Car help sought for non car-minded person
October 10, 2007 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Car help sought for non car-minded person: Before I head to a local repair shop can anyone suggest what possibly ails my car?

Car is an 11 year old Saturn with about 110,000 miles on it, looks like crap but overall still runs pretty good. Last night I got in it and it wouldn't start, but on the second turn of the key it fired up without a problem. However the clock was reset and I had lost all the presets on the radio, so I guessed maybe the battery was ready to be replaced. This morning it started first time, but after I pulled out of the driveway everything just died: engine, radio, lights the whole thing, and then it just as suddenly started back up again before I had a chance to turn the key (it’s a stick shift so I maybe inadvertently bump started it without realizing it).

So before I head out to see my friendly neighborhood mechanic tonight I think I need to have an idea of what the problem might be so I know if he is suggesting the best solution. Could this be caused by an overall electrical problem somewhere? Would that cause the whole thing to die all at once? I have to figure out if it is good economic sense to keep throwing money into repairs or just cut my losses as the car is not worth a great deal (except to me of course!).

Help me a) not get ripped off and b) understand what is going on in my poor car
posted by worker_bee to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
Sounds like a short somewhere in the electrical system to me, but my mechanic abilities are suspect.
posted by jtfowl0 at 9:16 AM on October 10, 2007

I'd guess the battery isn't charging, or isn't charging much, anyway, so the most likely suspect is the alternator. The mechanic can easily check whether your alternator is putting out enough current.
posted by RogerB at 9:18 AM on October 10, 2007

Check the battery cables and terminals on the battery for corrosion.

It's conceivable that a cable has corroded to the point that it is making intermittent contact. If this point is "downstream" of the battery and alternator wire, the car would stall when it loses contact as there would be no voltage going to the ignition module/engine computer.
posted by davey_darling at 9:21 AM on October 10, 2007

This is a wiring issue most likely, such as a short, loose or broken wire. When intermittent such problems can be fiendishly difficult to locate. davy_darling's advice to check the battery terminals is sound, and it is easy to do yourself.

I doubt it is just a bad battery as you probably wouldn't have gotten the car started, and the car dying after being started is not a sign of battery problems.
posted by caddis at 9:31 AM on October 10, 2007

If the car started and then died it's not the battery, because that is only used when the alternator/engine isn't running. I'd bet good money on bad wiring to the alternator (or a dying alternator)
posted by zeoslap at 9:39 AM on October 10, 2007

I'm going with Davey_darling's simple diagnosis -- this happens all the time. Before you even take it to the mechanic, try removing the battery cables from their posts on the battery, which you can probably do with just pliers, and clean both the ends of the cables and the posts themselves with water and baking soda. Put some vaseline (really!) on the posts, and reattach the battery cables, and see if that fixes your problem.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:48 AM on October 10, 2007

I am not even remotely a car specialist, but I had the exact same thing happen with my 1998 Saturn SL2 of similar mileage this past February. As posts above suggest, it was the alternator.

Obviously I can't speak to your situation as far as whether repair is worth it or not. For what it's worth, I'd been planning to replace the car in the spring, and the estimates were high enough that I decided to do it earlier instead.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:43 AM on October 10, 2007

I'll bet a Latte Grande that it's a loose or badly corroded battery terminal. What's happening is that when it's loose, the contact is poor - enough to play the radio and for when the car's running, but when you go to start, the bad joint prevents the start, and the dropping voltage resets the radio, etc.

It's an inexpensive repair if you just have to replace the terminals - maybe $5 to $20 for parts, and a half hour of labour.

It might also be looseness elsewhere - like where the ground connects to the engine, but it would still be inexpensive to fix.

If it was a short, a fuse would have blown, or something would have burnt, and your battery would have been drained. if it was the alternator, your battery would not have stayed charged.

I've got an electronics background, AND the exact same thing just happened to me a few weeks ago on my 7 year-old truck. :)
posted by Artful Codger at 11:38 AM on October 10, 2007

Probably a loose or corroded battery cable, as mentioned above. It's not able to push enough power through the first time you try to start it, but there's enough juice in the battery to start it.

Also, S-series Saturns tend to be fairly cheap to fix. My mechanic loved mine because he could get to nearly everything very easily. Provided the rest of the car is in good shape, that engine should last you another 110,000 miles easily. (Before you start to think about replacing the car, figure out how much car payments would be over the course of a year, and then think if you're possibly going to need anywhere close to that amount in repairs to the car. A good mechanic can give you a good idea on that.)
posted by azpenguin at 2:06 PM on October 10, 2007

It's an inexpensive repair if you just have to replace the terminals - maybe $5 to $20 for parts, and a half hour of labour.

It's even more inexpensive if you do it yourself. On a car that old odds are there's nothing unusual about the terminals. Typically the cables going to the battery terminate in plain old wire, then the terminals are held to the wire by means of a plain metal plate tightened town with two screws. Classically it could have been a wingnut.

So odds are anyone who can handle a screwdriver can replace one themselves. I'd be quite shocked if you found a shop that would bill you for as little as 1/2 hour rather than at least a 1h min.
posted by phearlez at 2:27 PM on October 10, 2007

Third/fourth/fifthing the bad terminal hypothesis, with a side bet on bad ground connection.
posted by Opposite George at 4:25 PM on October 10, 2007

Don't fret that a bad connection to the battery/ground is "too easy" or something; I just fixed a problem on my 1993 Protege that was causing weird idle fluctuations, random engine deaths, and such -- and turned out to be a crack in the intake hose. Were it not for me being too cheap to run out and fix things that were suggested to me (like the EGR valve, or -- horrors! -- the MAF) I'd be out a lot of money and still wondering what the problem was.

So start with the cheap stuff, and battery/terminals are about as cheap as you can get.
posted by davejay at 6:07 PM on October 10, 2007

« Older How do you naturally thin people eat?   |   Where to stay in Mexico? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.