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Car won't start despite multiple repairs

'96 Maxima has not been starting for 2 months. Multiple repair shops and weeks later find the problem continuing despite replacing ignition, battery, starter, crank angle sensor, etc. Now told to replace air intake control valve. Am I being ripped off and what really needs to be replaced?

check the fuel pump

The first place said they couldn’t check the fuel pump until they could duplicate the problem (car not starting) and the second place said that could not be the problem. The third place which is the dealership said they didn’t think it is the problem so they are replacing the air intake control valve. I have said the fuel pump from the VERY BEGINNING because that is the only part not replaced but it seems no one seems to agree with me about that so I don’t know what to do.

how many miles are on the car. Could it be the timing belt is broken.

151,000. Would they be able to see the timing belt while working on the car and wouldn’t it be obvious if it was broken? I believe I’ve had all the belts checked during one of the major mileage checkups but no one has mentioned this problem to me.
The car has never been in an accident, I’m the only owner of the vehicle so it’s in great condition inside and out. The only problem I have ever incurred has been this one besides just changing tires, battery, filters, oil changes as required.

At that mileage (151,000) it’s certainly possible for a timing belt to break, if it has a belt that has never been changed. I think Maximas switched to a chain somewhere in the '90s, so it’s not a sure bet either way. Any worthwhile mechanic should have spotted that problem if it were the case.

The trouble seems to be you haven’t found a wothwhile mechanic. One issue bothers me, you said the first mechanic couldn’t reproduce the problem. If the car doesn’t start, how can he not reproduce that problem. Is it only occasionally that it doesn’t start? If that’s the case the timing belt/chain is not the issue. That would be a permanent non-start condition.

The car will start one day and then not the next which has been going on since July 28th. It has been at all 3 repair places for 2 weeks each time; during which they say it starts everytime. In each case, the car has been towed after not starting at home for 2 days and subsequently it starts after being towed. This last time, the car came home from the dealership after being towed and didn’t start again for 3 weeks. After labor day, I tried once again to see if it would start and it DID so I hurriedly drove it to the dealership so I wouldn’t have to pay a tow fee for the 5th time. The next day the dealership said they could not get the car to start and now have decided it is the air intake control valve. When I told the second repair place about what the dealership said, the owner said that the air intake valve could not be the problem and wanted me to tow it back to him after I had already paid him $760 to change the crank angle sensor and cam sensor and the car didn’t start the day after I got it home. Does this sequence make sense? Anyway, I will ask the dealership if the timing belt looks okay. I have even suggested that something may be loose because the positioning back and forth of the car being towed and put on the truck seems to make it start but after sitting in the garage at home, it won’t start. I’m truly beginning to feel like there is a black cloud over this car that has been so good for 15 years until now.

Well I just got the car back Tuesday from the dealership after paying $506 for an air intake control valve replacement and went to start the car this morning and it wouldn’t start. The air is filled with gas fumes where I have tried repeatedly to get it to start on various occaions. Do you have any ideas of what I should do? Would a fuel pump or something in the gas tank that would make these fumes so bad?

It’s either insufficient fuel, insufficient air, or insufficient spark. Everything else you’ve done seems to rule our air and spark unless they screwed up the repairs. It should be relatively trivial to do a pressure test on the fuel pump (which will at the same time verify that fuel pump relay is turning the pump on when it should).

On the other hand, smelly gas fumes sounds like you are getting enough fuel, but you have bad spark or not enough air so you aren’t burning the fuel.

Did any of the mechanics do a pressure test on the fuel pump to rule it out?

It’s not a broken timing belt if it runs sometimes.

One thing I’d have to say is that you need a different mechanic. Yours just seems to be throwing random parts (and your money) at the problem in the hope he’ll eventually hit the target.

You said the air is full of gas fumes. That sounds like it’s probably getting fuel at least. When you turn the key on (not to start, just on), can you hear the fuel pump make any noise for a few seconds in the tank? You can also pull one of the spark plug wires, and (carefully) check for spark. Possibly the easiest way would be to use an old spark plug in the removed boot, making sure the screw part is grounded to the engine or a metal underhood component. (nothing near electronics though)

The timing belt is fine if the car does run at least some of the time. Another possibility is if you have a security system that’s malfunctioning and disabling the ignition.

What you really need is a mechanic that’s a diagnostician and not just a parts changer.

I asked them all if it could possibly be the fuel pump from the beginning since this has been the only part to my knowledge that has not been replaced. The first mechanic said they couldn’t check the fuel pump without duplicating the problem of the car not starting (the car would start after being towed up there). The second mechanic said it couldn’t possibly be the fuel pump and the dealershihp said he even called “technical support” for help in diagnosing the problem and the fuel pump didn’t come up at all, just the air intake control valve. No one has said anything about spark plugs either.

I am on the third mechanic. Each mechanic has had the car for two weeks on two separate occasions each (towed 5 times). One mechanic I phoned for advice just told me to take it to the dealership because of all the work that has already been done and the problem continued. The dealership has had it twice with the last time only just last week. I picked it up yesterday when they replaced the air intake control valve.

The only noise I detect is the sound of the engine trying to start but just will not make the final “catch” (female term). I don’t know that I would recognize the fuel pump making a noise because the sound comes from the front. None of the mechanics felt it was the fuel pump even if I mentioned it hadn’t been changed to my knowledge. They say they run the scanners and then the parts I mentioned in earlier notes is what they replaced. Should I call and ask them about the spark plugs since I can’t get it started to get it back to the repair shop? At this point, I don’t know who to ask or what to ask about and have been trusting the mechanics for their expertise.

You are also the third person to mention the security system issue. The other two were church “ladies” who said they had a similar problem and their husbands disengaged the alarm system and the car worked fine. I’ll ask the “mechanics” about this scenario as well. That would just be an incredible “coincidence” if that helped the problem.

I’d also like to ask if you think I should keep paying these people if the problem doesn’t get repaired and it has to keep going back. My feeling is if I have taken it in because it won’t start and the part they replaced didn’t fix the problem, then I really shouldn’t have to keep paying for parts that aren’t working. I don’t mind paying for labor but I’ve put out $1300 dollars in 5 weeks for a car that won’t start. Since I haven’t had this kind of major problem before, I’m not sure how to deal with these people. Any suggestions?

Do you have any experience with a good mechanic with other cars you have owned, Sueellyn? What brought you to the three shops that have so far failed? If you feel sure that it is the fuel pump get a shop to install a pressure gauge that can be read from the driver’s seat and see if it indicates lack of pressure when the problem occurs. For a deposit of a $200 a shop should be willing to do so. But honestly, a similar issue with 3 dissimilar shops is indicative of the owners/managers wishing to avoid an apparently difficult customer.

I don’t know if it is the fuel pump just that other people have suggested that so I ask each mechanic about that idea. We have used the first mechanic for 15 years for oil changes, battery replacement, etc. They referred me to the second mechanic because they didn’t feel they had the proper diagnostic equipment to evaluate the problem. The second mechanic has been used by a couple of acquaintances who said it was okay, just expensive. When I picked up the car ($760 later) he told me that he could not guarantee that replacing the crank angle sensor and the cam position sensor would solve the problem but they they had a lot of “wear” on them and felt they needed to be replaced. The car didn’t start for 3 weeks after that. The 3rd mechanic I called referred me to the dealer because he didn’t want me to keep getting the run around and that the dealer should be able to handle any issues since it was their product. I didn’t feel comfortable taking it back to mechanics who didn’t guarantee their work and the car didn’t work afterwards so I asked for another opinion by phone and that is when the gentleman referred me to the dealer for help.
I’m really not trying to be difficult but if trying to get your car repaired so it will start is being difficult and continuing to pay for parts that haven’t helped, then I guess I must be. But thank you for that insight into repair shop customer service.

I think you just haven’t found the right mechanic. I’m going to focus on fuel since you have spent so much time and money on air and spark issues without resolution.

When you turn the key to the “on” position, but not all the way to the crank position, you may hear a click as the fuel pump relay energizes the fuel pump, and a whirring sound as the fuel pump pressurizes the fuel line. After a few seconds, the pump will stop because you are not using the fuel. These sounds may be difficult to hear if you don’t know what you are listening for, but if you turn off the radio and fan, you may be able to hear it.

Most domestic cars have a valve on the fuel line that makes it easy to test the fuel pump pressure. Most foreign cars lack this valve, but that doesn’t make it “impossible” to check the fuel pressure, just more difficult. A mechanic can disassemble the fuel line and install an in-line pressure gauge. It is possible for fuel pressure to be good sometimes and bad sometimes, so that testing it when the car is running is not a sure diagnosis. On the other hand they did $700 worth of other work because the parts “looked worn” without being sure that it would fix the problem, so I’m not sure why they wouldn’t test the pressure. They might have found it was borderline low, or fluctuating. If you car works sometimes and not other times, a mechanic could install the gauge permanently so you could check it with the hood open. On days when the car will not start you could get a friend to crank the engine while you check the gauge right at the moment you are having the problem.

You can buy something at the auto parts store called starter fluid, which is mostly ether, which is highly flammable. You can spray this into your air intake while you start the car, and it will burn in the cylinders and allow the engine to run even if there is no gasoline. You can get someone to spray starter fluid into the air intake while you crank the engine. If it won’t catch, then the problem is lack of spark. Something is wrong in your ignition system that was not fixed or was fixed incorrectly. If it starts when you are spraying the fluid and dies when you stop, then you have no gasoline coming into the engine. If it starts only with starter fluid but keeps running, then you still probably have low fuel pressure. If none of your mechanics ever tried this then I question their diagnostic abilities. It’s a really simple and easy test to narrow down the cause of starting problems.

So, suggestions.

  1. Replace the fuel pump relay. Get a relay at any auto parts store. It plugs into an electrical panel somewhere, either your fuse panel or under the hood. It only costs a few dollars and if it is not consistently sending an electric signal to the fuel pump, you will never get your engine running. When you have the new relay, look around your car to find something that looks exactly like it. Unplug the old relay and plug in the new relay.

  2. Try starting the car with starter fluid. You will need the help of at least one other person, preferably someone with at least a little bit of car knowledge.

  3. Check the fuel pump pressure with an in-line gauge.

Hopefully you can find a mechanic who can help you with #2 and #3. Maybe you can visit several shops (drive in your other car or have a friend drive you) and narrate your problem, and see if they are willing to do these tests, before you actually have it towed anywhere (again).

Good luck.

You may be able to disable the security system by pulling a fuse. Or maybe not. Check your owner’s manual.

Thank you so much for this very informative message. I will certainly check with the dealer about these ideas when the car gets back for repair. I would be too nervous to try the starter fluid idea since I know nothing about cars but I’ll approach the mechanic about these things.

I did try just turning the car on without cranking to listen for the fuel pump. I hear a “motor-type” noise but I was told this was the antenna motor (old car). So I’m not sure I can tell about the fuel pump noise.

After I did that, I did try to start the car again. It started twice and stalled out and on the third attempt, I just kept the peddle down so it wouldn’t stall out and it continued to idle but then white smoke started coming out of the back so I turned it off and the gas fumes were very strong to the point I put a fan in the garage.

I called the dealer once again to let him know we would get the car in as soon as I could and told him about this morning with the smoke. He agreed that he remembers the car having a strong gas odor from the beginning but didn’t know why I would have white smoke but perhaps it was excess fuel being burned off. It did ask about the fuel pump and he said it was fine. I asked about spark plugs and he said they were fine. I even mentioned the security system idea and he said “it would throw a code if the security system was a problem” and feels this really isn’t the problem.

Everyone’s ideas have been so helpful and I really appreciate you taking the time to address my crazy problem. It may just be time to give up the 15 year old car but I just wanted to try everything I could before that happened. Thank you again for your kindness.

The times when you started it successfully, did it run well until you shut it off? Did you have to keep your foot on the gas or not?

Try this: Turn the key to the on position, wait 5 seconds, then crank the engine. Does it catch? Does it catch and run well or does it only catch if you have your foot on the gas pedal and then die when you take your foot off.

When it does start, my foot is on the pedal. This morning, it took a while to start and then just died (foot not on the pedal). The third attempt I kept my foot on the pedal until it started and then kept it there for a minute to get the idle up.

I just tried your idea and the first attempt without foot on the pedal, it didn’t start. The second attempt without foot on the pedal, it started and died. The third attempt with foot on the pedal, it started but wanted to stop and I kept my foot on it. I could hear the engine idle sound change and then I took my foot off the pedal and it kept running. I did not see smoke this time though!