By on June 16, 2014

ignition. Shutterstock user Olivier Le Moal

Bruce writes:


A couple of years ago my son bought a 2004 Saturn Ion sedan from a friend of ours. It has about 90,000 miles on the clock and ran fine…until I insisted that he bring it in and get the ignition recall done. A few weeks after the recall work was completed, he was driving on 2 lane road at about 40 miles per hour and the car competely shut down…no power steering, weak power brakes. He was glad he wasn’t going faster & he wrestled the car into a parking lot, let it sit for a while, restarted it and drove home. He called the local GM dealership and they downplayed the incident and told him to bring it in at his convenience.

Now I’m really scared for him. Any advice?

Sajeev answers:

Oh dear. I guess this corner of TTAC couldn’t remain silent on the ignition recall debacle forever. That said, your letter makes me wonder if there’s another problem on this 10-ish year old machine: the Saturn had to “sit for a while” before starting back up?

Are you absolutely, positively sure the ignition switch is to blame?

Bruce replies:

Not sure yet. I’m wondering if they even replaced the switch in the first place. Poor 24 y.o. kid doesn’t have $ to buy another car so he’s stuck with this one. He called Saturn 800 number at my insistence and Saturn called his local Chevy dealer and the service mgr called him and scheduled an appt. The first ignition repair took 2 months and he enjoyed an Altima, which was fine with him, lol. According to Saturn, he’s eligible for another rental. The saga continues….Thanks Sajeev!

Sajeev concludes:

The worst thing you can do now is stress out: nothing good comes from stress when you’re detached from the repair process. That said, I am not a father: I couldn’t possibly understand your anguish. But I can say the problem isn’t hidden in some file cabinet, locked in a dark room in the RenCen. Everyone is watching and there’s a system in place to fix the problem.

Every company goes into super-customer-service-savvy crisis mode in times like these. And here’s the plan to mitigate the crisis:

And this is cold comfort to you, sadly. A high level infographic isn’t reassuring when you must go through the steps again.  Luckily GM is willing to put your son in another rental, just make sure your son does step #1 and #2 until he’s in that rental.

Then have the dealer report back with a diagnosis.  If you don’t like the diagnosis/resolution…well, perhaps we should just hope that the problem is found and fixed. Running through the plethora of scenarios only increases the stress level, it doesn’t help one iota.

How would you handle this, Best and Brightest?

[Image: Shutterstock user Olivier Le Moal]

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29 Comments on “Piston Slap: Eye On Ignition Safety Recalls?...”

  • avatar

    I’ve owned a couple of vehicles that would stop running for no apparent reason, nothing related to any ignition key issues. One had a bad coil, the other the ignition sensor (hall effect sensor) that was slowly dying. The telltale sign was the fact that if you let it sit for a while (sometimes 30 seconds, other times two hours!) it would fire right back up and run perfectly fine.

    If it were my kid, I’d see if there was anything wrong with the ignition system(s) before suspecting the ignition key assembly. Then work my way backwards to the steering column.

  • avatar

    If he had to let it sit for a while before it would restart, it’s likely not the ignition switch that caused it to stop running. There could be another drivability or electrical issue that needs to be diagnosed. If the recall was done and the switch already replaced, the dealer may charge for the diagnosis as to what was the cause.

    My advice would be to clarify with your son exactly what transpired, and then communicate with the dealer to try and understand what happened. If the issue can’t be reproduced, there may not be an immediate answer.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I tested one of our Cobalts here at work to see how much force it takes to turn it off. I was surprised at how easy it was to gently tug on the fob to get it to turn off. But at the same time I thought it was incredibly unlikely for that much force to be applied to that area without intending to do it while driving.
    It makes me wonder if there isn’t more to it than just the ignition, because it would take a confluence of circumstances for that to happen, and it likely wouldn’t just switch off under normal operating circumstances.

    And while GM’s recalling everything, can we get them to recall the GTOs for the faulty ignitions they all have? True it only happens when you attempt to start the car, but what if bad guys are after you and you need to get away?

    • 0 avatar

      Only if they’ll also do something about the leather interior stitching that disintegrates as well. I’ve got 50yr old Cadillacs that have nicer leather seats than my ’06.

  • avatar

    There’s always money in the Banana Stand…

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

    At the risk of sounding a little too facetious, I would simply do one thing…

    Trade. It. In. Now.

    Ions are already certifiable shitboxes. The recall mess just makes it that much undeseriable. I wouldn’t put my kids in one.

    • 0 avatar

      “my son bought a 2004 Saturn Ion sedan”

      Ah, there’s your problem, right there.

    • 0 avatar

      “Poor 24 y.o. kid doesn’t have $ to buy another car so he’s stuck with this one.”

      I’d agree with the trade it in side, but sometimes that not economically feasible, as it seems to be here.

      As a side note, one of these was traded in to my dealership (hmmmmmm, wonder why?) and an employee decided to purchase it (I’m not sure why)I found out because the car was going through recon and I caught it. I told the technician that this was “one of those cars” and it might be part of the recall. The technician tried the key out and it indeed took no force to switch it off. Thankfully he let the used car manager know.

  • avatar

    Was there an attempt to restart it, the instant it stalled (at speed)? Did the instrument light up like a Christmas Tree? Or was it blacked out?

    If he wasn’t unaware of ignition position when he did try to restart, how will anyone know what happened. He has to do himself a favour and know what’s going on.

    But it sounds like a bad fuel pump otherwise.

  • avatar

    Check the battery connections. It wouldn’t be unheard of for a tech to forget to tighten them down. A stereo installer did that to us and our car conked out in the middle of the monkey section of African Lion Safari.

    We had a weird problem in our old Integra…the radiator was near the end of its useful life, and it ran hot enough that an (out of spec?) screw expanded sufficiently to cause a short. That one almost killed us. Another easy thing to check (coolant temp).

  • avatar

    My dad suggested that I drill for this situation, by shutting off the engine (but keeping the key in the run position) and practicing manoeuvering the car.

    He’d had more than one power steering pump and brake booster let him down.

    I’ve done these drills in most of the cars I’ve owned, and you can handle a car like this. It takes some muscle, and it would be hard to figure out how much it takes during the few seconds you have to solve the problem in real life. But, with a few practice runs, he can get the hang of it and be protected from failed power steering and power brakes for his entire lifetime.

    The big concern, both with practicing this, and with the kind of problems which could cause the behavior he’s seeing is the anti-theft steering locker. I wonder if there’s a way to disable that in this car? That would mean that he’d be able to control the car, even if his keys fall out of the ignition.

    Anyway, I drove crappy cars when I was 24. I learned a lot and now I maintain my cars to a very high standard. I learned a lot. But drilling for emergencies is still part of my blood – first from my dad, and then re-enforced by a series of fantastic flight instructors and vehicular mishaps. There’s no better way to build an instinct which reflects what’s really happening with the vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for this. My oldest child is 14 and I’ve been going over things that I need to cover when she starts driving. Definitely adding this one to the list.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      “The big concern, both with practicing this, and with the kind of problems which could cause the behavior he’s seeing is the anti-theft steering locker. I wonder if there’s a way to disable that in this car? ”

      I’m not being sarcastic here, but if the ignition switch simply gets bumped from “ON/RUN” to “ACC”, should the column lock even engage? I wouldn’t think it would actually activate until you put the ignition switch in the “LOCK” position…

      • 0 avatar

        It doesn’t lock so easily. And some cars I’ve had even require you to push a button to release the key and lock the wheel.

        But, if you’ve ever tried to restart the engine in a moving car and with your eyes on the road, moving the key the right direction (and not getting bumped while you do it) is something you have to be very careful to get right. It’ the real sphincter clencher, and I worry about that much more than just having to muscle the steering and the brakes around.

        The engineers who built the car usually make some sort of provision to make it hard to lock the wheel accidentally while in motion, but one of the cars where I had to do this regularly didn’t have those protections. I would definitely recommend to experimenting with the locker while parked to make sure you understand the system before doing anything with the key in motion, such as shutting off the engine and draining the power steering / power brakes emergency power reservoirs. Also, the habits you form about how to push the key in or push a button when you park the car are mighty powerful, and you need to consciously avoid doing that.

        Disabling the steering wheel locker on an older car with known design defects in the key seems like a win to me.

        If my son (now 4) were in the same situation, I’d figure out how to disable the steering wheel locker (or learn enough about the system to understand why it isn’t a problem), ask him to practice stopping the car a couple of times with the engine off and with the power steering/brakes reservoirs drained of their energy, and call it solved for the short term.

        (The chance that the airbag might not deploy in an accident is still a serious concern, but the odds are very much in his favor with this one, even if his odds would be slightly better in a different car).

        Alternate possibility: trade cars with him for a while, until I can ensure his car is up to my standards and I can drive it enough build some confidence in the machine — or until he can afford something better.

  • avatar

    It could be any number of things. I had a Chevy that did something like this because the wiring harness plug at the firewall came loose. Excitement!

    One of the things I guess we should cover with out children is how to cope with sudden loss of power brakes, steering or total shutdown. Never mind the recall problem, getting them acquainted with emergency procedures is a good idea.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’ve had two minivans (Chrysler products) whose final death came due to bad underhood wiring harnesses. Too expensive to fix.

    They acted just like this Saturn. When it occurred on the second car, even my frugal wife did not hesitate to trade for a different vehicle.

    You won’t regret getting out of a troublesome 10-year-old Saturn; do it now.

  • avatar

    We own a 2005 Saturn Vue with the same 4 cyl. engine, not sure if the ignition switch is the same as in the Ions, as far as I know the Vue is not covered under this recall. Anyone know otherwise?

  • avatar

    You’ve got the media/government/lawyers on your side, given the hyper-awareness of stalling car issues among the general public.

    I’d think all you have to do is tell the dealer that “this is a safety issue, and given the ignition recall fiasco…” for the wheels to start turning in the service bay.

    The threat of unwanted attention would be a great motivator, I’d think, for the dealer to find out exactly what happened, even if it is something weird like not tightening the lug nuts enough.

  • avatar

    So since there’s a wait for the new ignition part, some people are getting rentals while others arent? My friend has a Cobalt, and the dealer said it would be months wait – no offer of a vehicle.

  • avatar

    In all seriousness, I never thought much of the Deltas and I wouldn’t put a child in any of them even prior to the recalls. Run from your Ion and I hope you didn’t pay much for your 04 because you’re going to take a bath on trade.

    “He called Saturn 800 number at my insistence and Saturn called his local Chevy dealer and the service mgr called him and scheduled an appt.”

    I find this very interesting, so Saturn is still taking calls?

  • avatar

    Victim syndrome alert!
    “Poor 24 y.o. kid doesn’t have $ to buy another car so he’s stuck with this one. ”

    This was the second sentence in response to a simple question – are you sure it is the ignition. I expected the second sentence to say, No, the kid checked the ignition as soon as he managed to stop and sure enough the key turned back. Or something to that effect. Did the key turn to the On position after the kid sat in the car for 10 minutes, or maybe the fuel pump cooled off and started working. Did you have someone trouble shoot the car for other problems? Oh no, let’s talk about the poor victim, sitting there helplessly in the car, waiting for the magic wand.

    • 0 avatar

      If that’s what you believe, then shouldn’t you be educating them on how to perform the checks, so that they can take control of the situation next time?

      Remember that our version of the story is secondhand or third hand, and that the parent did ask for the community’s thoughts on how best to solve the problem.

      Using the Internet to learn how to solve problems (or handle it better the next time) is a winning strategy, in my experience, and that’s exactly what the parent has done here. There’s every reason to encourage people to learn this way – both for the people who asked the question, and for the countless people who have the same question and didn’t speak up. Plus, sharing what I’ve learned the hard way is fun!

  • avatar

    my mother-in-law’s 200 (or whatever it is) is doing much the same thing.

    the dealer has put a couple new ignition switches in it, but now it seems to be eating ECUs. they are having a hell of a time finding replacement computers for the car, and I’m not even sure that’s the real culprit. (i think they are shotgunning the diagnosis, hoping to hit the real problem accidentally).

    i dunno if the 200 and the ion share a bunch of parts, but these may be common enough bits to see full-line occassional issues.

  • avatar
    Lynn E.

    Check for dirty gas.
    Many years ago I had a car that would cut off once in a while but on the interstate the car would cut off about every 10 miles. Drifting to the side and waiting 5 minutes would allow the filter to absorb some gas and I could start up and continue.

    Replaced the fuel filter. A few weeks later the gas station where I bought the gas was cited for sand in his tanks. I never went back to that station.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with Lynn E., and would recommend changing out the fuel filter. When the filter gets plugged up, the vehicle will hiccup or possibly stall at highway speeds.

  • avatar

    The advice, even if it seems like cya snark from GM, is solid. My wife, who knows nothing about cars except the operation of same, gave me grief about putting all my keys on the ignition key ring, so I finally listened. She was right.

  • avatar

    I say dust off and nuke the Saturn from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure…

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