Piston Slap: You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap you ve lost that lovin feelin

TTAC commentator mnm4ever writes:


I have 2 slightly older cars in my stable and both are having similar issues. We have a 2001 MR2 Spyder with 72k miles, and a 2002 Honda CRV with 230k miles. The CRV recently got new shocks and springs, new lower front control arms and front compliance bushings, and new front ball joints. While it now rides a little bit better, it still crashes over bumps and just feels like an old worn suspension even with all the new components.

When shifting between drive and reverse, there is a “clunk” in the front end somewhere, this clunk was there before all the parts were replaced, and was supposedly caused by the worn out compliance bushings, which is why I replaced all those parts as well. Unfortunately it didn’t fix the noise. My mechanic has been over the car a couple of times and doesn’t know where the noises are coming from, he says it’s just old. He is an otherwise excellent mechanic, so I am surprised at his lack of ideas, but he knows I am probably too cheap to pay him to really tear it apart anyway so that could affect his answers.

The MR2 has significantly less mileage and is in excellent shape overall. But the suspension has the same worn out feeling, it doesn’t feel “tight” anymore. Driving fast over bumpy pavement, or over speed bumps it feels and sounds pretty much the same as the CRV, almost like something in the suspension is loose or worn out. Cowl shake on an old convertible amplifies the issue. The MR2 also exhibits an odd “looseness” when I turn the wheel at low speed tight turns, like pulling in or out of a driveway or parking space, it feels like the power steering over-boosts the last little bit of steering angle, but its unnerving when you are rolling forward or backward and the car suddenly turns in more than you expected. During normal driving the steering feels properly assisted and tight, so that could just be a trait of that car. The same mechanic says the MR2 is fine and I am just spoiled by the newer GTI. We want to keep this car and I want to do a proper overhaul on the suspension, I just put brand new tires on it, and I have a shelf full of chassis bracing components and new struts ready to install, but I do not want to do the labor twice. So I am trying to figure out the right way to fix it and the right components to change so I take care of all of the weak spots at once.

My guess is that new bushings may help the problem on both cars. Forums are not as helpful as you would think… I have read pages and pages of information but the CRV drivers do not spend a lot of time working on their own suspension and the MR2 drivers are way more concerned with performance mods rather than restoring the original ride quality. So my question is: Is there any way to restore the ride quality on older cars back to something close to new car feel? Or is the CRV just too old, and the MR2 just too much of a convertible to make it as good as new?

Thanks for any advice!

Sajeev answers:

Replacing so many parts, pouring such amounts of money into a heavily depreciated, high mileage vehicle (CRV more than the MR2) is a pretty bad idea. Stop and ponder: why do I care to make an old machine run exactly like new? Is it really worth it?

If yes, you must be the nutty automotive restoration type. That is, you see money and cars differently than most: as what’s poured into a 230,000 mile CRV will never, EVER come back.

Personal aside: back in ’99, I had a suspension overhaul performed in my 1988 Mercury Cougar XR-7 with 130k and 10+ years of abuse from the brutal roads of Houston’s Third Ward. New (non-saggy) springs, shocks, bushings, end links, ball joints, etc. The only parts remaining untouched were the spindles, sway bars and the control arms’ metal skeletons. I took one fast sweeper and was sold on the $2000 spent: the Cougar felt “new” on any road, in any dynamic test.

Years later, adding 75 lbs of chassis stiffeners, Koni shocks and a ’98 Cobra rear sway bar turned a respectable machine into something pretty bad ass on the street. Which proves a point:

I justify the cost to an extinct animal (get it? Fox Cougar?) with some unique 1980s Muscle Car curb appeal, but your need for a perfect old Honda CUV is flawed. Perhaps you need to replace every last bushing, but you’ve spent enough: make sure the tires have plenty of non-dry rotted tread on them and let it be. If it still drives you nuts, time to upgrade to a CUV with far less mileage and sell this one to someone who doesn’t really care.

The MR2 Spyder is like my Cougar: a fun toy that’s damn near impossible to replicate. But don’t be afraid to attack the problem in stages: add the chassis bracing, install the new struts and consider putting a new (not reman) steering rack to kill any possible steering slop. Perhaps the ball joints are just a touch too loose and the bushings are past it (i.e. from abuse on bad roads), but I think you’ll be thrilled with the perfection gained from extra braces and new shocks.

Sure, you can get a Miata and I can get a new Mustang GT..but screw that. That’s loser talk! We are in it to win it…son!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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4 of 75 comments
  • Andyinatl Andyinatl on Oct 08, 2013

    This article brings to memory my old Infiniti G20, that had a semi-serious clunk while going over the regular bumps, that you could feel in the pedals for some weird reason. I replaced control arms, various suspension bushings, all struts, all to no avail. What it ultimately turned out to be, was the automatic transmission mount. I didn't think to inspect it earlier, but all engine mounts looked ok. However, when i finally replaced that automatic transmission mount, the car went to being the super smooth over bumps again.

  • Mnm4ever Mnm4ever on Oct 08, 2013

    So I have been driving the CRV the past couple of days and really paying attention to what it does. The clunk doesn't happen all the time, but sometimes as the car starts it will clunk, and sometimes when shifting between drive and reverse, but once under way I don't ever hear it. So I think you guys are on the right track with motor mounts or maybe trans mounts too. The "crashing" part is perhaps not as bad as I originally described. Just driving around it rides great, excellent really, if a bit firm because of the stiffer springs. But over washboard-like pavement and sharp bumps like harsh speed bumps or broken pavement the suspension feels almost like its rattling. This is where it's similar to the MR2, rides nice most of the time except over hard pavement. The CRV has stiffer than OEM springs and the tires are not good tires, I bought cheap tires and am now paying the price. All of the components that were replaced also included new bushings, so it has new control arm bushings, bump stops, etc. It could just be the stiff springs and crappy tires along with a 200k+ body shell making it feel so rattly. I am going to try replacing the sway bar bushings and end links since they are cheap and if that doesn't do it then I will probably just live with it until I need tires again. For the MR2 I think I will get OEM bushings for every part I can reasonably afford, along with control arms and sway bars/bushings and the previously mentioned bracing and struts. We like to autocross it occasionally but I have found that the course we go to has terrible pavement and overly stiff suspension doesn't seem to work as well as more compliance with really good tires. It isn't a track rat. It also needs a new clutch which is going to be a big job, so I am trying to get all that stuff done at the same time while everything is apart. I was planning to get an lightened flywheel and might do the CV joints and axles then too. I have been toying with the idea of a 6MT swap too at this stage, but not sure I am ready to drop $1200+ on one when the current trans is fine.

    • See 1 previous
    • Mnm4ever Mnm4ever on Oct 08, 2013

      @hgrunt I replaced the struts with complete assembled units, including new top hats and bump stops, so they are new as well. But I did not do the rear control arms or bushings, as they are pretty expensive and very difficult to change, and they didn't look too bad. The noises seem to come from the front, but that's just my guess, I could be wrong. Good idea to check them as the rear got a lot less attention than the front.

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