I’ve been trying to chase down an overheating problem on my minivan (with 182,000 miles on it) for months now, working with my local Chrysler/Dodge dealership garage and on my own. Recently, the garage “gave up,” so I guess I am on my own.
The problem started during a camping trip to Vermont in the late summer. The van was carrying a lot of camping gear, etc., and we had it on a long (slow) drive over some back-country gravel roads one day. On the way back to Philly, the temperature gauge shot all the way up, the temp light came on, and a warning “ding” sounded. We let it cool down and noticed that the coolant level was low. We added some coolant and made the several hour trip back to Philly with no problems. About two weeks later, the same thing happened. We added more coolant and things were fine for another few weeks.
We suspected a leak, but did not find anything obvious. Over the years, several parts of the cooling system had been replaced: new OEM radiator and cap (more than a year ago), new upper and lower radiator hoses (replaced when the radiator was replaced), and the water pump (several years ago).
After additional occurrences of the problem, I did find a very small leak (split) in the heater hose coming out of the heater core. I had the garage replace the hose and the tube it was connected to because it was quite corroded. They also pressure-tested the system, and everything looked good. This repair stopped the leak, but not the problem (in other words, it seemed to be a symptom, not the cause). As an extra precaution, I replaced the 1 year old OEM radiator cap with a new OEM cap and the thermostat as well. There are no bleeder valves for the cooling system for this model, so I performed the recommended procedure for removing air from the system several times. Once, and only once, during this time, while investigating the problem with a hot running engine, I observed coolant pouring out of the overflow on the coolant reservoir. This may have been a fluke(?), but I also recently noticed splash marks on top of the engine.
We did notice some other symptoms after the heater hose was replaced. The temperature gauge would go up to about 3/4 (it normally stayed a little lower than a 1/2 when hot), stay there for a few seconds to several seconds, then go back to the normal operating range. The garage said that this was due to the thermostat opening. We never noticed this before (driving the van for many years), and it does not always happen, but, okay, maybe we just hadn’t noticed. Another thing was that the coolant level in the reservoir would be at max when cool, but the level in the radiator would be an inch to several inches below the neck of the radiator–even though both had been filled to full/max days before. Also, we would often hear a “swooshing” sound of liquid under the dash–presumably coolant rushing/flowing into the heater core. We tried again to remove any trapped air, but it did not seem to stop the sound.
The garage pressure-tested the system again–hot and cold. They checked everything over, but after they added coolant to the radiator everything worked fine. They mentioned the possibility of an internal leak, but they were out of ideas.
One thing has remained constant: the coolant level in the radiator drops over time, from a few days to a few weeks. We’re watching the level much more closely now to avoid overheating, and this week I noticed something a little different. The reservoir was at the min mark (when cool), and the radiator level was also several inches below the neck. I filled the radiator with coolant, but not the reservoir (ran out of coolant). A day or so later, the reservoir was above max (when cool), but the radiator was several inches low again! What gives!?
I’ve read about bad/blown header gaskets being a possible cause of an internal leak, but I guess I would expect to engine to ALWAYS run hot and to run rough in a case like this. It’s not (though it does not run smooth anyway). Could it be crack somewhere allowing coolant into the combustion chamber or oil? I guess, but I have not noticed any discoloration to the oil. I drove it yesterday and noticed some significant hesitation while the engine was warming up. Never had this happen before. I’ve always kept the vehicle well-maintained, but could this be the end of the line for what has been a reliable vehicle for us for the past 9 years? Any insights or experience with this kind of problem would be appreciated!