop sign at any of the three Walmarts dumping onto 60 - there's a stop-line at best. And while you nerd-rage at a random dude in a truck, a similar thing happens ALL. THE. TIME here - get Prius'd and Tesla'd every single day. I got hit while stopped at a stoplight. 7:30am, sunny morning, clear, straight sightlines for a couple miles. Was a loaded down work van. I don't rage and yell to get those off the streets. Blame the drivers, not the vehicles.
  • AMcA This, from the same regulatory agency that mandates the two adjacent outboard and center rear seat buckles be incompatible, so that the impatient passenger who hits the wrong buckle the first time simply gives up. You oughta watch my husband in the back of a cab. Every time he tries to put the outboard belt into the center buckle. The belt and buckle are incompatible and won't latch. He says "godamn [insert vehicle brand]" and stays unbelted.
  • VoGhost Twenty comments, but none acknowledging that the 'Elon promised me a $35K car!' propaganda can end now. But then, accountability was never a strong suit of the anti-America crowd.