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My newly acquired 97 nissan sentra won't start - at all

tonight at 1am: I put the key in and turn the ignition, no start, no click, no dashboard warning lights, no nothing. headlights don’t turn on at all
earlier in the afternoon - didn’t check headlights, but no start, no click, no dashboard warning lights. Sliding 1 key into the ignition gave me a somewhat steady buzzing sound from the car, the kind you get to indicate something electrical is happening (I guess that’s what it’s for. I wish I were mechanically inclined.) Sliding the other key into the ignition gave me a much more sporadic buzzing sound. Like metal wasn’t making contact, when it should.
A few hours previous in the morning - car wasn’t starting as described above. Someone pushes the car back from the front so we can make way for another car, to come in and give me a jump. I put the car in neutral, and notice that the dashboard lights and buzzer is on, so on a hunch, I try to start the car in neutral and it starts right up. I drive it to the home driveway, no problem.

2 days ago, I bought the car. A 97 nissan sentra.

Any idea what it could be? Again, never a clicking sound when starting the car to indicate dead battery. I’m familiar with that.

You have either a completely discharged battery and/or a dead battery. Get a charger and put it on the battery and see if it will take a charge. Charge the battery and then attempt to start the car.

Since this is a new to you car it is very possible the battery is toast and won’t hold a charge and needs replacement. There should be a sticker on the top of the battery that will tell you how old the battery is. If you can find it and the sticker indicates the battery is 5 years old or older I’d just replace the battery.

Once you have the car running you need to determine if the alternator is putting out the current necessary to charge the battery. If the alternator is bad then your battery will discharge in a few days and you’ll be back at square one.

At this moment your battery is discharged; the question is - is the battery no good anymore? Or, is the battery OK but the alternator isn’t charging it? You might need a new alternator, or a new battery and sometimes both. A bad battery can overwork an alternator and kill it.

From what I’m reading here…you have a bad neutral safety switch in addition to a bad battery.

Start with cleaning and tightening the terminals for the main power cables. Start at the battery end and then follow each cable to the other end. If the cables are particularly crusty looking then you might think about replacing them altogether.

When that is done, and if the car will start again have the battery and charging system load tested. But I think that if you don’t have a simple power cable connection problem then you may be headed for a new ignition switch. If the battery was so dead that it wouldn’t even power up the dash lights then it probably wouldn’t have suddenly and randomly cranked the car - I only say “probably” because you can have internal battery defects that can come and go. If it was as simple as a neutral safety switch, then the dash lights should be coming on during the no start situations

Thanks for the replies. Much appreciated. My thought is that it is indeed a bad alternator. I don’t say this out of any knowledge or history with cars or alternators in the past, but only b/c the husband of the wife selling me the car kept talking about how he will never again get put in/use a used alternator. I guess he got one from the junk yard and put it in - either in this car that I now own, or in his own car. I forget which. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen close enough to that. But he did mention them a few times, enough for me to suspect that. He changed the battery and he changed the alternator but did it by himself on the cheap. I dunno. Will figure this out. They of course left me with the car in MA/RI as they are now driving to CA. Seemed plausible enough at the time. I saw their other car “packed”. Anyway, what really gets me is, as cigroller points out, the fact that I could suddenly start it while in neutral the other day.

Every step you all mention is new to me, having never done it before save for jumping the car. And it’s raining outside, and it’s Sunday. But I will talk to the only people I know that may take a house call on a Sunday like this and that is possibly the Autozone or Advance Auto down the street. Unfortunately, I also just moved here to this town myself and don’t know a soul. But the people of RI seem friendly enough, so I will see what Autozone/AA people say given the advice gven here.

Many years ago I worked a tow truck for a gas station affiliated with AAA. Many calls were for no starts especially in very cold weather. When I got to the car I’d give it a try and often to the amazement of the owner the car would crank and start. This was not that unusual and happened about 20% of the time. What happened is the battery got warm as a result of the attempted starts before I arrived, but eventually would run out of juice and hence the call to AAA. I’d arrive about 30-40 min later and the warmed up battery would rebound a bit and sometimes had enough power left to crank over the engine. When a car did start I’d advise the owner to keep the motor running and take at least a 30-60 minute drive before shutting off the motor so the battery would have time to recharge.

The owner’s weren’t crazy. The start attempts really do “heat” up the battery internally and that’s a “possible” reason this car started one time. If that is the case most likely the battery is really OK just fully discharged at this point.

It’s corroded and/or loose battery terminals. Very common on older cars and easily overlooked. The fact there were no lights working before, then suddenly working enough to start the car normally points to a bad connection to the battery.

Well miracle of miracles, it starts up, as normal. Don’t ask me why. I put the car in neutral, and notice that stereo light glowing on. I don’t yet know how to turn that thing on or off, actually. It’s really not obvious! So I just take the face of it off (anti-theft) in the hopes that that effectively turns it off and draws less currant. In neutral, I start the car. I really need to pay more attention,as I do it, because, I can’t remember now if I tried in starting it in park or not. I think I did. And I tried both keys. I do think that one key works better than the other, I don’t know why. So, start the car, and drive it to Advance Auto Parts. They check the battery, starter, alternator. From the looks of the battery, it looks very new. I didn’t see a sticker, but will check later for it. Tests say battery is good, starter is good, and the alternator has no current. Later I start the car in park, and it works. Start the car with the other key, and it works. I don’t get it. So, I know I have a bad alternator now, but nothing failed to start at Advance, so I couldn’t recreate the problem and almost didn’t want to, considering it’s sunday, cold, raining, and I would have no way back home.

But I still don’t know how to successfully start my engine to get it to the mechanic tomorrow. Will it even start tomorrow? To be clear, I was about to jump start it or otherwise use cables to draw current from another car battery, but in the end, I never had to do that. It started just fine before that was needed.

How many times have you started this car now since the no-start and how far did you drive it? None of this really adds up. First, if your battery was initially so dead that it wouldn’t even run the dash lights, then there is nothing that would have made it magically come back to life. There is something to what UncleTurbo said above about a warm up, but you said that not even the dash board warning lights would come on. That’s a battery that is either far beyond dead or not even connected. Then even if there was an internal defect or something causing intermittent battery function, it’s implausible that - with no alternator power - you could start and restart the car, drive it to the auto parts store, have it load tested, etc. without the car completely dying. The battery will only run the car’s systems for so long.

When they tested the alternator, where did they hook up? Was it all done from the battery terminals?

(what I wrote to someone else before seeing the above response) : I don’t think that explains why the car will start sometimes perfectly normal and other times not at all, with no signs of electrical life. I haven’t yet been able to isolate the problem, but I think it may also have to do with a bad contact or something, as one key seems to work better/ more consistently than the other one.

In the past, I noticed that, when I slide the key in halfway, I get a buzzing sound, but not when I slide it in completely.

Yes, all done from the battery terminals. I think I have started it now 2 or 3 times since the no start. The parts store is about 4 miles down the road.

I’m starting to lean towards a bad ignition switch. I had one go bad in a Honda, and nearly strand me in the middle of nowhere. I wound up disconnecting the wire harness and fabbing up some jumpers to hotwire it.

Not that I know what these things are, but I am starting to come to think that it is the ignition switch, as well, and then the position neutral, as suggested above, but not neutral, rather, for parking, if there is such a thing as a “position park” switch. (Yes?)

The neutral safety switch is engaged in Park or Neutral to tell the car that it’s safe to start. It isn’t your problem. A bad one will not prevent the dash lights from lighting up.

Loose / corroded wiring connections or ignition switch as I mentioned way up above.

I had the exact same problem that you describe. I inspected the cable that connects the battery to the chassis - it looked fine. When removed, I noticed that it was heavily corroded “on the inside”, between the individual copper wires, near the connector to the chassis. I got a new cable, installed it and all the issues went away and have not come back. Worth trying for less than ten bucks for a new cable and ten minutes of work. By the way, it was a '97 Sentra, no kidding. Good luck.

I had a very similar problem with my 1996 Nissan Sentra. I had just got it and it began to not want to start and then it just didn’t have any juice in the battery. I tried putting a charger on the battery, used up all my AAA calls getting jumps and even a new battery. Then one night when I closed the trunk I noticed a bit of light. Apparently, the trunk light would not turn off when the trunk was closed and it was draining the battery. I removed the bulb from the trunk and haven’t had anymore problems. Although I wouldn’t mind figuring out how to actually fix it so I could have the trunk light!

@asroco, find the switch and replace it. Or, install a switch of your own to turn it on when you need it.