97 Saturn SW2 Coolant issue

After searching through many posts here trying to see if I can get an answer to my question, I have yet to find something similar to my problem. If this ends up being a repeat, please feel free to direct me to a post that can help my problem

My 97 Saturn (almost 200,000 miles) has been having trouble keeping the coolant in the tank. When it first started, I popped the hood and could see it steaming out from the cap. I took it to a mechanic and they told me it was just an old/faulty cap and replaced it. However, shortly after having that on (only a week) it started steaming and hissing from the same place. It always does it when I’ve been driving for at least 10 min and in traffic when it’s slower than 45 mph. Whenever I go faster, the engine seems to be able to keep cooler and I don’t have a problem.

Now jump to this morning. I drove two minutes to my destination, missed a parking spot, so I backed up and drove in. As I pull in, my coolant light turns on to tell me it’s depleted (after just filling it full the night before). I check the engine and can smell the coolant but see no hissing or steaming out the cap. I look underneath the car and can see it dripping from the opposite side of where the main coolant tank is where I fill it up. There is also a short trail of coolant behind me from where I changed from reverse to drive again. From just a visual inspection, I can’t see where the leak is origination, but I couldn’t get fully underneath the vehicle. I attached some photos (one so can see how steady the leak was when I was pulling back and forward) and also a short video to give you better angles.

I want to take the vehicle in again, but am wary since the original fix of a new cap (I actually went through 3 caps in less than a year, but I have trouble believing Saturn is that bad at making coolant caps) didn’t seem to be the original problem. Can anyone give me any advice on what the problem may be so when I approach either the same mechanic, or a new one, I can ask the right questions?


Why aren’t you using Dexcool? . . . that is what GM wants you to use, I believe

Anyways, the cap is a symptom, not the problem

Is the engine overheating?

A few possibilities come to mind

Thermostat stuck closed

Blown head gasket

You should get the coolant system pressure tested

If you don’t want to do that, at least replace the thermostat

But I strongly suggest bring the car to a shop, perhaps even towing it, before you kill the engine

My oil isn’t milky/cloudy at all. As for the overheating, the dashboard needle seems to work, as it doesn’t stay stuck on just one area the whole time. However, it does have a tendency to stop 1/4 of the way and not get any higher. Sorry about the video not being posted. It apparently doesn’t want to play nice.

As for now, it looks like I’ll try to get it into a good repair shop (although I’m thinking of trying a new one) and I’m praying it’s not a blown head gasket. If it is, it looks like I’ll be buying a new car soon…

OK, I first suspect that this problem is not serious as long as you get it taken care of asap. This is the kind of problem where procrastination can cost you an engine. Most likely, you have a leaking upper radiator hose, a leaking heater hose or a leaking hose to the throttle body. All those hoses are in the vicinity of where the dripping is occurring.

Next issue is the type of coolant that you are using. The coolant must be silicate and phosphate free or it can damage the water pump. Most coolants sold today are silicate and phosphate free. You do not have to use dexcool, but it works fine in this engine. You can use any major brand longlife universal coolant such as Peak, Prestone or Zerex. Most of the major house brands are probably OK but I’d be leery of the stuff at Discount Charlies or Dollar Dewlittles.

Do you have a coolant temperature gauge in your instrument panel? If so, how high has the needle gone to. Has it gone past the 3/4 mark? Has it hit the red? If it has hit the red, I would be concerned about the head gasket.

Is the service engine soon light on? Do you have AC and have you checked to see if the cooling fan behind the radiator is running with the AC on?

BTW, at the rate you are loosing coolant now, you will need to get it towed unless you can find someone to come to where the car is and check all the hoses and replace the one that is leaking. The hose is tearing open and it will get worse very fast.

I have been using Prestone and a Western Family generic (both labelled for higher mileage engines). The needle has never gotten past the 1/4 mark. Ever. The engine light is not/has not turned on for this. I do have AC but I have not checked to see if the cooling fan is running.

There is a repair shop that is apparently very trustworthy close by me that I am going to try. even though it’s less than a mile away, I’ll call and get it towed there just in case.


“the needle has never gotten past the 1/4 mark.”

Your thermostat is probably stuck open . . . FWIW

Disagree on the thermostat, the OBD II in a Saturn is very sensitive to the ECT. Mine tripped a DTC when the coolant temp only got to 179 instead of 180 within the expected time frame after start up. My gauge stays at two needle widths above the quarter mark when warmed up almost like its painted on, but it did hit a needle width above the half way mark when pulling the grade out of death Valley on the California side when it was 121°F there according to the ranger station at Furnace Creek and I ran the AC, against the advice of the road signs posted there.

I just talked to my new mechanic (hopefully, if all goes well…) and he was able to locate a hose where he’s pretty sure the leak is happening. He said he’ll test it out for sure and let me know. As for the general overheating from the original problem, He’s also pretty sure it’s the cooling fan. From my description of when it wanted to overheat compared to when it stayed cool, he got a smile on his face and said it’s most likely (99%) the cooling fan not working properly. I’ll keep everyone posted as to what he will fix.

I always like it when people post after their repairs to let the other readers know what the problem was…

Plenty of good input here.

I would think, with a leak of that size, any competent mechanic should be able to figure out where it’s coming from pretty easily. Probably just a hose or the radiator itself. Once (right about the 235k mark) one of my heater hoses blew off the back of the engine in my 1998 for no apparent reason. Put it back on and 20k later still no issues.

And he’s probably right about the cooling fan. I had one quit - the fan worked but wouldn’t come on on its own. I wired a switch to the fan, and anytime the temperature gauge starts to get over 1/2 (only when sitting in traffic) I can manually start it and cool down the engine. Mine has no a/c, I think if yours does you wouldn’t want to go this route.

I would second the cooling fan. The key was that it doesn’t overheat over 45 mph.

The radiator cooling fan should be spinning like a banshee when this happens. Pop the hood. Is it?

I discovered – too late – that I had a bad connection on my Corolla’s cooling fan. I was driving in San Francisco stop and go traffic and thought the fog I was seeing was just the foggy summer climate there, until I discovered the fog was only in front of the car! The steam blew a seam in the radiator. But easily and inexpensively remedied once I discovered the fan connector had been eaten by some dripping battery acid.

Updated news!

The leak was actually my lower and upper radiator hose. The mechanic was quick in repairing it and also did a coolant flush (apparently I was a little overdue and was glad he took care of it)

As for the general overheating, He checked the radiator cooling fan. Sure enough, It wasn’t working. I’m getting it replaced any day now (I didn’t have the money at the time to get it fixed with my original coolant repairs, but will once I get paid again in a couple days).

Thank you all for your advice on the matter!

Best of luck, thanks for updating w/ the results.