Auto Q&A: Troubleshooting a wonky starter

The logo of Honda Motor Co. is seen on a Honda vehicle at the Japanese automaker's headquarters in Tokyo, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2016. Honda Motor Co. is recalling 772,000 additional Honda and Acura vehicles in the U.S. for defective front passenger seat air bag inflators made by Japanese supplier Takata Corp. The vehicles, announced in a recall late Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, by Honda in the U.S., are part of an expanded recall of 1.29 million vehicles, including those affected by earlier recalls.
–AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama

Q: I had to have my 1997 Honda Accord towed home because the starter wouldn’t crank the engine. I have a friend who is interested in trying to fix it for me but he sounds a little perplexed about whether it might be the ignition switch or the battery or the starter for sure.

Is there a way these things can be checked to be sure of which part is really faulty rather than needlessly replacing parts? The battery is only one year old, so I don’t think that’s the problem. It is a four-cylinder stick shift.

— Melissa

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A: Thank you for your thorough vehicle description. The best way to diagnose a problem like this is to observe available voltage at various places such as the battery, the starter, and the request circuit connection at the starter. Here are some ideas that might narrow this down without having to take any measurements:

Start by turning on the headlights and observing brightness before, and as a helper attempts to start the engine. If the lights begin bright and dim either not at all or only slightly, the battery and battery terminals should be fine. Dim headlights prior to the starting attempt point to a battery issue (discharged, not being charged, defective) or cable connection fault. If the lights dim more than noticeably as starting is attempted, this may also indicate a faulty cable connection or weak battery.

Do you hear any noises from under the hood as you attempt to operate the starter? If a fairly loud click or other noise occurs the ignition switch and clutch pedal switch are OK.

If no noises under hood are heard, listen very carefully for a faint click sound under the left side instrument panel as a starting attempt is made (cycle the key from run to start only to avoid confusion with other activity). This sound is emitted by the starter cut relay, which amplifies the strength of the under-dash request circuit in order to send a much more robust signal the rest of the way to the starter. The click sound is the electrical contacts of the relay smacking together, proving a successful signal to the relay but does not prove-out the contacts being effective conductors.

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If no click is heard, the fault may lie within either the ignition switch or clutch switch. Try holding the key all the way to the start position and massage clutch pedal position, very slowly up and down, near the bottom of its travel. If even the slightest starter activity occurs, this switch is faulty.

Try also holding the clutch pedal firmly down and massaging the last bit of rotation of the key switch slowly back and forth. Again, should even the slightest starter activity occur, even briefly, the ignition switch is faulty. It should be noted that a faulty switch may also result in no activity at all.

If a relay click is heard but no sounds occur under the hood, you’d would want to test for a successful request circuit at the starter (a slender wire that plugs into a black plastic circular protrusion). This could be done with an unpowered automotive test light or a multimeter and is best done with the wire still connected. If the request looks good and all cable connections are tight, the starter is likely bad.

Starters and alternators typically last about 125-175,000 miles prior to wearing out. The starter on your four-cylinder 2.2L engine is quite easy to get to, particularly the battery cable and request circuit connections. Removal/replacement isn’t as simple as it looks because the bottom bolt holding the starter to the engine is in a difficult place, best accessed from underneath the vehicle.

Undercarriage blanket serves a purpose, but it isn’t comfort

By Bob Weber, Chicago Tribune

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Q: As a baby boomer, gearhead and product of the ’60s, I have driven many cars and serviced most of them, as I enjoyed it. I own a 2009 Jaguar XF V-8 that has a belly blanket making it impossible to service the vehicle at home. Can you explain the need for the undercarriage blanket and why many new cars are being equipped with them?

— W.G., Chicago

A: Obviously, the blanket isn’t there to keep it warm. Nor is it a security blanket, although it may make catalytic converter theft more difficult. It is there to smooth the airflow beneath the car. Less turbulence means improved fuel economy.

Q: We will be spending about 4-6 months in Scottsdale, Ariz., each winter. We’ll leave two cars here and one car there. I’ve been advised to get battery trickle chargers for each car while they sit unused. I also plan to add gas stabilizer to the tank while we’re gone. What advice do you have for cars left in an unheated or non-air-conditioned garage 4-6 months a year?

— L.P., Bloomingdale, Ill.

A: You are right on target about using battery chargers, but buy smart chargers that will maintain the batteries without overcharging them. Typical trickle chargers don’t have this feature. A fuel stabilizer is another must, but check the expiration date if you have an older bottle on your shelf. Stabil has been around for over 60 years, but I hope the stuff you use isn’t that old. Be sure to add it to a full tank of gas. I also suggest that you change the oil prior to placing the vehicles in storage.

Q: The note from G.W. in Allentown reminds me of an incident that happened several years ago with my Jeep Grand Cherokee. My brother-in-law had borrowed the Jeep while his car was in the shop. While exiting a controlled access parking area he experienced a surge while applying the brakes and ran the vehicle into an electric gate.

Turns out the issue was due to the oversized comfort shoes he was wearing. He accidentally hit both the gas and the brake at the same time. And the harder he pushed on the brake, the worse it became. Brothers-in-law!

— G.B., Chicago

A: It is unlikely that G.W. was wearing clown shoes when encountering the brake problem that felt like surging. But you do bring up an important point. Footwear can make a difference. Here’s hoping Bigfoot footed the repair bill.

Q: In response to coasting to that red light, nothing can be more annoying than to have someone like S.A. from Coral Springs coasting one-quarter to one-half mile in front of me preventing me from entering an opening left turn lane and thereby missing my signal while there is lots of space in front of him. He could make a stop without slamming on his brakes.

— H.S. Boynton Beach, Fla.

A: Slow down and smell the roses, H.S. That minute you lose is usually not lost forever. Reflect on how many times you have passed someone only to have them roll up right behind you at the next red light or toll plaza. Try to adopt the motto of the Maryland highways: “Drive gently.” Drive like hell and you just may get there.

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