Is it the spark plugs, the starter, the coil, or gremlins?

99 Chevy Prizm wimpmobile.

Last fall I replaced the spark plugs and the car ran horribly. Sometimes you had to turn the key several times to get it to start. Turns out I put in the wrong kind of plug. This engine needs twin-ground plugs and I put in single-ground (yes, I noticed the difference while changing them, but I was told it didn’t matter so I went ahead). After a few weeks, I replaced these plugs with twin-ground plugs and my jalopy ran smoothly after that.

Until about two weeks ago when the car started acting like it needed new spark plugs AGAIN. Reduced gas mileage, occasionial herky-jerky performance on the freeway, uneasy idling. I looked at the plugs and they were fine.

Now today, I can’t get the car to start at all. I turn the key and get “click-click” and nothing else. Interior lights and headlights work fine so I don’t think it’s the battery.

I cleaned the battery connections and even put in NEW spark plugs, but still got nothin’.

Any suggestions?

Also, my car went through its law-decreed inspected last week and it passed the emissions test, if that means anything.

Thanks a lot.

Any suggestions? Did I maybe do some kind of damage back when I put in those single-ground plugs?

Do you figure its a “wimpmobile” and a “jalopy” because it only has 4 cylinders, or because you think its junky or something? These are actually solid little cars (basically toyota carollas), and if you took care of it it would run for a long time.

Anyway…what keeps you obsessed with the spark plugs? There are all sorts of things that can be going on. How is the air filter? How about the fuel filter? Have you replaced the wires or only the plugs? Deal with those things first.

Is your check engine light on? How many miles are on this car?

If you have jumper cables, you can test for a bad ground by connecting the cable from the engine to the body. with the cable connected, try to start the car. First, you can check the battery with a cheap volt meter. If it’s less than eleven volts, the engine may not crank anyway. If you have a bad ground between engine and body, the battery may not be charged anywhere near 12.6; it might be 12.1 or slightly higher. This condition isn’t likely on a 99 model unless that short ground wire is missing or really corroded at the ends. It was common in the seventies. In a lucky world, fixing a bad ground will make your engine run better (doubt it).

Anybody know why “twin ground” plugs made a difference?

The “wimpmobile” line is only a joke (I live in Texas where every other driver is in a big Ford F-150). I actually LIKE the car. I’ve had it for five years and have never had a serious problem. I am pro-Prizm.

You’re probably right that I am too focused on the spark plugs. This could because I’ve got into my head that there might be some lingering damage from the time when the car ran poorly with single-ground plugs (and then everything got better when I put in twin-ground plugs). And the car is acting the same way that did then.

Air filter was recently replaced. It’s been several years since the fuel filter was replaced. Never replaced the plug wires, but they look fine.

No check engine light. Miles on the car: about 130,000.

Anyway, thanks for your reply.

The Prizm’s manual actually specifies twin-ground spark plugs. I was always under the impression that it didn’t make a difference, but, for me, at least, it did.

With a single-ground plug, the car RAN fine, but I had problems starting it. And those problems began right after i changed the plugs. So I put in twin-ground plugs like the manual says, and everything was fine after that.

I can’t get the car to start at all. I turn the key and get “click-click” and nothing else. Interior lights and headlights work fine so I don’t think it’s the battery.

How old is that battery?  I suspect that, and/or maybe the plug wires are your problem.  

If that battery is over four years old, I would just replace it.  If the plug wires are original I would replace them (I suggest OEM brand).  

Both of the above recommendations are free!  I say that because if they are as old or older than I noted above, they should be replaced as a maintenance expense not a repair cost.

This might have the common Toyota starter contact problem (they wear down, eventually resulting in no start, even though all the electrics function fine). If you’re handy, you can remover the starter, remove the solenoid, replace the contacts ($30 or less), and put it all back together. Here’s a site describing the work:

I agree with Texases. Your car is at the right age for the starter solenoid contacts to be worn out. You can replace the contacts if that is the case. The other possibility is a bad main cable connection from the battery to the starter. By checking to make sure the full battery voltage is getting to the solenoid while trying to start the car will verify it is ok.

Thanks everyone for your responses. The battery is about two years old so it didn’t occur that it could be the problem, but I guess it’s all up in the air.

I’ve arranged for a shop to pick it up today so we’ll see.

Sunday is the WORST day to have car problems. Everything’s closed and all I can do is fumble around with it on my own and worry.

If you get a jump-start, and the engine cranks, that indicates that your battery cables to battery posts are not making good connections. If the cranking is unchanged, those battery connections aren’t the cause.
With a “click click click” that can (also) indicate that the voltage reaching the starter solenoid may be too low to “trip” the starter solenoid. Hopefully, the repair shop will check the voltage from the ignition switch, through the various switches, to the starter solenoid. Hopefully.

Just heard from the shop. It’s a worn out starter, they say. A little over $400 for servicing plus towing.

Not cheap, but at least it’s a very straightforward repair. Most shops won’t want to fiddle with the contacts, I imagine.

Lifted from a post on ToyotaNation. Does yours use the OEM twin ground platinum electrode spark plugs? They are specifically used for the later model Gen 4s (camry) with twin coil packs and distributorless. These use a waste spark ignition, therefore the plugs fire twice during a 4 stroke cycle. If you use a single ground electrode, it will severely shorten the life of the plug. e.g. 6,000rpm on your camry engine will be like running 12,000rpm on another car, since the plug fires twice as often. You can also try double platinum plugs, i.e. plugs with a platinum chip also on the ground electrode. What happens in waste spark ignition is that 1 coil pack fires 2 spark plugs simultaneously, e.g. cylinder 1 and cylinder 4. So while one spark plug is firing normally, spark jumps from center electrode to ground electrode, the other spark plug is firing in reverse, i.e. from ground electrode to center electrode, therefore there is high wear on the ground electrode, this is where the platinum chip on the ground electrode gives longevity. Plugs like Denso Iridium SK20R11 and VK20 also have a platinum chip on the ground electrode. NGK Iridium IX and Denso IK20 dont.

when you turn the key and get "click “click” it doesn’t matter what kind of plugs you have in it. It ain’t gonna start until you can get it to turn over!!!

The new starter isn’t going to solve this part:

Reduced gas mileage, occasionial herky-jerky performance on the freeway, uneasy idling

So you still have some work to do.

All of the excessive cranks you have done over the years had a toll on the starter/solenoid.
There are a few more things that need to be done to get the engine to run better AFTER it starts. Dirty fuel filters aren’t collector items; not, air filters. After that, your mechanic needs to check fuel pressure with engine UNDER LOAD, and look at the spark for intensity and regularity. A few other checks wouldn’t hurt.
A true ‘fuel system cleaning’ could help, also.