We have a WHAT?

In August, my ’97 Chevrolet Monte Carlo waned my fiscal conservatism. I must have looked at it wrong, as it came down with more problems. I already hate that car, a pathetic product of a union-starved, incompetently led corporation. It may have needed another intake manifold gasket replacement, more A/C work, and possible oil and crankshaft seal replacements.

Plus, kid #2 on the way is a convenient excuse…

You’ll be amazed: I don’t like SUVs. But now we have one. Here’s the logic:

Luggage taken on a 2 week trip with a 1 year old boy.
Luggage taken on a 2 week trip with a 1 year old boy.
  1. Wife wanted a larger vehicle but hates minivans. I’m OK with the “larger vehicle” part. The stuff pictured at right is everything we brought on a 2 week trip when our son was 1 year old. Yes, it fit in our ’02 Nissan Maxima, but barely. I can’t fathom how we could pack for 2 kids. We went back and forth on the minivan vs. SUV argument, but the SUV won both because of spousal preference and…
  2. Used SUVs are cheap! The price savings alone pays for several years worth of additional of gas.

After research and a few test drives, we focused on the 2006-2007 Honda Pilot. We didn’t go earlier than 2006 because only 4×4 models were available.

The dealers are idiots. None seemed to know how little their SUVs are worth. The “no pressure” dealers had exorbitant, barely-negotiable pricing. All of them lie, lie, lie.

2 weeks into the search, we checked the Acura MDX. While it’s the Pilot’s corporate cousin, it’s not the same sense as GM’s chicanery, where they took an Oldsmobile 98, tweaked the outside, slapped on leather seats and other doo-dads, and called it a Cadillac Fleetwood.

To our shock, Autotrader’s MDXes listed for less than the Pilot! HUH?

After a test drive and a couple more days of looking, Jennifer found a MDX for sale by a private owner. Pictures looked great, a VIN search checked out, etc.

Long story short, we met the guy on Monday, had it inspected, and by Thursday we were at his credit union buying it from him.

So here’s the new Cambre garage mate:

I still cannot believe that these are cheaper than Pilots, and I cannot believe the deal we got.

A while back, I told my wife I would never want a “luxury car.” It just didn’t feel right. Well, we have one now. It still doesn’t feel right, but the price was right!

I hate my car

I have a hate/hate relationship with my 1997 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

It’s a former rental car, purchased for my wife in early 1998 from Hertz Car Sales with only 14,000 miles.

It became my “hand me down” in 2004 when we got my wife a 2002 Nissan Maxima after I wrecked my 1974 Chevrolet Nova.

This Monte Carlo has no character. I gives me no pride. It does little more than semi-reliably go to and from work.

Since 1998, this car has had all these problems:

  • Gasket failure on high side A/C service port
  • A/C compressor electrical feed failure
  • Oil leaks everywhere (oil regularly changed)
  • Noisy timing chain rattle when engine is cold
  • Major intake manifold gasket coolant leak (yes, the coolant was changed before the regular service interval due to the next problem…)
  • Water pump leak
  • Master cylinder leak ($550 dealer only job)
  • EGR failure (twice)
  • Two alternator failures
  • Heater core failure
  • Radiator failure
  • Heater bypass line failure (both lines)
  • Gas regulator leak
  • Flaky 4th gear torque converter clutch (trans fluid changed per manufacturer’s schedule)
  • Driver’s side power window that doesn’t go up correctly without assistance
  • Poorly fitting dash parts
  • Cheap interior parts that break when a heavy guy leans on them (car was not even 2 years old at the time)
  • Rearview mirror fell off
  • Disentigrated controls on passenger’s A/C vent
  • Handling worse than a Toyota Corolla
  • 3.1L that only has 160 HP (!) and doesn’t do better than 24 MPG at 70 MPH

Despite all this, in an objective comparison with my Nova, it would win hands down except in the horsepower department. But my Nova had character and history. It was part of my self-identity, and it was my automotive passion.

This Monte Carlo is mediocrity. It was mediocre in 1997. Today it’s less than mediocre. It’s a token child of GM’s multi-decade malaise.

With my Nova, I wanted to fix everything. I’m embarrassed at how much I spent on it.

With the Monte Carlo, I don’t care. As long as it’s comfortable and safe, I don’t care. I don’t care that the SERVICE ENGINE SOON light has been on for months (it’s the EGR). I don’t care that the suspension is getting bouncy. I probably need to rotate the tires, but I don’t care. I haven’t washed it in 2 years.

I just don’t care.

Here’s where I am conflicted. This car almost always completely satisfies my transportation needs. It gets me where I want to go. It’s holding up better than some of my coworkers’ similarly-aged SUVs with fewer miles. It’s saving me a ton of money, especially compared to new car depreciation.

Why do I dislike something that does exactly what I need?

I’ve thought about this, and I may still be struggling with how I relate to cars. I used to have a car that was like an extension of me, of my personality, something I could take pride in. It was involuntarily taken away from me, and now this mediocre substitute is all I have.

I’m lusting after the 2006 Pontiac GTO (has to be manual transmission) and 2007 Honda Civic Si 4 door. But I know I cannot buy a passion. All they would represent is a poor financial choice: appreciating assets (investments) turned into depreciating assets (cars).

Oh, well. At least I can have “pride” in one thing: I practice the fiscal conservatism I preach.


Radiator replacement post-event fun

Even after replacing my Monte Carlo’s radiator two Saturdays ago, my cooling system still gave me trouble!

On the following Tuesday, a small coolant bypass line, which provides hot water to the intake manifold, split open, creating a smoking engine compartment and a nauseating smell of scorched coolant. I managed an emergency bypass line replacement that evening despite rain and a Boy Scout Commissioner Staff meeting.

If that wasn’t enough, my upper radiator hose cracked open 9 days later. This hose was all of 3½ years old (replaced during intake manifold replacement gasket event)! Does that say something about parts store hoses?

Fortunately, replacement was simple, especially thanks to a coworker letting me borrow a socket wrench set. (Why did I not have one in the car with me?) After an emergency hose replacement in the SMU parking garage, I hope the car is finally sealed up!

Radiator replacement

I replaced my Monte Carlo’s radiator today. The job wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

This leak started a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. Before realizing it was an unfixable leak where the plastic side tanks met the metal center part of the radiator, I ran a can of stop leak in the system in a futile effort to make it last longer. It didn’t work, and it lately got to the point where I was refilling the reservoir every other day.

I had to do this today (Saturday, Dec. 8) because the weather is turning cold and rainy tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 9).

Here’s how I started out:

45 minutes later, it’s out. Here’s the condenser:

The old radiator and the new one on the box:

I had to take some clips and parts off the old one and put it in the new one. One of the parts was the coolant level sensor. It was full of “mud”:

This “mud” is apparently common in systems running GM’s orange Dexcool coolant. As an aside, this coolant is commonly blamed for many problems. My gut feeling is that Dexcool’s faults are badly overblown, and at worst, may be responsible for a small increase in problems only with certain vehicles–such as 3.1L engines eating intake manifold gaskets (part 1, part 2)!

The new radiator is installed, and all parts are back in place:

I saw this notch in the radiator:

It turns out it only dug into the fins, not the tubes, and the old radiator had it, too. I guess it allows the radiator to flex laterally? While aluminum allows for far more efficient radiator design, it is more rigid and less bend-tolerant than older brass radiators.

Refilling the radiator in these cars involves opening some bleeder screws in the engine. I think it is this way because, due to the aerodynamic shape of the front of the car, the top of the radiator is well below the intake manifold. Therefore, you have to open the bleeders while filling and again while the engine is running to let air bubbles escape. Otherwise, the thermostat may take a while to open.

The car is back together, and the leak is gone!

A/C Fun, Part 4

(This is continuing from where I left off.)

I got a replacement high side port valve and compressor oil. Here is the valve:

The old one came right out:

Once installed, the new port one looks like the old one, so I won’t bother you with another picture.

After flushing and adding new oil to the vacuum pump, I ran into another hiccup: the pump had a 1/4″ male flare fitting, but my R-134a gauge and hose set appears to have a 5/16″ female flare fitting. Argh! A last minute trip to Home Depot taught me that 5/16″ flare fittings are unusual.

Coming home defeated, I remembered that I had an extra high side service port for a R-134a retrofit. This was left over from my Nova. Luckily, it fit the vacuum pump!
This is a weird arrangement, but it works. I pump through the red hose instead of the yellow hose. The yellow hose was hooked up to a can tap on a R-134a can.

That vacuum pump is awesome. It sucked down to an indicated 31 in/Hg in a hurry:

I doubt that was really 31 in/Hg. I’ll bet the gauge set is actually off a bit.

Here was the whole setup:

I closed off the gauges for the leak down test. In about 15 minutes, the needle crept to around 27 in/Hg. Normally that is a bad sign; if your system is properly sealed, the vacuum won’t budge a bit. However, I didn’t have a high side port cap installed, and I wasn’t totally confident in the low side hose’s attachment to the low side port. Plus, it was getting late, I had a 9:00 AM meeting the next morning, and I needed to make something happen. So I just let that small loss be a passing grade, figuring I could check it later and hoping the leak was because of the auxiliary issues and not an actual system leak.

Factory spec for my car is 30 oz of R-134a. I sucked down two 12 oz cans, bringing me to 24 oz. But what do I do about the remaining 6 ounces?

Professional refrigerant charging equipment uses a large gas cylinder, similar to propane grill cylinders, that’s on a scale. As the car’s A/C sucks in refrigerant, the scale measures the change in weight of the cylinder.

I realized I could do the same at home:
That’s a can of R-134a sitting on a kitchen ounce scale! It worked great.

I checked my pressures over the next few weeks, and they held fine, strongly suggesting the new high side port solved the entire refrigerant leak.

But here’s the problem: the A/C didn’t feel as cool as before, especially when at a stop. The vent temperatures “felt” OK, but the car’s interior just didn’t feel the same. And it wasn’t that humid, system undercharge feeling, either.

Each time I checked the pressures, the ambient temperature was in the mid-80s. The low side pressure was just below 30, and the high side pressure was around 250. Those seem like OK pressures, so what gives?

Consulting with a guy who does a lot of A/C work, he suggested I shoot a few more ounces of refrigerant in the system. I put in the remaining 6 ounces from that half-used can, and the cooling only got a little worse. Checking pressures, the high side stayed around 250 or so, but the low side never got below the low 30s.

Today, I recaptured some of that extra refrigerant with my homemade refrigerant recovery system!

Yup, that’s the empty R-134a can on an ounce scale to the side:
I never disconnected it from the hose set. And it actually would not be empty; it would still have at least 30 or so PSI of R-134a in it because there is no way a full system would suck it down more.

The plan was to gradually open the high side valve on the gauge set until the can had 12 oz or the low side reading got to the mid-20s. I hit both markers at about the same time. Surprisingly, even with a theoretical 6 oz undercharge, the system still did a 250 PSI on the high side!

Here’s the high tech device I use to keep the engine RPMs up during A/C diagnostic operations:

Here’s the gauge reading after removing all 12 ounces:
I don’t get it.

Over the last few weeks, I was complaining to a couple of people about my vent temperatures. Turns out that my thermometer was reading 5-6 degrees too high. The black-needle thermometer is the one I was using, and the red-needle one is one of our kitchen thermometers:
I later verified both thermometers against a verified digital thermometer in the house, and the red one is spot on.

It will be interesting to see how the system runs now with a theoretical 6 oz undercharge.