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'06 Saturn Ion Cold Start Problems

Hello. I'm new here, so forgive me if this has been covered already. I have an '06 Ion that has decided it doesn't like to start when it's cold. Specifically, the passlock system doesn't recognize the key, so it cuts the fuel injection for 10 minutes, thereby preventing the car from starting. Radio, lights, blower, etc. work fine, it's just that it won't turn over. There's nothing I can do to get it to work until the 10 minute waiting period is over. Once the 10 minutes is up, it starts right up. This only happens when it's been sitting cold for several hours and the temp is below about 35 degrees. I'm tired of being either late or stranded every single day! What is it about the cold temp that screws up the passlock system?
<br/> So I have asked around, and Saturn claims it's the ignition switch that is the problem. They said the lubricant inside freezes and that's why it doesn't work. But that doesn't hold water - if it's frozen the first time, why does it work the second time? They said maybe it's dirty. Again, it's not cleaner the second time. I got a new key made to see if it was just a worn key. That didn't help. Someone suggested maybe there was condensation inside that was freezing, so I used a heat gun to dry it out - didn't work.
<br/> So here are a few ideas I have - maybe some of them are stupid. Would a lock de-icer (the kind with a heated pick) work? I have never really looked at them - don't know if they can be used in the ignition. What about a remote starter? Would that bypass the problem? Is there some kind of relearn process for the passlock system that would teach it to recognize the key? If so, how do I do that?
<br/> TIA for all replies!


  • edited November 2008
    You Don't Say If The Car I Still Under Warranty Or Not

    I am assuming that it is not or they would have just replace the switch, by now.

    If so, the dealer has just a few tries at fixing this problem before having a "lemon law" possibly kick in.

    Anyhow, has the dealer researched any Saturn TSBs (Technical Service Bulletins) that give them possible solutions to this problem?

    I found two.
    The first advises to replace the ignition switch, as the dealer claimed. An inconsistent contact inside the ignition switch between the printed circuit board and the contact finger can cause this, according to the TSB.

    The other TSB has a list of procedures for the dealer to follow after they verify that the ignition switch has been replaced and continues to have problems. This problem is caused by an "early igniton switch bounce" while starting the car. The BCM (Body Control Module) in the car interprets this electrical "bounce" as a failure in the PASSLOCK system and disables the starting system. The BCM may need to be replaced, too. (My note: They can be quite costly.)

    Also, they should be able to retrieve DTCs (Diagnostic Trouble Codes) from the BCM that may help them with a proper diagnosis. Have they done this, already?

    You asked some questions:
    "Would a lock de-icer (the kind with a heated pick) work?"
    I don't think it would.

    "What about a remote starter?"
    Again, I don't think so. Until the starting issue is solved, I wouldn't advise adding any more components into the system. This could make it harder to diagnose and fix.

    "Is there some kind of relearn process for the passlock system that would teach it to recognize the key?"
    Actually there are relearn procedures that the dealer follows after replacing the ignition switch or the BCM. I don't know if they tried reprogramming the BCM or not or if it would help. Check in your Owner's Manual, too, but I don't think it can fix this.

    My unofficial answer (opinion) is to be sure the dealer is aware of the TSBs. I'm pretty sure they have been, though. Also, these may or may not apply specifically to your car, but they can check by make, model, year, and the car's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number).

    I think you are going to have to have it properly fixed, starting with the switch, first. The heat, sprays, remote starters, new keys and such aren't going to do it.

    Depending on miles, you may be able to plead your case with GM or GM rep for help with the cost. This looks like an issue they have contributed to. Sometimes there are secret warranties or "good will". If this car is out of warranty, they have no obligation to pay anything and this is where "you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," and I would be as polite and considerate as possible.

    What is the warranty? Please respond and tell us if the car is covered by warranty and please tell us the mileage and car's age or date of birth (delivery date).

    P.S. GM has had issues like this for several years, first with the PASSKEY security system, and now with the PASSLOCK security system. Trying to keep insurance costs low for the customer, the cars have been made too secure! I hope you enjoy and continue to enjoy your car other than this temporary inconvenience.
  • edited November 2008
    Thank you for the reply. The car is not under warranty. It's a 2006, but I don't know it's original delivery date - I got it used after someone else's lease was up. Probably somewhere toward the end of '05. It just cracked the 42k mile mark.

    Saturn has been receptive to the email I sent them thusfar, and I plan on speaking to them about this next week. I just don't want to go down the road toward having to have a bunch of work done - I don't have the time or money, and really, nothing is wrong with the car. Except that it thinks I'm trying to steal it.

    What I don't get is why this only happens when it's really cold outside. It was 38 tonight, and the car sat outside all day - not used since Wednesday. When I went out to start it around 11pm, it started right up. I could tell as soon as I walked out the door that it was warm enough for it to start, and I was right. It was fine. What's with that? Why does it only fail if it's below 35 degrees??

    They checked the computer last year (this started at the end of last winter, but I had just gotten the car, and I used to park in a garage, so the car never really got this cold), and they didn't find anything. They said it was because the car didn't think it was doing anything wrong. Maybe that's a load of crap - I really don't know anything about the BCM or the error codes.

    I have a mechanic that I have gone to for years and years whom I know well and trust. He can fix the switch with an after market part (from NAPA) for about half the cost of Saturn doing it. What's your opinion of going that route? Of course if I can get Saturn to fix it for free, I would do that, but if my guy can do it cheaper, and I actually trust him not to rip me off, would it be okay to have him do it? He works for a local garage with a great local repuation, and they offer all the parts and labor warranties that the dealerships do if they do the work - only my guys are probably better. I am hesitant to go down this road because I have found case after case after case where this hasn't worked (and how can I go down any road if my car won't start, haha!). They all started having the switch replaced, and end up with the whole BCM needing replaced. It's just a string of one thing after another, and I don't really want to get that process started when the car actually works fine (you know, except the cold start failure thing).

    Thanks for everything, I really do appreciate your help!
  • edited November 2008
    "Why does it only fail if it's below 35 degrees??"

    Electromechanical things -- such as switches and connectors -- can be sensitive to temperature. A quite plausible cause is that the little pieces of which they are made have different thermal expansion/contraction rates. Contacts that are on the "good" side of marginal when warm could move to the "bad" side of marginal when cold. Less commonly, things will shift from OK to "bad" as temperature increases.

    Further, as the temperature gets colder the resistivity between the two sides of the contact will increase. (One of the resident quantum mechanics might be able to explain this. For me it's just a basic truth.) Foreign material -- dirt, or even lubricants -- between the contacts makes the problem worse. (There's a trade-off with lubricants: make the moving contacts last longer, but risk developing high resistance.)

    So, the "intermittent contact" TSB explanation found by common sense answer could certainly be worse at cold temperature. The "contact bounce" problem might also be affected by temperature. I've had my share of problems with contact bounce, but I have no experience with temperature effects.

    "It's just a string of one thing after another, and I don't really want to get that process started when the car actually works fine (you know, except the cold start failure thing)."

    If the parts are accessible maybe you want to try to isolate the fault yourself. Try heating the various suspect parts when they are cold enough to fail. A hand-held hair dryer is a handy source of heat, but might be too broad for this job. Alternatively, if you can catch a time when the temperature is just warm enough for things to work, you could spray some aerosol coolant on the parts to see if you can induce the failure. Used to be you could by a can of Freon with an aerosol nozzle and a little spray tube, like you get with WD-40. I'd guess that Freon is no longer available, but maybe one of the non-polluting propellants is. (I once traced a temperature problem in a hi-fi by holding an ice cube to the transistors one-by-one 'til I found found culprit, but I'd not risk getting water into your ignition switch wiring.) After you spend a few hours on fault isolation, you'll understand why the mechanic makes her/his best diagnosis and changes the part.
  • edited November 2008
    What you said about electronics not working as well in the cold makes sense. But there's no excuse for a car not to have a stronger/more heavy duty system in place than your typical electronic gizmo. But what I still don't understand, and the thing that has been bothering me since the beginning, is: why does it work the second time? Even if I was sitting inside the car for the whole 10 minutes (which usually, I'm not even in there for 5 minutes while the timer is running), there is no difference between the first time I try to start it and the second time. What's the deal there? And thanks, I appreciate your help with this.
  • edited November 2008
    This Is An Obvious Thing, But May Have Been Overlooked ...

    ... There have been problems with cable to battery connections causing problems of this nature. Be sure you or a technician has checked the connections for being clean and tight. Some side-post batteries have even come from the factory with stripped threads on the connectors. Backing up a bit, this is probably the first thing the dealer should have checked, or better yet, should have disconnected the battery cables, cleaned them and the battery "posts" and reattached the cables, securely.

    Another idea you might try when it won't crank is to hold the key over to "start" for several (many) seconds and see if it suddenly starts to crank. I have read about trying this in a similar situation.

    I like your idea of using a trusted, less expensive mechanic. Does your mechanic have the equipment and ability to retrieve DTCs from the BCM? Most can retrieve DTCs from the PCM (Powertrain Control Module), but not all can get them from the BCM. Does he have access to TSBs? This stuff can sometimes get to be too "high tech" for other than dealerships. Will he install parts that you purchase or use GM parts? Some of these parts that get used on these troublesome problems, get revised or improved by GM as time goes by. Online GM parts are often available at quite a savings.

    I'm just throwing out more ideas, here. I'm afraid that if it's not battery/cables, you might have to go the new switch route and then possibly the BCM, later, if necessary. There are procedures for reprogramming the BCM. They have to when they replace either the switch or the BCM, anyhow, I believe. Now we are getting to the upper limits of me being able to advise you.

    Try some of this and let us know what happens. Anybody else with ideas out there?
    Anbody "been there, done that?"
  • edited November 2008
    Great idea about the battery cables - not sure if they ever checked that. I think they can do the BCM at my place, but I will have to ask to be sure. I haven't taken this car to them yet, other than for new tires. Yes, they do have access to the TSBs, that much I know. I have talked to them on the phone about this but haven't actually taken the car to them. The car has only been to a dealership.

    If mny guy does it, he will use an aftermarket part from NAPA. But if I get the parts myself, they will install them for me. From what I have read about having Saturn replace the parts, the fix doesn't last long. So maybe an afterarket part would even be better. I don't know. I know that the part itself is not that expensive (somewher around the $30 - 50 mark). My guy estimated the labor at slightly over $100. Saturn estimated the total fix at $300. I just don't want to start the snowball rolling down the hill if I don't have to!

    Do you think that doing the relearn on the BCM without replacing the part might do the trick? If so, is that something I can do myself, or something that has to be done by the dealership? I would think that I should be able to do it because people replace the switches on their own all the time, and they would have to be able to do the relearn if they are going to do that. There are some things I am comfortable with, but I don't like messing with anything to do with the electrical system, because I know pretty much nothing about any of that. I have heard that people who try to do this themselves are getting error codes relating to the power steering, and I am not too comfortable with anything like that happening - I'm afraid I would do more harm than good! Where can I find out the process for the relearn? It seems to me that that would be the best place to start, because I can do it myself, and it wouldn't cost anything. Better to eliminate the cheaper/easier options before jumping into expensive repairs.

    One of the guys at my shop has a honda that does something similar. He said if he puts the key in and turns it to accessory for about 30 seconds to 1 minute before trying to crank it, it will start every time. I have only tried that twice, but it has worked both times. Could be coincidence, but maybe that's all it will take.

    Thank you so much for your ideas - I'll listen to anything anyone has to offer, because I really don't understand what the issue is here! I know it's cold that causes it, but I just don't get why it fails the first time and then works fine the second time. I wish GM had made it a 5 minute delay instead of 10!
  • edited November 2008
    I Always Order The GM Service Manuals Online For Each Of My Cars
    The Manuals come from Helm Inc. and are specific for each Make/Model/Year. They supply the GM Service and Owner's Manuals. The last couple of sets I bought for two different cars were $135 per car + shipping. I keep my cars for a long time and the manuals always seem to pay for themselves. I believe you can find instructions for resetting the BCM after switch or BCM replacement, in there. However, you may not be able to DIY because of the need for correct scan tools, etc. Much less expensive Haynes, Chilton or Clymer published manuals might cover it. You can see if they have one of these Saturn books at a Big Auto Parts and maybe get a look inside before purchasing.

    Next time it acts up, try that "holding the key over to start for a while routine," and see if it eventually begins to crank and let us know.
  • edited December 2008
    Well, I'm not a "car guy" whatsoever. I was searching the internet this morning in hopes of finding an answer for my problem. My '06 Saturn Ion 2 is doing the same thing. I didn't start having trouble until late last year when leaving work one morning (I work nights), I couldn't get my car started for 20 minutes or so. I'd turn the key and nothing would happen besides the security light coming on. Well, I finally got it started that morning and it didn't happen again until a few nights ago. I ended up taking my wife's car to work. I'm trying to think if it is only happening when it's cold outside and that is definitely a possibility, although living in Southeast Texas being "too cold" is relative. I bought the 5-year, 75,000 mile warranty, so hopefully this issue will be covered. Feel free pass on some advice... Thanks!
  • edited December 2008
    I called Saturn today and asked some questions, and they are supposed to call me back on Wednesday - hopefully they will have answers.

    Wow, Texas - I'm jealous! Hopefully that means you're not having the problem quite as often as some of us in the midwest! But still, it's a pain in the...butt...isn't it???

    The deal is that the passlock sensor, which is located in the ignition switch, does not function correctly in cold weather. When this happens, it will cut the fuel injection for 10 minutes, thereby disabling the car so that nobody can steal it. After the 10 minutes, passlock will switch off, and you should be able to start the car just fine. Unfortunately, thieves will know how to get around this - the only people this prevents from starting the cars are the owners. Anyway, as the sensor function deteriorates, this will happen more and more often. Replace the switch, and you'll be fine. For awhile. Then it will probably go bad again and you'll have to replace it several times, and eventually they are going to tell you that you need your BCM replaced. That's friggin expensive, and talk about an unnecessary hassle, since they have known about these problems since the '03 model - maybe earlier on other GM cars. There is no "official" way to disable the passlock system, but if you read other car blogs you'll see that people have found ways to get around that.

    I will let you know if Saturn tells me anything useful. They say that they can sometimes offer cost assistance with issues like this, but from what I have read they mostly give the part away and still charge for labor. The switch is not a terribly expensive part, but it's like 2 hours of labor. So that doesn't help that much. If I decide to go ahead and do the switch, I don't think I'm going to have Saturn do it. Unless they tell me they will pay 100% of everything. Otherwise, I'll take it to my guy, who I trust and can do it for about half of the cost. I would replace it myself (apparantly it's not all that hard), but I don't like messing with the electrical system. Too scary, haha! If you find anything out anywhere else, let me know!
  • edited December 2008
    I've got an Ion that's slightly older and has the same problem you describe. Living in New Orleans we don't have too many cold mornings, which seem to trigger the problem, it's quite aggravating nonetheless.

    I have searched the net extensively and discovered this problem is unfortunately quite common. Many people are persuaded to replace the ignition switch, but this often doesn't provide a permanent fix. I'm on the verge of buying a PLJX passlock override. It's a cheap solution at only $23. I'm only hesitating because in all this searching, I have yet to see someone bragging about a success story with this fix. I'd like to read that before taking the plunge myself.
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