2000 Xterra, cranks but no start

I’'ve been considering the idea of buying an older Xterra for prowling roads too rough for my minivan. One just popped up for a low price, body and interior good enough for my purposes, 153K.

Owner says it was running fine, then began running rough, so he had a shop replace distributor and wires. It apparently ran poorly for a while, then after a few weeks, he parked it. Then it just wouldn’t start at all. It cranks well (I heard him crank it while we talked on the phone). He couldn’t say if he’s noticed the CEL. It’s 30 miles away, so before I decided to go for a look, I thought I’d ask for hunches on what might be up with this thing.

The price is pocket change, $400, so I could justify dropping it off at my mechanic and paying what it cost. I would always prefer to invest in mechanical repairs than body work, so this fits my parameters.

I’m guessing it’s something electronic, like a sensor or computer, or fuel like pump or injectors. That’s above my pay grade.

Does this automatically scream RUN AWAY? What simple things might be likely? What expensive things might have deteriorated and be more expensive than the car is worth. It will need tires.

In this area, I’d guess the car in running condition with no obvious problems and serviceable tires would be worth $2500, which is about what I had considered my price range.

So you have $2100 for tires and repairs on a 20 year old car with 153K on it. I guess that means you have $1400 for repairs after $500 worth of tires and a $200 tow.

There is no way for us to diagnose what might be wrong from a second hand account (you) over the internet (us).

For $400, I would take that risk as long as I didn’t need to get it emission checked for the sale. But I can fix my own cars. Bit more of a risk for you. You could probably get that nearly that much from junkyard if it doesn’t pan out.


It cranks well (I heard him crank it while we talked on the phone). He couldn’t say if he’s noticed the CEL. It’s 30 miles away,

Something sound’s fishy to me. You could hear him crank from 30 mile’s away but he couldn’t see the cel while he was cranking it.

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All the dash lights turn off when you try to start an engine.



If he was setting in the car he could see it before the key was turned all the way to start no ?

I asked him if he remembered seeing the CEL before it quit entirely. He did not.

That would be the self test of the computer.


Just like ABS light stays on, the SRS stays on, etc…, until you turn the key start, and all those lights turn off.


Thanks @Tester

That would be the self test of the computer.

Yep, that’s what I thought but was not sure until I just confirmed with on Toyota Sienna: CEL comes on when I turn key to on, but it’s not on when running.

I do have a simple spark tester, and could “borrow” a fuel pressure tester from local parts store, to try to discriminate between fuel and spark.

I’m mostly trying to discriminate between catastrophic problems, and something that a skilled professional mechanic can locate and correct for a modest price.

There are a lot of problems buying a car that won’t start. Assume everything the seller says is a lie.

If it cranks, yippee, the engine isn’t locked up but it doesn’t tell you the condition. The ring or valve seal could be worn out and the thing might smoke like a forest fire. The transmission could be blown, you can’t tell. The rear axle could howl like a banshee, again, you can’t know. The wiring could have been eaten by rodents. There could be shorts and burnt wires and electrical problems that would scare a NASA engineer. None of this can be determined with a visual inspection of even a cursory mechanical inspection. It may make spark and fuel pressure and even conmpression but there are still lots thst can be wrong.

That is why I looked at it as purely financial and risk discussion.

9 times out of 10, a seller is discounting a car $2100 cuz he knows it needs major repairs. It might not need major work but it might.
He told shop it was ignition? Or shop told him? What did shop say when it ran rough after attempted repair? Uh, it needs more work?

My biggest fear for the trouble would be a broken timing belt and the valves getting damaged due to that. A compression check would tell the story there. If the engine is okay then other problems could be fixed fairly cheaply.

He told shop it was ignition? Or shop told him?

I think he knew only that it was running badly, and the shop blamed the distributor, which they supposedly replaced (along with “wires”, presumably spark plug wires).

After that, he said it ran ok for a short while, then got progressively worse, at which time he just parked it. That was supposedly a year ago, all worrying details. That suggests to me that it’s not the timing belt, which I thought of immediately. And of course, his story might be BS.

The seller’s description on the phone revealed no real interest in pursuing the problem, which allows for the possibility that it’s something very simple like a sensor or relay or other electronic component.

But of course it could also be prohibitively expensive.

I don’t yet know where to start with identifying which component might behave that way, or ruling out that kind of problem. I’d be willing to invest in a code reader if that’s the key to unlocking the secret, I don’t mind acquiring useful tools and I am capable of replacing parts, but not willing to throw parts at it without evidence. But I lack the more important skill of understanding the evidence and following the clues to finding the real story. Which is why I haven’t yet gone for a look. I don’t know that seeing the car would be any use.

I keep coming back to the seller’s description that the problem was variable, not an immediate failure, and that it ran until he parked it. So I’m wondering if that behavior suggests anything in particular.

Thanks all for the help thus far.

Thanks @Cougar. Where might I look to find out if this is an interference engine?

I do have a compression tester.

I have looked at vehicles like this (not this model, but where a fuel delivery problem was suspected) and there’s an easy test to see if that it the case. Bring a can of starting fluid and a second person, have your friend spray some starting fluid into the intake while you attempt to start the engine. If it fires and runs, however poorly, on the starting fluid, it’s probably a fuel pump or other fuel delivery problem. If it won’t fire at all on the starting fluid, it could be anything from jumped timing, no spark due to computer/sensor/wiring problems, etc.

If it needs anything more complicated than a fuel pump, it’s probably not worthwhile–especially if you have to pay someone else to do the work.

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Excellent advice, I agree totally. Thank you @Mustangman.

Looking at it as a financial decision is where this started. It is cheap enough to make it alluring, and as you suggested, even if repair isn’t practical, it might re-sell to offset a few hundred bucks risked.

I also have to think of time investment. I can’t get that time back if this doesn’t pan out.

I also need to find out how California DMV handles cases like this. The law requires seller to smog test a vehicle before selling. I presume there is a legal procedure for that, but I can’t investigate those details until Monday. And registration is probably overdue as well.

Thanks for that @bcohen2010. I do have some starting fluid, but have never used it. Can you give me some idea how long to spray to give the engine enough fuel, without creating danger / explosion?

Well, here in Arizona, none of this would be a problem. I can buy a “fixer-upper” car, store it on my property for as long as required until I get it running properly, then take it through emissions and then proceed to title and register it in my name. I would not owe a dime in fees or penalties, regardless of how long the car sits with an expired registration. I don’t have to insure a non-registered car, either.

However, in California, you would be expected to pay all of the registration fees and penalties to bring it current. Hence why many California sellers advertise their older used cars on Craigslist here in Arizona!

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You don’t need very much starting fluid to make engine run if the trouble is just with the fuel delivery. A one second shot into the air filter should be more than enough fluid to make the engine react. If it doesn’t then something else is wrong, like spark or timing.

It shouldn’t be much of a problem to find out if the engine is an interfering engine or not using the net. Doing a brief search I found that the 3.3L engine is an interfering type but people have not had a problem when the belt broke on them. They just replaced the belt with no issues.

Hmmmm. I just located the opposite. Evidently there’s a question about credibility of the source. I might have to check with Nissan directly.