The sleek Saturn sedan saga

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We recently had a Saturn towed to our shop with very low power and an engine making a tapping noise. The customer was referred by an existing customer who trusts us. The customer stated he recently bought the car from a coworker who had taken great care of it. The car was clean and looked great—a sleek black sedan. The car was heading north out of KC when it slowly began to lose power and finally just quit. It was towed to a Saturn-qualified dealership. The dealership told him the catalytic converters (CATs, part of the exhaust used to keep the air clean) were plugged up and the replacement cost would be great.

They actually recommended (for unknown reasons) that he take it to a local chain store exhaust shop where he could save some money. The exhaust shop replaced the CATs as requested by the customer. The customer then paid his bill, drove the car a short distance, just to find the same problem of low power and now a few more lights on the dash, and a tapping noise. The exhaust shop simply said “that’s what you asked us to replace” and agreed to look a little further. After replacing a few more sensors (one sensor three times in a row), they gave up and returned the customer his car. As for the engine noise, they guessed the engine may have had a “rod knocking” in the lower half, and which would eventually require a new engine to cure. Understandably upset and now even more gun-shy, the owner agreed to have the car towed to our shop for further diagnosis.

CATs are designed to last nearly the life of the car, so when they go bad, there is usually something else that ruins them. We never ignore this fact. Starting with the basics and fundamentals of engine diagnosis and a simple vacuum gauge, we found a very low vacuum reading which further revealed an original, worn out, cracked and loose timing belt that had jumped several teeth. Initially, the timing belt on this engine jumped a few teeth which began to ruin the CATs and rob power. I suspect the belt jumped a few more teeth as time passed until it would not run, but not quite enough teeth to bend the valves. This is called luck. As for the tapping noise, we pinpointed it to the upper half of the engine, using a stethoscope. We found no “rods knocking,” but did hear what sounded like a hydraulic lifter failure. We next advised the customer we needed to go a little further to see if the valves were bent and verify the lifter failure.

At this point before any further repairs, our customer wanted me to assure him this would be worth the effort and cost. And he specifically asked if the car would be safe and reliable and able to drive across country at a moment’s notice. What a great question, I thought, and I immediately said yes. I reminded him we had not driven the car and could not know about things like the transmission, the air conditioner, the suspension, etc., but our thorough visual inspection did not reveal anything obvious. The facts I had, along with our experience (and my gut) helped me answer.

With his OK, we found one of 24 hydraulic lifters had simply failed, causing the tapping noise. We found no valves bent, which was great news. Nothing major was damaged and the engine’s life was not shortened. We replaced the timing belt, the hydraulic lifter, the missing bolts and the car now ran with GREAT power. We were all satisfied.

Through this entire process the customer was reluctant to proceed. I completely understood when I so often put myself in the customer’s shoes. We always look at the whole picture to determine what would be best for the customer. We routinely discuss customer/car situations every day at our shop. We ask each other, “What would you do?” We repair cars for a living, but we are most interested in the long-term relationships with our customers.

I called the customer the other day with a routine follow-up phone call to see how he and the car were doing. He said it was running great. He thanked me for being so thorough and had recommended us to a few friends. He was very pleased and so was I.

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