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2007 Toyota Corolla - Cranks won't start - only when we are alone

I think my car hates me. It cranks and won’t start but only when I’m alone. When I call a mechanic it works just fine.

This first happened 3 years ago. The car wouldn’t start although I tried cranking it over 10 times. It cranked fine (didn’t struggle) but the engine wouldn’t start. I called a mechanic who showed up an hour later and when he tried it it started right away. The mechanic apologized but said he couldn’t do anything about it as everything seemed to work properly. That was a well spent $100.

The car has been working fine ever since until a couple of weeks ago when the same thing happened. It would crank but wouldn’t start. I called a mechanic and sure enough it worked like a charm when they showed up. Since engine light was not on and the car started the mechanic apologized but said there’s nothing he could do. Another $100.

However, the problem started happening regularly lately. The car won’t start when I first get in but then, after 10 minutes or so, it starts.

It is not a battery problem. I had a battery replaced. I read online that I should see if my lights work when the key is in the first position only, and they do. Allegedly, I should take that as a sign that it isn’t battery.

I am really annoyed by the problem and I want to resolve it before the issue escalates but I am reluctant to take it to a mechanic again because I don’t want to keep paying mechanics so that they can tell me it all seems alright to them.

What should I do?

Buy a spray can of starter fluid. Carry it in the car. Carry a tool, if needed, to remove your air cleaner top. Next time it does not start, spray, starter fluid into the air cleaner tube that goes to the engine. Try and start it. If it fires and runs for a moment, you have a fuel problem, probably the fuel pump.

Considering the age of the car (you didn’t tell us the mileage) I might just change the crankshaft position sensor because it tends to fail just this way. They don’t cost much and they generally don’t set a check engine light (you didn’t say if yours was on or not)

Thank you MM.

The car has 160K miles and the engine light does not come on. I will buy the starter fluid.

I looked at the symptoms online and from what I gathered ignition key, spark plugs and coils could also be a culprit. What do you think?

Spark plugs and ignition coils won’t be reasons. The engine will misfire and vibrate and you will know that. Probably the fuel system.

If you carry this in the car, put it somewhere it will not roll around, or get hit by something else.
Don’t want it to get hit and start spraying ether in your car while driving, by the time you notice the smell, it might be to late.

Thank you. Will secure it.

One thing we do in situations like this is to use a phone to record the mystery behavior that only happens when alone. The car is now 13 years old. You know how 13 year olds can be…

Good idea thank you.

From what you describe about the trouble it sounds like the ignition system is the best suspect. An intermittent power connection for instance, will disable the system without any hesitation. The engine will crank over until the battery is dead and you would never know the system isn’t working. If it isn’t the ignition system causing the trouble then something in the fuel delivery system is the cause. If the starter fluid trick doesn’t help then you know you have an ignition problem, and it isn’t with the sparkplugs. Make sure power is getting to the ignition system as your first check while the trouble is happening.

Thank you. Could mechanic test the ignition system even when everything seems to be working fine or does it need to stop working for the test to make sense?

Someone could carefully check the ignition system to see if there are any possible signs of a potential problem but when things are working correctly then there isn’t anything to find trouble with. This is the big headache with intermittent problems like this. Some folks will try the “shotgun” method in an effort to solve the issue by replacing suspected parts that could cause the problem, like the igniter, but that can cause needless parts being replaced. It does work at times though. Then there is the issue, you never know where you are going to get stranded at the next time the trouble happens. It’s frustrating for the owner who is stuck with the problem and the mechanic who is trying to fix it.