Timing Belt, 1996 Dodge Neon



Hey, everyone. I posted a while back with questions about my air conditioning and an oil seep. Caddyman was exactly right - my compressor was cycling because the refrigerant was so low. I added more and it’s working fine, though I likely still have a leak and they problem will come back. I also have what I think is an oil seep (the car drips oil when the engine gets hot, but rarely on shot trips), but it hasn’t gotten worse so I just monitor the oil level regularly and it’s fine.

On to the real question: the car was my sister’s, and she told me she followed the maintenance schedule religiously. However, after checking her records and asking her, it seems she never changed the timing belt (she passed the car on to me right about that time, and we overlooked it in the exchange). At 125K, I’m on borrowed time and I want to get quotes for changing the belt.

What else should I do while I’m having the timing belt replaced? As best as I can tell, the water pump is probably original, so that’s on my list. Should I ask the mechanic to check seals for my oil seep, and if so, which seals? Anything else I should have checked/replaced while the mechanic has the engine apart? I’m all for putting some money in now to keep the car running.

Thanks for the help!


Your mechanic will not have the engine apart. He simply has to remove the plastic cover to replace the timing belt and water pump. Some cars recommend also changing the timing belt tensioner during this operation but it is optional.

You can ask the mechanic to try to determine the location of the oil leak but they never find it the first time. As long as the leak is minor, just monitor the oil level and top up if necessary. Otherwise, do nothing special until the car shows symptoms of something.

BTW, these much-maligned Neons are very durable little cars. They don’t want to die. Ever. Keep up the maintenance and you can pass it on to your sister’s kids, still running strong. Take that, you Toyota fans!!


Thanks. I didn’t really mean the mechanic would have the engine in pieces…just that with the cover off and parts visible that aren’t normally, perhaps the leak would be obvious.

Yeah, 11 years and no major problems besides the head gasket a while back…the car can probably make it for a while yet! I’m hoping to pass the car on to my brother in a year or two when he goes to college. My nephew’s 4, so it’d be pretty impressive if it lasts for him!


Sorry to disagree but in the world of VWs, the timing belt tensioner is not optional with a new timing belt. If the tensioner bearing fails, it will take out the belt and then the engine too, if it is the interference type.

If your front and rear main crankshaft bearing seals are not leaking, then leave them be. You might ask your mechanic if a new cam oil seal can easily be used during the cam belt change. If not and if it does not leak, then leave it be.


So the tensioner is a must? Got it. I’m fairly certain the mechanic would have recommended it, but it’s good to know these things so I’m not totally dependant on him. He’s one of those err on the side of saving you money guys, which is obviously great but sometimes I wonder if I might need to do more than he tells me about.


Get the water pump replaced while you are at it if it also runs off the timing belt. The timing belt tensioner should also be replaced.


To find exactly where a leak is coming from, the engine has to be cleaned and left to dry, then run, usually on a hoist so the leak can be found. Most older engines some leak oil, and small leaks in non-vulnerable areas usually are not worth fixing, unless it is as simple as a valve cover gasket. Just put some kitty litter on your garage floor! My wife’s Nissan Sentra started leaking oil out of the front bearing seal; we had to fix that one. At the mileage we are talking , I would replace timing belt, tensioner and water pump “proactively”. Your car should run faithfully for a few more years!


So far you have been given some excellent advice. Here is what I change when they come through my shop.
Timing belt
Cam seal
Crank seal
Water pump
Cam pulley dowl(s)

You did not mention if this was a SOHC or DOHC but they are both interference motors. I change the dowls that fit into the front of the cam for cam gear alignment because I have seen to many break. I have found that changing everything is important in an interference application.
Good luck


With a 12 year old car, it would be good preventive maintenance to change almost EVERYTHING rubber on the engine that is original: the upper and lower radiator hoses, the heater hoses, other coolant hoses, pcv hose, and any hose which attaches to something hot, and the “fan” belts…


I have the SOHC. Since you say you do this in your shop, can you let me know if my estimates are way off base?

I priced out parts myself (less the cam pulley dowls because I couldn’t find them online), and I’m at about $200. I think my mechanic charges about $45/hour for labor, so I’d guess I’m looking at maybe another $250 for 5.5 hours? That’s really a total guess though.


Sorry I did not respond earlier.

Timing Belt 30.00
Timing belt kit:
(Tensioner & Idler) 50.00
Water pump 40.00
Cam Seal 6.00
Crank Seal 12.00
Cam Gear Dowel (Chrysler Only) 5.00
Antifreeze 12.00
Thermostat 12.00

Total 167.00

Labor to replace the water pump is 3.2 hours which includes removing and installing the timing belt. The shop will add to that for changing the crank seal, cam seal, idler, cam dowel. I usually add an additional 1 hour, plus .5 hours to change the thermostat. This should give you a grand total of 4.7 hours * your local labor rate. As I mentioned the cam dowel is only available through Chrysler. Buying the timing belt kit is cheaper then buying everything separate.
Also please note that these parts prices do not include shop mark-up. They are over the counter pricing. I charge $65.00 an hour in my shop and have a 15% parts mark-up, and a $5.00 materials charge. So if you came into my shop you would expect to pay around $500.00. Hope this helps.



You’ve been given good advice about what to do once in there, so I’ll only address this oil leak.

If this car has a steady oil drip I would consider one of two things.
One is the oil pressure sending unit. Over time the plastic insert in the sender can crack or distort and since this is pressure oil in there it can very easily drip. It should also be very easy to determine and is easy/cheap to replace if needed.

Two is the possibility of a faulty PCV valve. This can pressure up the engine crankcase after it’s been running a bit and force oil to leak out past seals and gaskets.
The PCV is also easy to check and dirt cheap to replace if necessary


You mentioned the oil pressure sending unit when I described this problem earlier, but I haven’t taken the car in yet. I will definitely ask my mechanic to check these things specifically. The oil leak has been manageable, but I would love to be able to solve the problem entirely. Thanks for the advice!


I would find the leaks before proceeding with the timing belt replacement. You would save a lot of cash in labor if it is the head gasket leaking, because the timing belt would need removed to gain access to the head gasket, so it makes sens to do both at the same time.

On this engine, the following are High suspect areas for oil leaks.

  1. Valve cover gasket: Stamped metal design cover only seems to be able to seal for about 50K from my experience.

  2. Cam position sensor gasket: Early designed rubber gaskets leaked. The new designed gasket I have not had a issue with.

  3. Head gasket: Make sure that #1 and #2 don’t get misdiagnosed as a bad head gasket.

  4. The two rubber hoses at the bottom of the plastic PCV oil separator box: They get hard brittle, and crack.


I checked my spark plugs about a week ago when I had access to my father’s tools, and I found a small amount of oil in one well (third from the left, if it matters). I assumed I need new a valve cover gasket, but I didn’t think that could be causing such a significant oil seep. I feel pretty dumb for not mentioning it before.

As far as the head gasket goes, mine’s been replaced once already and I think it’s still okay. My coolant and oil both look good, there’s no smoke from my exhaust (white or blue), and I’m not overheating.

I’ll add #2 and #4 to my list of possibilities too.


OK4450 & Americar have given you great advice on the oil leak. If you have the cam seal replaced as part of the timing belt operation your mechanic will need to remove the cam cover for proper removal and instalation of the cam gear. Although I did not put it in my original parts list a new cam cover gasket would be needed. Americar is also absolutely correct about the cam sensor on the back of the head. It is common for it to leak. The new o-ring seems to cure the problem. I doubt it is a head gasket problem if you have changed it once. The updated design cures the oil leak problem at the left rear corner of the head. As OK4450 mentioned the oil pressure sending unit is also a potential leak. It should be checked as it could go from a manageable leak to a serious leak rapidly.