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2000 Altima won't start. Radio problems around the same time. Mechanic seems stumped

Let me preface this by saying I am a young, broke college student, so my language in describing the issue might not be totally accurate and I’d like to get a little more out of this old car if possible. It is a 2000 Altima GXE.

Chapter 1: Radio Problems
One day I started having radio problems. The car has an aftermarket Insignia radio from the last owner. The radio would not turn off. I tried desperately to get one of my favorite CDs out of the deck, and eventually the eject button collapsed into the unit. I tried triggering the eject function by poking at what looked like a button inside the newly formed cavity with a pencil. There was also a blue button inside the opening (on the circuit board?) that, when pressed, seemed to reset the radio. Yet I couldn’t get my CD out and the radio still would not turn off. When I started my car the following day, the radio would not turn on. I tried changing the audio fuse, but no dice. I accepted that I would have to drive without a radio.

Chapter 2: Car Not Starting
A few days later, my car would not start. It would crank, but not start. The dash lights illuminated so we figured it was more than a drained battery. We called AAA and had it towed to our mechanic. The mechanic checked the starter, fuel injector, fuel pump, spark plugs, distributor, and even the fuses. He eventually determined that it was most likely an ECM problem. Three weeks and a new (used) ECM later, we got the call that the car was ready and went to pick it up. That happened today.

Chapter 3: Not Fixed
The car started right away at the mechanic. To my surprise, the radio turned on. I drove the car home. It seemed more sluggish than usual, but it has been three weeks since I last drove it so I can’t tell if it was my imagination or not. Got home, parked in front of the house, and went to change the time on the radio’s clock, which is something I couldn’t even do during the events of Chapter 1. Success. I then went to turn the radio off. Nothing. It wouldn’t turn off. I held the power button for longer than usual, maybe 5 seconds, and the radio did turn off at that point. Turned off the car, went inside, came back out 5 minutes later to double check that everything was all good, and to my dismay, it wasn’t all good. The car was doing the exact same thing - cranking, lights on the dash, but no start.

Called the mechanic back. Told him my suspicions about the radio. He towed it away a few minutes ago. I’m not sure he has a clear strategy about where to go from here - he didn’t seem too confident.

Just some history: This car has had its fair share of engine problems. I’ve had it for a year, and the first repair on it was a new fuel injector because the car would jut back and forth while in drive with the brake pressed. Ever since then, the car would occasionally start rough, but after sitting for a minute or two, the engine would always level out and then it would drive normally. More recently (a few weeks preceding the radio issue) the car almost didn’t turn over - but did - and started especially rough. But again, after a few minutes, it leveled out.

If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions please let me know. Am I wrong to draw a connection between the strange happenings with my radio and my car not starting? I know a Nissan dealership might be more useful at this point, but the price they’ll charge me will be more than the worth of the car.

The radio is probably a red herring, unrelated to the starting problem. Still would make sense to first verify the alternator and battery voltage is correct. You’ll need a digital meter (DVM) to do this. Before the first start of the day the battery should measure about 12.6 volts. After starting the engine, it should measure 13.5 to 15.5 volts.

If all that pans out, the fact that it cranks suggests the battery is ok. Cranks but won’t start is usually solved by first determining if the problem is no spark or no fuel. You could use a spare spark plug to determine if you had spark during cranking or no. Or you could spray some starter fluid into the air intake. If it started ok and ran briefly before stalling, that would indicate a problem with the fuel supply. Fuel pump etc.

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Is the CEL (Check engine light) on?

If the problem is no spark or no fuel, does it make sense that the mechanic got the car to start at least a few times simply by switching out the ECM?

The CEL comes on intermittently. Usually after a “rough start” like the ones I described, but almost always turning off a few drives later. Both times when the car didn’t start, the CEL was not on, but came on as a result.

Your shop should be able to read the codes just in case its the infamous intake manifold gasket that is causing all that.

I’d have the mechanic remove the radio and see if it starts. I suspect some home-taught- wire-jockey may have seriously screwed up this car’s wiring when the radio was installed. Or the radio itself has failed and is somehow buggering up the ECU in the process. Only a careful look at the radio wiring (and removal) will show that. That wiring or the radio itself may be screwing up your ECU.

Yes and another possible source of electrical problems is an aftermarket alarm system, if present.


Chapter 4: The Key?

The mechanic said as soon as he got the car off the tow truck last night, it started. He had been starting it periodically throughout the day, and told me I should go pick it up. When I arrived at his shop, I tried to start it with the key that I normally use - the one on my personal key ring. It didn’t start. Then I tried starting it with the key I had given the mechanic, both last night and during the whole repair process - a key I considered a spare - and it started. It has been starting since, but only when I use that specific key.

What’s the deal? The mechanic didn’t give me a clear explanation when I asked why this was happening. He had a “code guy” do the ECM transfer for him. Does the new ECM only recognize the key that was used at the time of programming? Both the key that I had on my key ring and this working key are original Nissan keys and not duplicates, as far as I can tell.

Edit: And the radio seems to be working normally.

The immobilizer system is integrated into the Engine Control Module, each key must be registered when the ECM is replaced.

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+1 Also my best guess. After market radio could very easily=after market alarm.

But would a key-related problem w/the immobilizer system produce a “cranks ok but won’t start” symptom? I’d expect an immobilizer problem would result in a “turn key to start and nothing at all happens”.

No way to tell with any certainty when the problem is intermittent. Your car may have started a few times if the mechanic didn’t replace the ECM. Your objective is to find something that’s consistent. If it keeps starting with the spare key, that’s consistent, and I expect you’re well on your way to a solution. It may be that your key is just worn out, and it is affecting the ignition switch, either preventing spark, or preventing fuel flow into the cylinders.