Piston Slap: Saturn Squeaks for a New Serpentine Belt?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

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.

I 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 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.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Syncro87 Syncro87 on Apr 21, 2018

    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.

  • Jason Bright Jason Bright on May 24, 2018

    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.

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