Piston Slap: All Abarth That Bad Diagnosis!

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
Chris Writes:

Greetings Sajeev!

We’ve just been informed that our 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth has 180-180-180-20 compression and likely needs a new engine. Options are somewhat clouded by a remaining note of about $6,000.

Looks like this boils down to:

  1. Get out, despite the sunk costs and remaining note, and get into a

    more conventional car.
  2. Go the used engine route to save a few $$.
  3. Source a new engine and commit for ~5/6 years +

The SU (spousal unit) is the primary driver and adores the car. I drive it infrequently and find it tedious. It has about 80,000 miles and has been OK on other maintenance issues. All work will be done by a pro – this is so far over my head, mechanically, that there’s just no way – and the car is a daily driver, so commute/mobility issues create additional urgency.


Before Sajeev’s slow-ass self could respond…

Greetings, again, Sajeev:

This is the epilogue of the Fiat 500 Abarth engine swap saga that we exchanged email about last week.

As I was thinking over the options before me, I realized what I really needed was a better diagnosis. I spoke with the service writer at the Fiat dealership nearby and he assured me that the engine replacement was at minimum an over-reaction, at maximum a tragic mistake-in-waiting. Clearly needing to see the car to make a conclusive decision, he said that the need for any internal engine work, or even head/valve work, was remote, and the issue was most likely a sensor or a solenoid that was inoperative due to…we’ll let you know.

I called the independent shop where this saga started and urged a slow-down in this seeming rush to judgement. The service writer – who I’ve worked with for nearly 20 years – started at square one and found a cracked insulator on one spark plug. After a borescope inspection of the no-compression cylinder and replacement of all 4 plugs, then resetting various codes, we’re back in business. A pre-emptive oil change was also performed just to be sure that fuel contamination would not be an issue. 7,000 plus RPM and lots ‘o boost make that very prudent step one I could endorse without much deliberation.

The verdict is in: the car runs like new, starts and idles fine, and runs to the redline – and full boost – eagerly. A win after much hand-wringing.

The big lesson is, a relationship with the shop helps, taking charge helps, getting the facts (i.e. a full and factual diagnosis) before any repair is started really helps.

Sajeev concludes:

Son, I wish every automotive malady (both here and in my own garage) solved itself so effortlessly. Perhaps I should add something

You should ask that shop where the “180-180-180-20 compression” test result came from. Because that’s a seriously misguided diagnosis if new plugs fixed a (seemingly obvious?) misfire. Since you have a long history with them (or just the service writer?) they should be made aware they put you through a fair bit of stress for no good reason. And I mean no good reason at all: because I’m having a hard time finding a correlation between low compression readings being resolved by new spark plugs.

Perhaps their compression tester bit the dust after testing the last cylinder?

So to you, Best and Brightest: what’s up with that initial compression test?

[Image: FCA]

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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3 of 73 comments
  • R Henry R Henry on May 26, 2019

    500 owner was a victim of outright fraud.

    • HotPotato HotPotato on May 28, 2019

      Smells like it, especially since the service writer had to sneak around the shop owner to do the right thing.

  • Don1967 Don1967 on May 28, 2019

    Confirmation bias. Your hunch says bad compression in one cylinder, causing you to accept a freakishly low reading instead of verifying your work.

  • CFS I can’t believe these comments aren’t 100% in favor of CarPlay/Android Auto. They don’t add much for music and other audio that you don’t get with just a Bluetooth connection, but they make navigation so so much better. Why is it better? Because inputting the destination address is so much easier. And I don’t need to think about updating my car’s maps. Plus, I can switch between Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps, or whatever else seems best suited for my trip. Hands-free calling features are OK, but not such a big deal for me.
  • TheEndlessEnigma I've owned a VW in the past and learned my lesson. Any kind of repair was absurdly expensive which I understand is typical of VW nowadays.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Interesting how Stellantis (and can we take a moment to acknowledge how piss-poor a company name this is - it invokes....what....MBA marketeers failing at their job) is pursuing cuts to reduce costs instead of, oh I don't know, designing-building-marketing vehicles people *WANT* to buy? What has Stella done with what was Chrysler? Suck off the cash flow generated by Chrysler brands, essentially kill the Chrysler brand by cancelling successful models, eliminate any market advantage Dodge had by killing successful models (G Caravan was the #1 minivan until it was killed, Charger & Challenger *were* profitable, etc,) and progressively and continually neuter Jeep all this while ignoring component and build quality. What's done in return? Push Fiat as the new and exciting brand then watch as it fails in North America (did you know ONLY 603 Fiats were sold in the US in 2023). All new Stellantis releases in North America are Euro designs......that then fail in North America because they are not design for our market. The Stellanis solution? Fire Fred, Hank, and Jim and replace them with Apu, Jose and Bernardo. Yup, that will work.
  • 3-On-The-Tree To say your people are total monsters is an unfair statement. You can judge the Japanese government but to say the citizens are culpable or responsible is wrong. That’s like saying every Caucasian person in the U.S is responsible for slavery or the civil rights era of violence and discrimination against African Americans and are benefiting from it. That’s 79 years ago, the average Japanese citizen born during WWII has nothing to do with what happened. Even my Japanese grandmother who was living in Yokohama whose home was firebombed was just trying to survive with 3 kids and a husband fighting in the war. Just like every war the citizens suffer, I saw it in Iraq. You can’t judge the people from the misdeeds of their government, my mom was born after the war, you really think she is responsible for what happened?
  • Irvingklaws Was a must have for my wife's new car. After years of windshield mounts, trying to keep the sun off the phone, wires running across the dash, etc...it's been a welcome upgrade. Don't have it in my current (old) car, just a stock stereo with the aforementioned windshield phone mount and wires...which is fine enough for me. But if I upgrade the radio with an aftermarket unit, the first thing I'm looking for, after separate volume and tuning KNOBS, is Carplay. Note, I've yet to find an aftermarket head unit meeting these basic qualifications. The infotainment in my '17 GTI had both of these and was near perfect, I'd be happy with that unit in any car.