Cavalier starting problem mystery

2001 Cavalier 5-speed manual 188K. Just had new battery and new starter installed 2 weeks ago. Everything ran fine for that 2 weeks, but last 48 hours car is having an intermittent problem starting. Doesn’t matter if it is first thing in the morning, late in afternoon, hot/cold, just-ran, sat for a while, etc…Had system tested at Autozone they said everything checked out OK. No codes being thrown. No warning lights on dash. Runs great / normal once it is started. No stalling or RPM variance. Starting is turning flywheel no grinding or scraping - just right now about half the time car will not start. Doesn’t just crank and crank either - will either start right up on first attempt or fail on that first spin and quit trying.

Any ideas?

“quit trying” ?
When it fails, do you mean the starter continues to turn the engine but it doesn’t fire?
do you mean the starter stops turning?

How do you get it started? let it sit for a while and try again?


You might double check the wiring and the selonoid.

Crankshaft position sensor.

You mean you hold the key in “start” and it cranks briefly, then quits cranking all together, even though the key remains in the “start” position?

hmmm … that’s a new one. What I’d do first if this happened to me is measure the voltage at both terminals of the starter motor (terminal to case) during attempted cranking. If either goes below 10.5 volts, I’d find out why. If both are above 10.5 volts and it still does this, I’d replace the starter motor.

I took it to two different places to have the battery, alternator and starter checked. They both said everything was fine and could not tell me why the car was having trouble starting. I have scheduled a replacement of the ignition switch at the dealer next week. And last night, I was about to try and inspect the wiring to and around the starter myself - and when I went to disconnect the negative battery cable, it came right off and the threads on the cable bolt were totally stripped. I thought I had figured the whole problem out right there so I headed to Walmart and bought and replaced the battery cable bolts, got in, and — --- same starting problem. It acts just like a dead or dying/weak battery would - with the starter just not having enough oomph to start the engine. Any ideas?

DJ44 you are having a problem with CURRENT. Your battery in your car sound like it may be healthy if you had it tested already. So your next place to move is to the Battery Cables. It sounds like you already identified a bad connection at the battery. What you really need is Solid battery cables and clamps to give your starter all the current it needs. If you have the factory cables and the end clamps at the batt are more than likely to blame.

I have had to break this news to so many people I’ve lost count years ago. If you have access to a “U pull It” salvage yard… I would go and get “New” or at least healthy batt cables that have healthy factory attached batt clamps.

People often cut off their damaged batt clamps and install those .99 “El Cheapo” batt clamp ends on their cables. These DO NOT WORK…they do not have sufficient clamping power and they do NOT utilize all the batt cables strands at the clamp. The Factory batt wires and clamps are the way to go. You will remove the Pos side from where the batt was…all the way down to the starter…and also wherever else it goes…just unbolt it all from the donor vehicle. Same goes for the Negative side. Neither side is more important than the other…people always forget this. Both sides rely on each other.

Get yourself some factory cables and clamps from another Cav from the yard…just make sure they are not damaged and do NOT have any kind of aftermarket batt clamps installed…once the factory cables are cut…they are usually done for…unless you have professional tools to PROPERLY install new batt clamps onto the factory wire.

This SHOULD absolutely solve your problem in a Jiffy. If your cables and clamps are factory perfect…and you have a very good ground and a healthy battery…you got all you need to spin that starter quickly the way it should spin. If it does NOT…you need to look into your starter at that point. Sounds like your starter used to spin much faster…so it seems able to do so… it is now being let down by the connections.

In some cases where all else is good and healthy…I have seen instances where I needed to run a separate Ground wire down to the Starter motor itself…or the engine block near the starter… This happens because the original connection between the battery and the block have deteriorated.

SO…Make sure you have a healthy battery, Factory perfect Batt wires and Clamps (Some high end aftermarket cables can be better than the originals also), CLEAN batt terminals/posts with tight cable clamps onto said posts… Good clean ground connections…and you WILL be good to go my man.


The problem might be with the positive battery cable assembly.

Your vehicle has the GM side mount battery terminals.

What happens is, corrosion forms under the red cap for the positive connections at the battery causing poor connections. This corrosion also leeches down to where the terminals are crimped to the wires causing poor connections.

Try replacing the positive battery cable assembly to see if that fixes the problem.


Thank you very much for the ideas and help.

I replaced the battery cable bolts last night and inspected and cleaned the connections but they were all fine - except the tin silver coating on the positive battery (battery end) was flaking off. I cleaned it, wiped, dried it - and was left with about 75% copper. Everything else looked great. I also discovered I don’t have whatever crazy size bolts are on either the starter end or the ground/engine end connections so that’s nice. The new bolts did squat. I tried to start the car about 10 times in 60 seconds. Results unchanged and still totally intermittent. First 5 - perfect, 6 failed. 7 and 8 fine, 9 and 10 failed. sounds like the starter is starting to really be unhappy about all the stress and is starting to make unwanted grinding noises which I sure don’t need on top of whatever the underlying starting issue it. TESTER answered the question I have next - which is - can the cables corrode and/or be in some way damaged some place other than the ends that you can see on both ends (4 connections)? I guess the next thing to do is to replace the cables.

After 2 new batteries, 4 starters, and every place telling me they cant’ find a problem - why someone wouldn’t have suggested the cables is beyond me. Glad i checked here.


I don’t mean to be snarky but I think the next thing to do is what the first thing should have been–test the system and diagnose the problem. Do you have a simple volt meter and know how to use it? A couple of simple tests done while the car is acting up should get you in the right direction without just swapping parts, we can walk you through that.

I can’t think of any unusual sized nuts or bolts on a Cavalier.

asemaster - no I don’t have a volt meter. I assumed that one of the 4 places I have brought the car over the past 5 months and paid many hundreds of dollars to - soley to tell me why the car was having problems starting - would have one and would know how to use it. So far, a Chevy dealership, a AAA auto service center, a Goodyear service center and about 10 different auto parts places have not got it right. At this point my question is by process of elimination: not the starter, battery or alternator - what else can it be? Battery conections, battery cables, ignition switch, clutch/safety switch? Gremlins?

To verify the safety switch or the wiring to that circuit is causing the trouble simply run a jumper wire to the starter solenoid ignition wire contact. Make sure the transmission is in neutral if you do that test. Touch the other end of the jumper to power to see if the solenoid works that way. If it does then you know you have a problem within that circuit to the solenoid. If that doesn’t work then the solenoid is suspect.

If you are having perfect starts 5 or 6 times and then a failure…then more good…then a failed…

The issue has passed beyond your cables and now rests Squarely on the Starter Solenoid… You need a new Starter Solenoid. Hmmm maybe it can also be a dead spot in the armature of the starter motor itself…Either way. I believe your Starter and Solenoid are basically the disposable type. Not like the beautiful Denso Starters used on higher quality vehicles like Toyota’s and Honda’s etc.

Change your Starter out…and this will be solved. If you can change just the solenoid only I would try that…but since you need to remove the whole starter assy to do this…that would be silly. Just replace the entire starter and solenoid assy (The Starter) and you will be fixed up. Problem will be solved Let us know how you make out. Nice work with the cables BTW.


Blackbird - that is the worst possible thing.

On October 23 last year, I took this car to a AAA place - they came back to me in 5 minutes and said I needed a new starter. Paid them $400 to put a new starter in. That starter failed in less than 4 weeks on November 21. It was under their warranty so had to go to a place out of town 1000 miles away and coordinate the warranty and they put exactly the same reman NAPA starter in the car and it lasted one month then did exactly the same thing. So 3 weeks ago, I went back to the original place and demanded they put in a NEW starter and they agreed but said in order to keep my warranty I also had to buy a new battery from them for another $120. So I did. Last week, I went back and the manager basically said there is no F-ing way that it could be the starter and there is another problem. Are you saying I should go back there and confront this guy because their starters keep dying? I better be DAMN sure that it is the starter before getting into a fight with this manager. What would kill 4 starters in 5 months? Don’t you think the odds of that are slim to none (of getting 3 bad starters)?

That’s why some testing needs to be done, by someone somewhere. A few simple tests with a $100 voltmeter will easily get us in the right direction as to whether the problem is with the starter/solenoid assy or somewhere else.

At this point I think I would ask your friends/neighbors/coworkers if they can recommend a reputable local independent garage .

Well…the whole reason i went to the dealer and aaa on friday was to prevent what has now happened. The car wont start and i am stuck in a walmart parking lot on a sunday at five pm with no repair place open. I went in walmart to see if they have battery cables but the only tool i have is one big pliers so i might be able to do the main ends but what are these other smaller wires on the sides of the 4g big cables? Where do they go?

If you haven’t already eliminated the ignition wire circuit going to the starter solenoid as the cause of this problem, as I mentioned earlier, then you are pretty much wasting your time in trying to solve this problem.

There should be two red wires.

Large gauge wire connects to the starter solenoid and the small gauge wire connects to the under hood fuse block at the 50 AMP ignition fuse.


OK, Oops, sorry, I had no idea you have already gone thru new starters in such a fashion… OK…I take it back…but I am suspicious of that solenoid…OR the wire that gives the solenoid its feed to trigger. That wire should indeed be under the control of a relay. Which would be your “Starter Relay” OK…you have some diagnostics to perform… as Cougar is talking about. Just hook up a test light to that starter solenoid trigger wire while it is unplugged from the solenoid and see if it lights up each time you turn the key. If you get 5 light ups out of 6 key twists…then you located the issue…either in the relay or the ignition harness. You would then need to whittle the problem down until you found the culprit. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to swap the starter Relay with a different but the same type of relay found in your fuse box. You should have similar relays that would be interchangeable…then re do that test again with the test light and see if you get 10 lights out of 10 twists this time…

This is why i kinda hate to give advice over the net… its hard to just nail the problem like this when we don’t have the vehicle in front of us. I can run so many tests in just a few minutes that would lead me to the culprit of this problem…but like this…with no car in front of me… I have to run down the list of possible items… I real life and onsite, I would be able to tell you the root cause of this in a few minutes usually. Anyway I hope our advice at least gets you to the resolution of this issue


There was a recall issued on these Cavaliers where an additional relay was installed to reduce the excess current being drawn through the wires to the ignition switch when in the start position.

The excess current would overheat the wires and the switch when the engine was cranked more than ten seconds at a time.

Do you know if this recall was performed? I had it done on both my Cavaliers.