Flickering Oil Light on 1997 Saturn SL2

My daughter’s oil light flickered for a few seconds while she was driving in stop and go traffic. She checked the oil level and it was at the second level on the dipstick. I went on line (after she drove off) and found that it could be an oil pressure issue. are there other possibilities? What should get checked and is it possible for her engine to sieze even if the oil level seems to be fine?

As an aside - should the engine oil level be checked when the engine is cold or warm?


If the oil level was at the second mark, I assume you mean it was down to the second mark. This means you are a quart low and you need to add a quart to get it back up to the full mark. Best to check the oil when the car has been turned off for 5 minutes or more to let all the oil to settle back into the pan. When was the last time the oil and filter were changed?

The oil light comes on due to oil pressure, not oil level. The sensor can go bad and give a false light, so it is typical to put a mechanical gauge on it to confirm the oil pressure before replacing the sensor.

It would not be unusual for a car this age to have difficulty maintaining oil pressure at idle when hot. Oil pressure is maintained by the pump forcing oil through the small clearances between the bearings and the corresponding surfaces. There are channels that allow the oil to be forced directly between these surfaces. When wear opens the clearances (spaces) up too much, it becomes analogous to trying to keep a balloon inflated that has a pinhole. The pump has difficulty maintain pressure. Idle is when the pump is turning the slowest, and a hot engine is when the oil is the thinnest, so these are the conditions under which the struggle tends to show up first.

She can try a slightly higher base-weight oil. It might help. But the reality is that the engine is just worn. There’s no way around this one.


Nope. Wear.
Sludge presents with different symptoms.

You can check your oil at anytime the engine is off, hot or cold, immediately after shutdown or days after. It only affects the oil level by less than a 1/4 qt and that is not significant. Not checking your oil is a problem, so check it anytime it is convenient and don’t worry about being to anal about it.

But your problem is oil pressure. You can get an oil light if the oil level runs so low that the pump can’t pick any up, but you’d be just about out of oil by then.

Some of the reasons for the oil light to flicker are stated above, but it can also be due to a plugged up oil filter. If the oil hasn’t been changed in a while, I’d start with an oil change. If you are using 5w30 as recommended on the oil cap, go to 10w30, it can help. I use 10w30 in my Saturn all the time, have done so since new and it has 275k miles on it now.

My boss’s car had the oil light flickering

It was due to sludge

Assuming the oil and filter have been recently changed, and the crankcase is full, then have the oil pressure measured using shop gauge. You could get lucky and it’s just that the engine’s oil pressure sensor is faulty and needs to be replaced.

If I’m curious about the oil level, I check the dipstick first thing in the morning, before starting the car. Car on level surface.

Sludge can clog the pickup screen leading to reduced oil pressure. But with a 1997 it’s as likely wear as anything else. The engine is likely tired and worn.