By on April 20, 2018

saturn aura

Josh writes:

I’ve asked you a few questions over the years, and the answers have always been excellent. Well now… I’ve yet another: about a month ago I picked up a rather humble ’99 Fleet Car White Saturn SL1. Despite an intermittent “Service Engine Soon” idiot light (which I suspected to be the typical rather crusty EGR valve, and was right), rear power windows I was warned by the owner “to not put them down,” it was clean overall, had traveled only 110k miles in its lifetime, and was a one-owner car. I paid the sum of $1,100 cash money and became the proud new owner.

It has four new tires (that match!), doesn’t piss any of its fluids or smoke, and has cold air conditioning. And three cheers for damned near 40 mpg. On to my question: when the engine idles, it sounds “squeaky.” Not squeally, like belt squeal… but squeaky. And it’s more than just a squeak when it idles, it’s present while driving. I can hear the squeak while I drive down the highway even!

I know the 1.9-liter utilizes a timing chain (DURABILITY!), but I guess it still utilizes traditional rubber accessory belts, as well?

Thus, should I have the squeaky belt issue looked into and/or fixed? Or, since this is literally only my work commuter, should I NOT worry about the squeaky noise at idle and just keep driving it as is?

I will add that the car is remarkably clean outside and despite the cigarette smoking, the interior is cleanish, as well. The undercarriage of this car looks shockingly new… way better than my wife’s buy here, pay here Civic Si I wrote you about previously. 😊

Sajeev answers:

Saturns are hipster cool now, right? No matter, that’s a neat runabout that likely needs a new belt — which you should fix before it leaves you stranded.

But since removing the belt isn’t stupid easy, do check everything that spins with it: tensioner assembly, idler pulley, alternator, water pump, smog pump, power steering pump, etc. Older cars have more stuff on the belt (fan clutch, smog pump) newer ones have less (electric power steering)…but I digress. 

Get a cheap mechanics stethoscope (or a really long screw driver), fire up the motor and VERY CAREFULLY stick the pointy end of the stethoscope/screwdriver against a flat surface on each component. For the love of all things holy, don’t put the pointy end of the screwdriver against your ear.  While none will be silent, the squeak will be obviously louder with one item.

And if you can’t listen to the component(s) safely because of the engine’s front-wheel-drive orientation, PLEASE move on to the next step.

Remove the belt and spin every item by hand: they should be almost silent. If you hear a gravelly sound while spinning, if there’s any play in pulleys, replace it. If nothing sounds wrong, start the car (briefly) and listen for the noise. At this point I’m assuming there is no noise, as I still have faith in you only needing a new belt.

Because when you own the vehicle below, faith is a big part of the experience.

1989 Lincoln Continental engine, Image: Sajeev MehtaI only needed a new belt on my 1989 Lincoln Continental to silence a miserable squeak found during its restoration (yes, really!) phase. The folly of restoring such a stupid machine aside, someone before me installed a belt long enough to max out the tensioner’s travel.

No matter what I tested, the squeak persisted. I had a local shop rebuild the alternator ($40, cheap insurance) and they said the bearings were fine. Before installation, I broke down and checked the belt’s part number and it was too long. Damn, son!

Installing the shorter belt was easier, now the tensioner operates in a safe zone: now this stupid silent Taurus Continental is more than meets the eye. Maybe kinda like your Saturn!

Ed. note — We know the pic above is a 2008 Saturn Aura, and not a 1999 Saturn SL. GM only has a few Saturn images we can use. Thanks for understanding — TH.

[Image: General Motors/Saturn, © 2018 Sajeev Mehta/The Truth About Cars]

Send your queries to [email protected]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.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

27 Comments on “Piston Slap: Saturn Squeaks for a New Serpentine Belt?...”

  • avatar

    Another potential issue: misalignment of a pulley causing an annoying squeak, even with a new belt.

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      Hmm, this is timely since I have been chasing a squeak on my 6.0 GTO for over a year. It only seems to happen on cool humid mornings. It goes away after about 5 minutes of driving which makes it annoying to diagnose.

      I’ve replaced all the belts and pulleys, including my AC pump and it went away for a while after but came back a few months later.
      Seems like a pretty common issue. I’ll investigate what this guy is talking about.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks, I will have to look into that. We have had a squeak ever since the bearings went out on the idler pulley. New pulley, new belts, new tensioner pulley. The boss for the idler got messed up a bit when the bearings went out and I always wondered if it messed the alignment up.

  • avatar

    Wow. I have not seen those in that condition in quite a while

  • avatar

    I had this “squeak” also in my 94 SW2 at around the 60k mark, it turned out to be the tensioner! BTW don’t ever spray belt dressing on a serpentine belt to quite squeaks! you all know this right? Duh Huh !!!

  • avatar

    “doesn’t piss any of its fluids”

    Is the engine 100% perfectly dry and clean or does it show signs of oil on the outside but just not drip on the ground? A heavy sweat may leak just enough oil to get onto the belt which will cause a squeak. Look on the firewall and the underside of the hood. If you have an oily stripe in line with the belt, then this is probably what’s happening.

  • avatar

    I replaced several belts and tensioners on my 97 over the years, and it seemed like squeaking was pretty common, and annoying, but benign.

    The one piece of wisdom I can offer on S-series Saturns is CHECK THE OIL AT EACH GAS FILL.

    These suckers will run forever unless you run them out of oil, but due to a design flaw in the piston oil ring drain back path, they are very prone to gunking up the oil rings and consuming oil at a 1000 mile/qt rate or worse.

    • 0 avatar

      yeah and don’t mistake the transmission filter with the oil filter! this happened more than once at the non informed quicky oil change places when the Saturn first came out.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Tensioner or Idler Pulley would be my guess.

    GM takes deserves the trash they receive for some of their cars. I have a ton of respect for the Saturns of the 90’s. Their are plenty still in use, in various stages of dis/repair and they keep going. Very impressive really as it seems most these days appear to be in the hands of the 3rd or 4th owner and maintenance is not always a top priority for this group.

  • avatar

    Ah 3.8… the false prophet.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “Get a cheap mechanics stethoscope (or a really long screw driver), fire up the motor and VERY CAREFULLY stick the pointy end of the stethoscope/screwdriver against a flat surface on each component.”

    A few feet of 1/4 or 3/8 vinyl tubing will work just as well.

  • avatar

    My mechanic used the rubber tubing in the ear trick to find the bad pulley on my Windstar. It took less than a minute. Replacing the Pulley cured the squeak completely

  • avatar

    Squeak, especially one that stops after driving for a few minutes is usually the belt or a failing bearing on one of the rotating items.
    Check all the things that spin as noted; engine off, remove belt, spin each thingy in a quiet place. Anything noisy should be repaired/replaced.
    I have seen a lot of belt squeaks particularly on vehicles that are not driven everyday. My thought is that the belts get a little stiff where they curve around the pulleys and then get more flexible as they warm up.
    Often new belts fix the problem for a month or so and then it returns.
    New pulleys might help. Or a different brand of belt.
    My vehicles are old school with separate V belts for each accessory. I get a E E E E noise at idle when first started after sitting for a few days.
    At one point I tried Gates belts instead of the Continental that I usually use. The Gates were much quieter. Unfortunately they self destructed in a few months.

  • avatar

    Sometimes the idler pulley assembly bends or twists, misaligning the pulley. Don’t replace just the pulley & bearing, replace the whole assembly.

    This is a common problem on 4.6 L Fords and LT-1 Chevys.

  • avatar


    Here is your new best friend:

    Your next best friend is Rock Auto clearance:

    You’re really going to need this among other things as your sway bar links *are* shot in the back —-> MOOG K90520 {#21011129} Problem Solver Info

    You purchased a Z-body with the L24 1.9 SOHC, congratulations. The L24 has several issues the LL0 DOHC does not, the most prevalent to my mind being cracked cyiinder heads being a possibility. Let’s go to the tape:

    “1992 through 1998 L24 Cylinder heads developed issues with cracks developing in the fifth camshaft journal, located closest to #4 cylinder. The hairline crack would develop between the oil feed port of that journal and the coolant passages in the cylinder head. Symptoms would range from overheating to low coolant, however, most cars affected by this issue exhibited oil migration into the cooling system. The resulting mixture of the two fluids would result in a thick brown “milkshake”-like mixture, visible in the coolant overflow tank.

    Until the cylinder head casting was redesigned some time in 1998, some vehicles would require this repair more than once, and replacement cylinder heads could develop the same crack.”

    Looks like you dodged a bullet!

    Ok, so to the task at hand. The 1.9 uses an accessory belt/tensioner which drives the water pump, oil pump, a/c compressor, and I believe alternator (but perhaps not the last I can’t remember). You could adjust or replace the tensioner (most likely the issue), or lubricate the drive belt. The smartest move is to replace the belt, tensioner, and water pump. Why?

    You’re driving an eighteen year old car with no service history. Assume the belt is a decade old, and I promise you the water pump is original. Saturn manual I believe recommends 100K replacement. I got exactly 149544 miles out of an original one before it seized and broke the acc belt while driving at 65mph. The 1.9 is not an interference engine so the valves will not commit seppuku, but I don’t recommend the risk.

    Generally speaking the Saturn Z-body’s maladies are that it burns oil and the
    auto transaxle likes to fail (due to solenoids I believe, there is a fix check ebay).

    The motor burns oil because the drain holes were too small and over time they get gunked up from warm oil remaining on top (from not draining) and getting funky. The old school fix which works is ATF fluid in the oil for 1,000 miles then change (I did this in 2012ish with some success). This will not directly remedy the issue, but it helps to mitigate the caked in funk around the holes. So, frequently check the oil. Check the oil. Did I mention check the oil? Never let is go below a quart for an extended period. This becomes complicated because of the previously mentioned funky drain hole issue as you do not want to overfill. Carry a quart in the car; its part of the ownership experience.

    There is a whole sect of black magic surrounding when and when not to service a used Saturn transmission, however I had the pan dropped and fluid changed in three of them over the years (MY98 at 95K and 130K at 11yr and 13yr old, MY02 at 40K and 13yr old, another MY02 at 92K and 13yr old). Unless the fluid is black or smells burned I would take it to the tranny shop and have it changed (takes Dex6 I believe).

    I myself am debating on updating my late father’s SL2 at about the same miles (plugs, shocks, water pump etc). I have my own SL2 with 49K original miles and mostly new wearables (water pump original, completely new undercarriage).

    Good luck.

    • 0 avatar

      FWIW there’s no need to remove the pan on a Saturn trans unless something is wrong inside, as the pan is on the top of the transmission, the drain plug is in the bottom of the housing, and the spin-on filter is external.

      We liked that spin-on so much at Allison that we used it on the 1000 series 6 speed automatics, in the Duramax diesel pickups.

  • avatar

    While 60s/early 70s ATFs had a lot of sperm whale oil, which did have truly miraculous cleaning powers due to being made mostly of esters, no ATF made since the Endangered Species Act has any swo at all, and far less detergent than typical engine oils.

    Nevertheless the myth continues to live on.

  • avatar

    Sorry, didn’t read through every comment, so sorry if this is duplicated elsewhere. Make sure to get the OEM serp belt tensioner. This is one case where aftermarket is no bueno. The only tensioner that works long term is OEM. Spend the extra bucks. The aftermarket ones just don’t work quite right. Spring tension is off, something. I recall it being discussed at length back in the day when I had an S series and was active on Saturnfans.

    You’ll also want to look up a guy called Richpin on youtube. He’s like the Yoda of Saturn S series.

  • avatar
    Jason Bright

    I’m 4 days late to this, but yeah..Belt tensioner. Also the idler is a likely culprit. I’ve had 2 S-series Saturn’s, a 96 SL2 and a 94 SL1 and they both needed belt tensioners and idlers. I don’t recall them being overly difficult. IIRC (been many years) unbolt and set aside the right motor mount, place a jack under the oil pan and lift a few inches, remove belt, unbolt tensioner and remove then replace, Unbolt idler and rpeplace, reinstall belt, lower engine a bit, reinstall motor mount, lower engine completely.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • dal20402: The comments here read like a bunch of retired mid-level managers hitting the Jack very hard indeed. But...
  • downunder: Wow, please don’t hold back. Stop mincing your words and say it out loud. What is really on your...
  • slavuta: You know! – this is not an issue. Who wasn’t a member of that? I can proudly say that I held...
  • MitchConner: Could care less what the Chinese do with their dirty money. Screw them. My take is on Ford. Mulally was...
  • Ol Shel: Pay close attention to the mentally ill billionaire. Do as he pleases.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber