2004 Saturn Ion occasionally won't start

(What are the odds of two questions on the same day for a 2004 Saturn Ion?)

This problem has stumped two different mechanics. But now that there are no more Saturn dealerships, I haven’t been able to find a Saturn-specialist to take it to.

The car has a little over 108,000 miles, and is a manual transmission. Overall, it’s a great (if modest) car. But occasionally it won’t start when I get in it. What happens is that you can hear a turning sound, like the starter is maybe spinning one or two revolutions before stopping. It will do this for anywhere from 10-30 minutes, then “magically” it will start. The only solution I have at the moment is to keep trying to start it, every 30 seconds or so, until it finally starts. Oh, and to add to the “magic” of it: it will sometimes start at some point then immediately die. It may do this 3-5 times over the course of the 15 minutes or so, before it starts and stays running. This may or may not be relevant, but it always eventually starts. I’ve never had to completely give up on it, though a few times when it went nearly 30 minutes I felt like giving up.

I’ve tried to look for a pattern to this behavior, but what I’ve seen is spotty at best. It seems to do this most often when it is cold and/or damp, and the engine hasn’t run for a while (such as first thing in the morning). But sometimes it will do it in the middle of the day. Generally, if it starts normally it will start fine for the rest of the day, but sometimes it starts fine then the next time I try it won’t start. So, where I initially thought it might be a matter of engine coldness, that doesn’t seem to be the case since it can do this even when I’ve just driven it a few miles, run into the store or post office, and come back out just minutes later. When it first manifested, it seemed to be linked to rainy weather we were having, but since then it has done it plenty of times when it was dry. So I have to rule that out, as well.

I haven’t been able to demonstrate the problem directly for the mechanic I generally go to, because if I can get the car there to his shop, it’ll start fine when he tries it. He hooked up the diagnostic computer (when I first went to him with the problem) and all it read was a battery warning and a potential problem with the catalytic converter. So we replaced both the battery and the CC, but it didn’t help. If the failure to start registers any diagnostics with the computer, they’re getting cleared when the engine finally starts. There isn’t anything in the diagnostics to help us get to the root cause. The second mechanic is a friend of mine who works for Land Rover… he was there one time when the car did this outside a restaurant we’d just eaten at. He listened to the sound the engine was making (the 1-2 revolution spinning sound), but had no suggestions for what it might be.

Something is definitely turning, inside the engine, when this happens. I don’t know if it is actually the starter or not (I think that if it were something as common as the starter that my friend who listened to it outside of the restaurant would have recognized that). I don’t know if it is a motor whose bushings are just barely not making the right contact, and after enough tries they finally line up right. I do know that this is amazingly annoying, especially when I am already running late for something.

Any ideas?