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01 Saturn - starting and stumbling issues

If anyone could weigh in with an opinion on this, I’d appreciate it.

2001 Saturn SL1, 143,000 miles; well maintained. For about a week, I had intermittent no crank/no start. Lights and radio worked. A single, audible click occurred when I turned the key. When I was able to start the car, it ran fine. I suspected a failing starter.

The next time I tried to start the car, however, it roared to life only to run like an asthmatic locomotive. It idled low, at about 500 rpm, and shook badly. When I stepped on the gas, the engine smoothed a bit and the headlights flickered. There was no CEL or battery light, except for one brief moment when I revved the engine to about 2000 rpm.

Now, when I try to start the car, it starts just fine, but runs for about 2 seconds before stalling out.

I installed a new battery in September 2012 and I changed the plugs in early 2013 – both routine, preventative measures.

Any chance I flooded the engine while trying to start it, even though it’s a fuel-injected engine? If so, how do I “unflood” it? Any other ideas as to what might be going on? Thanks in advance for any input.

Sounds like a fuel pressure issue. As far as flooding it, the injectors only squirt when commanded by the PCM. So you can not flood it. The starter could be on the way out. If it fails again, hit the starter with a block of wood or something and see if it will start. If it does the starter needs replacing. Make sure your battery terminals are clean, tight and not corroded.

You say it starts and runs for two seconds and stalls out. Can you restart it after that? If it restarts, will it keep running then? Has the intake manifold gasket been changed yet? If you have had this car since new, did it ever go through a period where it ran just a little rough at idle and the idle was up around 950 or higher?

Do you have a check engine light on?

I think you have more than one problem. The no crank with only a click is probably different from getting it to crank and having it run rough or stall.

For the no crank, as kfenimore notes, give your battery cables some attention - and not just at the battery end. The other ends can get loose and corroded too. Corrosion can also get down under the insulation. If you do find and fix some cable issues then pause and see where things stand. Its possible for a car to run poorly because of this, though I don’t really think that’s it.

As keith noted, the intake manifold has to be checked for leaks, preferably when cold - it’s a common issue for many models of Saturns. Beyond that, you need to get a fuel pressure gauge on it to see what is up with that.

While the PCM generally will not flood the car there are several ways a fuel injected car can end up flooded. Two common ones are leaky fuel injectors and leaky fuel pressure regulators. Weak spark and cold starts can do it as well. The flood clear procedure with fuel injection is basically the same as it always was - floor the accelerator and hold it. It sends in more air, and should tell the PCM to stop firing while cranking.

Thanks for the info and advice. Pardon the long post, but I’ll try to answer all your specific questions here.

I’ll preface by saying that you’re talking with the mechanical equivalent of an elementary school student. I know enough to make sure a plug is properly gapped. For more advanced things, I’m willing to try (and I enjoy doing so), but I might not know where to start.

I’m the original owner. I put 70k miles on the car in the first 3 years. The next 73k were spread over 10 years. The intake manifold gasket was changed 3 or 4 years ago.

How do I check the intake manifold gasket for a leak? I’m assuming the car has to be running to check this?

The check engine light only came on once, when I was revving the engine after a start/run rough. The CEL flashed, which I understand indicates a misfire. It doesn’t stay on when the car runs.

Temps have been cold, in the 15-30 Fahrenheit range, so I’ve been hesitant to keep trying to start this car. It’s been sitting in my driveway since the first start/run rough incident. During the subsequent start/run 2 seconds/stall incidents, I tried to start the car twice with this same result. I stopped trying after that.

I’ve definitely had idling issues with this car. Normal is 700-750. There have been occasions that the idle ran to the 950-1000 range. I’ve also had a few instances when the car revved up to 2000-2500 after I shifted into Park. I expect occasional irregularities from a 13-year old car, and neither has happened often enough to lead me to look further. In light of recent events, maybe I need to rethink that approach.

I’ll check the battery cables too. They looked decent at the battery end, but I never thought to follow them to the other end.

Thanks again for the info and advice.

Do check the other end of the cables and you might peel back some insulation on either end for a peek - if you see anything but shiny copper under there, then I would just replace those main cables.

If you have a butane or propane torch and easy-ish way to check the intake manifold for leaks is to rig a hose of some kind to the end of the torch, turn on the gas and just feed unlit gas all around the intake. I believe that on this car the intake manifold is in the back side of the engine compartment (that’s the left side of the engine). That makes it a bit of a pain, but you would start the car, make sure you don’t dangle any part of yourself or what you are wearing near the cooling fans or the spinning serpentine belt on the front of the engine (passenger’s side of engine compartment), and feed unlit propane/butane all around in the back there. If there’s a leak the gas gets sucked in and the idle will respond.

It would be worth cleaning the idle air control valve. This is attached to the throttle body which you will find at the end of the fat black intake tube that runs from the air filter box to the engine. This thread has a diagram in it: You would clean it with something like throttle body cleaner and replace its o-ring when reinstalling.

I suggest those things because a) they don’t really cost anything, and b) you said you’re willing to learn and its not too difficult. If you do find a leaky intake manifold gasket again you might decide that’s more than you want to mess with.

The issue with the intake manifold gasket affects the 00-02 single cam engines (SL,SL1, SC1). If the gasket was replaced with a factory gasket, you can have the same issue again, I’ve gone through two of them. I switched to a Felpro gasket (aftermarket) and haven’t had any issues since. The factory gasket fails at the outer upper corner around the #1 cylinder. This is the only corner that is not bolted down.

Normally you need the engine to be running to check this. To keep the engine from running altogether, the vacuum leak would have to be pretty massive, but it may be possible. You could try spraying some WD-40 or pouring any thick oil over the top of the gasket area between the intake manifold and the head in this area and then try to start the car. If it runs for a significantly longer period of time than the two seconds, then it would be a real candidate. You might try buttering up the gap between the manifold and the head with some grease, it would work good for a little while if the gasket has been sucked in again. Note: passenger side, back of the engine.

The other issue that these cars have is with the ECTS (engine coolant temperature sensor). But your symptoms are not consistent with this. Ignition control modules and coils sometimes cause issues, but again not the type you are experiencing.

Check out this site for people with a lot of Saturn experience.