Stinky, jumpy car needs fixing
February 11, 2011 8:10 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out what's up with my gimpy car. It reeks of sulfur, has no power and bucks like a sad, old donkey.

2002 Ford Focus ZX5. Manual transmission. Purchased new and just hit 81k miles. I'm in Massachusetts where we've been having one crazy winter. The trouble started yesterday when I hit that gas and got very little power. First gear, power is so so; definitely not as zippy as usual. Second gear..acceleration sucks. If I press the gas pedal more than 1/4 of the way, the car starts bucking rhythmically. Same goes for 3rd-5th gears. If I maintain a slow acceleration, I WILL get up to speed without bucking, but as soon as I give it too much gas, then everything goes a-rockin;.

I don't drive often these days - usually once every two weeks or so. I had to move my car last Saturday so that my landlord could get a backhoe in to clear the 10 foot snowplow piles that had accumulated on our small parking lot. I've been really good about digging out my car immediately after a snow so that I don't have to deal with everything icing over.

When I went to back my car out, the tires spun in the ice packed beneath my tires. It being 7am and frigid 12F, I was groggy, so I kept trying to rock it out. I'm usually pretty good, but after 10 minutes, I know I was stuck in good. When I'm groggy and frustrated, I don't think clearly, so I spent the next half hour doing heavy rocking maneuvers, revving the car to upwards of 5000rpm. My head cleared, so I went upstairs and grabbed 2 plastic lids. I wedged them under my tires and I was able to get the car right out. I had to drive around for awhile until the backhoe finished its work. There were no issues driving then.

So, what could this possibly be? Most of all, how much is it going to cost to fix? Is it at all possible that I could fix it myself? See, I'm unemployed and dead broke, but I have 4 job interviews next week that require me to drive (nowhere near public transit). I might be able to swing $50 at an absolute top end.

Thanks for your help.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total)
Your computer conked out, and your car is now in limp-home mode - the timing and feul mix are all off kilter, so that's the smell and lack of power. New computer module (ECU) for a Focus runs around $150 second-hand.

First, unhook the battery, and wait a minute or two, and then reconnect. This will sometimes reset the ECU, and all will be swell again. If that doesn't work, rent a code reader from the local auto parts store to make sure, and then hit up the junkyards for a second hand ECU.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:46 PM on February 11, 2011

Is there a check engine light on your car, and is it on?
posted by zippy at 8:52 PM on February 11, 2011

That long spell of rocking back and forth (revving and stopping) messed up your air-fuel ratio in your catalytic converter (thus causing the sulfur smell). It's the same thing that happens in congested traffic when you're constantly slowing down and re-accelerating.

Some auto parts franchises (Auto Zone for sure) will let you use their computer diagnostic machine for free. Try that first before you spend a lot of money.
posted by amyms at 9:00 PM on February 11, 2011

My first sentence should read "... messed up your air-fuel ratio and your catalytic converter..."
posted by amyms at 9:09 PM on February 11, 2011

Totally forgot to add: yes, the check engine light is on.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 9:19 PM on February 11, 2011

You can sometimes get a check engine light (OBD2 / CAN) reader at CostCo for $50. Or ask a garage to scan it for you. The car computer will tell the scan tool what's going on. I'm guessing something with your emissions system - the catalytic converter or O2 sensor, perhaps - but only because I associate the sulfur smell with things not getting burnt properly.
posted by zippy at 11:22 PM on February 11, 2011

Autozone and Advance Auto will read your read your code for free.
posted by jmsta at 6:18 AM on February 12, 2011

Rotten egg smell usually means the engine is running too rich. Combined with a check engine light and the bucking and lack of power when the gas pedal is pushed too far says that you have a spark problem. Likely bad spark plug wires, fouled spark plugs, or one or more bad coil packs.

It could just be the oxygen sensor, but that is less likely because if the computer sees that it has failed, it will use a default fuel to air ratio. Which would likely not be so rich as to cause the rotten egg smell.

Why did it start running better after doing all that rocking back and forth? That means it is likely that the plugs were fouled, and doing all that work cleaned them up.

Troubleshooting tip: the most common solution is going to be the fix most of the time. Computers don't go bad very often. And when they go bad, it is even less common for them to fail, but only make the car run poorly.

Troubleshooting tip2: If there are error codes, get them checked.
posted by gjc at 7:55 AM on February 12, 2011

Thanks everyone. I'm going to hobble up to the Autozone up the street in a little while and report back their findings.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:03 AM on February 12, 2011

Ok..just got back from Advance Auto Parts. The checked the error codes and said that I have 2 bad ignition coils and that I'm running on 2 cylinders. They said it's something I can do myself and all I need are spark plugs and the ignition wires and it will all total around$60. Does it make sense to do it myself? I'm generally mechanically inclined (I am in IT, after all). Or would it be wiser to get a full tuneup at a local auto service place? Thanks.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 11:34 AM on February 12, 2011

If you have a socket that will fit your spark plugs I would say go for it.
If not, you need to add the cost of tools to that.
You should be able to find plenty of guides to walk you through it.
It seems odd they said bad coils but dont think you need to change them.
posted by yetanother at 11:43 AM on February 12, 2011

I definitely have the right socket in my kit (it says spark plug socket 5/8". I verified online that my plugs require 5/8".)

I decided to head over to Autozone and have them do a diag as well. While the guy didn't actually know about the issues, he looked them up and printed them out for me. Three errors were thrown:

301 and 304 - these seem to indicate that cylinders 1 and 4 are misfiring.
351 - Ignition coil primary circuit condition - coil number 1.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 1:07 PM on February 12, 2011

Bad spark plug wires would definitely do it - especially if you overheated the engine while spraying slush up there. Can't hurt, and you'll need to do it at sometime anyway - I swap my plugs and wires once every 30k.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:10 PM on February 12, 2011

This has been kind of fun! I now know much more about car engines than I did before! I now have a solid idea how to remove and install the new plugs and wires. I'm going to pick up spark plugs, a gao tool and wires tomorrow. Looks like it should run me around $50 locally. Unfortunately, we've got freezy and not so freezy precipitation until Tuesday, so I'll try to work under a tarp. Thanks everyone! I'll hopefully be reporting back with good news.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:37 PM on February 12, 2011

Just remember when you replace plug wires to do them one at a time. That way you avoid getting them confused and misconnected. Also note how the wires are run, usually along some supports or fastened in some manner. This helps keep them from rubbing against other surfaces and getting damaged. Be sure to reconnect them in the same fashion.

When doing plugs it's important to clean the area around the plug before you pull it out. You don't want any gunk to drop back down into the hole. And it's usually best to carefully thread the plugs back into the head by hand. Carefully feel that the plug is getting properly threaded back into the hole. You do not want it to get cross-threaded.

At 81k miles it's entirely possible your catalytic converter might also need replacing. An excessive sulfur smell is a big indicator of this. One that's blocked (due to the element either breaking down or getting clogged) will definitely cause the engine to run rough.
posted by wkearney99 at 2:43 PM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Probably not the smartest idea, but I picked up the cheapest plugs I could find yesterday (Autolite - copper - $1.25 each..originals were Motorcraft Platinum). The original plugs looked terrible - a white coating on the tops and crud in the threads. Installed with no problem. Engine is running rough as hell, check engine light is still on, but no more sulfur smell and more power than before. I have more cash than I originally thought, so I'm going to pick up a set of platinums ( $5-$6 each) and a new wireset today.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:40 AM on February 14, 2011

Thanks for everyone's help. New plugs (NGK Platinums) and wires (Bosch) are in. No more bucking, no more sulfur smell, though the check engine light is still on (and it even flashed a few times once) power isn't as great as before all this started. I took it for a 5 mile drive and it stalled at the first stop sign I came to, but it didn't happen again. Hopefully it will get me through the week.

posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 11:12 AM on February 14, 2011

If you go back to Advance or Autozone you can ask them to clear the codes with their reader.
That will clear your check engine light.
If it comes back on after that then get them read again.
posted by yetanother at 2:48 PM on February 14, 2011

I wouldn't worry about the power too much yet - your computer has a lot of messed up settings from running on only two cylinders to unlearn. It could be you've shortened the life of your cat by running rich, but get through this week before you worry about it.

A flashing check engine is something to take notice of. Generally a steady check engine light is telling you there is something you need to attend to. A flashing check engine light is telling you to pull over NOW.

If it flickered a few times then no problem, but constant flashing means you really need to find out what is going on.
posted by yetanother at 3:15 PM on February 14, 2011

Update for anyone still following:

Car was still rough. No sulfur smell, but strong gas smell. Finally wrapped my head around everything and went into full troubleshooting mode. The problem? Coils 1 and 4 on the ignition coil pack were fux0red. Found an OEM replacement on Amazon for a decent price. It arrived this morning. I have an important job interview, so I needed this working.

I gently unplugged everything and set to removing the torx bolts holding the ignition pack in place. They were tight, so I spritzed some WD40 and waited. Bolt 1, loose. Bolt 2, loose. Bolt 3, instantly stripped! Bolt #4 instantly stripped! Gah! I tried rubber and steel wool, but I couldn't make them move. I need to get a stripped screw kit. And a drill.

At this point, I decided to just hook up the new coil pack to see that it actually works. I went to plug the power pigtail in and I notice that one wire is cracked and the other two have exposed and corroded copper. Then it just crumbles away. Gah!

Long story short, I did an impressive rewiring of the pigtail with all new wires. Very nice, tight and clean. Good and waterproof. I put everything back together (with the old and busted ignition pack) and started the car to test my wirejob. Started right up! I take a quick test drive, and I HAVE POWER! It's still running rough, but holy crap, so much power! (compared to last week).

I take it around the block, ecstatic. I turn into my driveway and *poof* car goes dead. WTF?! I turn the car off and back on. Electrical works, but the car won't turn over. Not even a click from the started. Baffled, I push my car into a space and head upstairs to google. Found a checklist. #5 was to check if the ground wire is intact. What do you know, I forgot to retighten the ground bolt when I reconnected the battery. I tightened it up and vroom! Car starts right up!

Later in the week I'll deal with the stripped bolts and replace the coil pack.

This whole experience has taught me so much about how my car works and how easy it is to repair. Fun!

I want to thank everyone here who gave me advice. You all have saved me so much money and helped me acquire a new skill!
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 2:43 PM on February 23, 2011

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