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Engine Failure--2003 Ford Focus

I have a 2003 Ford Focus Sedan with 75K miles, bought used from a Ford dealership 3-4 yrs ago with 45K miles. I spent Saturday driving around doing errands. Late in the day, it wouldn’t start up again. This was after about 20 minutes of sitting in a parking lot right after a 10 mile drive. It would turn/crank but not actually turn over (sorry, I’m not good with vocabulary). Eventually I had a tow driver come out, who also gave it a try, and then it made an awful clunking-grinding-crunching sound after a couple seconds of trying to turn. Towed to the local mechanics.

They did some compression tests and tell me that a spark plug is “smashed.” They say only a major engine problem could smash a spark plug and recommend just replacing the engine (used for $3,000, refurbished for $4-4,500). The alternative would be to take apart the engine to figure out exactly what’s wrong, at a labor cost of $800-1,000, but they say there would be a good chance that whatever they find out wouldn’t be fixable anyway.

Recent history: oil change about 6 wks ago, no history of oil problems, regular oil changes (at least since I bought it). Recent problems: (1) About 2-3 times in the past few months (including Saturday morning the day this happened), my car would sometimes take a bit more turning over to actually start. Those episodes would feel like it was “barely” starting, and then the car would kind of gently buck for the first 20-30 seconds of driving, then be totally normal and start right up again afterwards. (2) For the past year or so, the speedometer and odometer would intermittently go to zero, usually after a sudden speed or lane change or big cranking of the wheel (e.g., reversing out of a parking spot)…this would last a mile or two then randomly come right back on. (3) The weekend before my engine wouldn’t start, my check-engine light came on while driving on the highway. This happened to occur during one of those brief zero-speedometer episodes. I took it to the shop, they said it was a sensor issue, and it took nearly $500 to repair.

So…questions: (1) any of the above history related to current engine problem? My shop says probably not, but I’m not sure what to believe. (2) Recommend taking engine apart at this point to diagnose problem, or just replace the thing? (3) If replace, get used or refurbished? (Shop recommends latter b/c they say history with used is totally unknown) (4) Tow it to a different shop for second opinion? (5) Or, just give up on the car totally and get a new car?

Thank you for your advice. I have minimal knowledge of mechanics.

This won’t make you any happier but do an internet search for dropped valve seats in Ford Focus & Escorts. There’s a really good chance that this is what happened to you. It is a common and well known issue all the way from the 1.9L Escort engines through the 2.0L engines in the later Escorts and Focus. Unfortunately it happens at higher mileage, normally well beyond warranty and well beyond where anyone thinks much about the failure. So Ford doesn’t even recognize this issue - but it obviously is one.

Unfortunately once the seat drops it generally makes a mess out of the block & pistons - that’s what all of that noisy stuff was. So chances are taking that engine apart will be a waste of $$.

$3000 for a used '03 Focus engine is about 2X too much money. Make some phone calls.

Could be the cam belt / chain snapped or slipped when you were cranking it and first heard the noise…Some up to date shops have a fiber-optic scope they can insert into a spark plug hole and look inside the engine without taking it apart…See what damaged that spark-plug…Another option is to pay to have the head removed, $200 at the MOST and inspect the damage. Since it happened at cranking speed, it might not be too severe and by simply replacing the cylinder head, not the entire engine, you could be back on the road for under $1000…

Heads come New, Rebuilt or Used…Many chain auto-parts stores sell rebuilt heads for reasonable prices…

Cigroller is right about what probably happened. I'll bet if you ask the shop which cylinder has the damage it's #4. Engine block damage is unlikely but you certainly have a broken piston and will need to replace the cylinder head if it too is damaged beyond repair.

Doesn't anyone fix things anymore? Find a shop that will fix your car instead of just wanting to replace an engine. I have one in my shop right now for the exact same failure. A rebuilt head, one new piston, timing belt/water pump, misc. parts and fluids and replacing a leaky radiator while I'm at it and the estimate is only $2400.

It’s all guesswork until the head is removed…Don’t spend your money on guesswork…

Original poster with update: I was between a rock and a hard place and ended up just having the engine replaced. While doing so, shop discovered that the engine in my 2003 Focus was from the 2000-2002 Focus series (they called Ford to confirm this).

I bought this 2003 vehicle used (but not pre-certified) in 2007 from a Ford dealership, with 45,000 miles on it. Apparently either the prior owner or the dealership had installed this old engine in my car. Basically, I’d paid for a 45K miles vehicle that actually had, well, who knows.

I was steaming mad and gave myself time to calm down so I could write letters that were actually civil. Anyone think I have any chance of recourse with Ford? And I don’t just want a coupon for a free oil change…

I would not read too much into the engine scenario. The car is an '03 and this means it was probably built in 2002. (Check the tag for the build date on the drivers door jam)

There are often overlaps in production line cars and some things are carried over from one year to the next. They all do this.

It would seem prudent to me to verify the serial number of your old engine against the VIN of the car itself. My feeling is that you would find out your old engine was the one that the car was born with.