Out of production

Jan. 1, 2020
The woman who owned this 2002 L300 had a decision to make. Did she want to replace her Saturn with another nameplate or spend several hundred dollars getting this one back in the wind?

The first time I remember opening the hood on a Saturn, I found that the power steering pump had to be removed in order to replace the alternator (which was, by the way, buried between the engine and the bulkhead). That job put a bad taste in my mouth whenever Saturns were mentioned. Further, it was confusing for a while to absorb the idea that for several years the Saturn had no name other than “S-series.”

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When GM founded the Saturn car company in 1985 as its first new brand in 70 years (spending $3 billion to $5 billion in the initial process), this odd little car seemed to have great potential. In the first five years of Saturn production, fully seven out of 10 people who bought one traded in a foreign car. That was the original intent of the Saturn line built in Spring Hill, Tenn., i.e., to compete with foreign nameplates with a car that had its own network of dealers. 

The company tagline tried to communicate that Saturn was a “different kind of car company” that made a different kind of car. And for 20 years, Saturn lost money every year except one. In 1995 there were about 280,000 units sold, and in that same year, the Saturn enjoyed the distinction of being the most stolen car in America. But forces within the GM hierarchy disapproved of Saturn for its expensive exclusivity. That’s putting it mildly. These elements saw the brand as another unnecessary platform in an already too-fat lineup (the Saturn project was draining billions needed by other GM carlines), and the money that went into launching the brand and propping it up over the years underscored their concerns.

The woman who owned this 2002 L300 had a decision to make. Did she want to replace her Saturn with another nameplate or spend several hundred dollars getting this one back in the wind?  Pricing new cars pushed her to get this relatively low mileage car going again.

Dead in the Water
When talking to some customers on the phone, it’s sometimes hard to determine exactly what caused them to park their car and then seek counsel about getting it repaired. This woman was about my age (that means she has been driving for decades), and she struck me as somebody that had a fair amount of savvy, so I asked her a question or two about what had happened to her Saturn. The only thing she told me was that while her temp gauge had fluctuated a bit, it had never showed the engine to be particularly hot. But one day something had “popped” under the hood and that after that she had been afraid to drive the car. I told her to bring the car to the shop and we’d see what we could see. What we saw wasn’t good.

Her aged father brought the vehicle over on a day and time when there was nobody there but me, and her father and I managed to nudge the Saturn down the ramps and off the trailer. I connected a jumper pack and had her start the car. She was able to drive it into the service bay. The engine sounded healthy (of course, it could still have head or head gasket leaks), and so I had her fill out paperwork and I gave the job to two very capable first semester students, Lee and Grant. 

The first thing we noticed was that there was no indication of what the pop noise had been. The second thing was that the dipstick showed nice clean oil with no indication of coolant. The third thing was that there was enough oil in the coolant that it looked like heavy whipped cream mixed with peanut butter.

An Identifix search revealed a lot of oil cooler problems with these Saturn 3.0L engines, and so it was time for exploratory surgery. The whole top of the engine had to be removed in order to access the cooler, which is in the valley between the heads under a rectangular plate, sealed by special silicone-like sealer fed by a couple of large oil lines that lead to and from ports on the front side of the engine block right by the oil filter. The coolant thermostat is in that same valley, right to the passenger’s side of the oil cooler cover, meaning the intake has to be removed to access the thermostat as well. This certainly was a different kind of car, designed by a different kind of engineer. I kept thinking about that Saturn alternator job a couple of decades ago.

With the intake removed and the banjo bolts screwed out of the oil cooler ports, the lines had to be disconnected from the block, and to do that, the oil filter had to be removed. The oil filter is a wet cartridge type, and inside the large O-ring but around the big hollow Allen head bolt that secures the filter housing, there was supposed to be a circular vane on the base of the housing that engaged some ribs in the engine block to prevent the filter housing from turning during oil filter cartridge changes. That vane was no longer intact, meaning the whole filter housing was trying to turn while we were removing the oil filter cover, and so we used a chain wrench to hold the filter housing shell while removing the cover. 

With the big Allen bolt removed (a T60 Torx bit worked well for that), and the filter housing in hand, we found that the circular vane had been broken off years earlier. When I called her about this, the owner told me she had used the same quick oil change place for years because they knew how to change the oil filter.

Well, an air test of the oil cooler and some soapy water revealed a leak, so we had found the source of our peanut butter problem.  Fortunately, we were able to buy a replacement oil filter housing for $60 from the same dealer who sold us the $378 oil cooler. This wasn’t going to be cheap.

Working Smart
With the oil cooler back in place, but before we installed the manifold, we did some investigating and found that the peanut butter problem was pretty heavy everywhere – the cooling system passages weren’t totally clogged, but they almost were. So we removed the thermostat, which is fairly difficult, because the cast aluminum pipe feeding it passes under the valve train just behind the timing belt chamber has to be removed first. We also removed the radiator.

I sold the owner on a new radiator because this one was mostly clogged with crud it’s not a bad idea to replace a plastic-and-aluminum unit when a car hits 10 years and 100,000 miles anyway. A new thermostat was a no-brainer, as much trouble as this one is to get to. With the radiator out we repeatedly poured dishwashing soap and hot water in the thermostat housing port and caught the water in a big drain pan we placed below the lower radiator hose.

 We investigated and found that the heater control valve wasn’t open while this vile oil-and-coolant cocktail was circulating, so the heater core wasn’t clogged. We kept pouring hot water and dish soap through until the peanut butter stopped coming out. We also cleaned the cooling system surge tank with dish soap and the hot water pressure washer. With the new radiator in place along with a new thermostat, and with the hose clamps tight (but with the manifold still out of the way) we pressure tested the cooling system and found that the water pump was leaking in a big way. Chelsea did her first Saturn 3.0L water pump swap with surprising speed and efficiency.

With a new water pump in place, the manifold installed, fresh engine oil and coolant, and about 40 minutes of bleeding the cooling system, we watched with satisfaction as the cooling fan kicked on and off about five times. And that’s a good thing – if the cooling fan cycles, the reservoir is full, and the heater is blowing warm air, everything was peachy. 

I called the owner and told her we were done except for the CV axles, which shouldn’t take long to replace. As a matter of fact, I practically promised her the car would be ready the next day. What naivete!

Ever try to do what seems in the beginning like a simple job only to hit one snag after another?  The Saturn owner had been putting off having her CV axles replaced and decided to have us do it while we had the car. Oddly, the inner boots on her axles had been compromised and the plunging joints were a gritty mess. This is counterintuitive – typically the outer boots fail first. Well, we had ordered the CV axles while the engine work was under way and they laid there on the bench in their blue cardboard boxes until we were ready to swap them out.

Saturn though it was, there didn’t seem to be anything particular mysterious about this CV axle job. Since we had done the engine work in a flat stall, Chelsea put the L300 on the front end lift, removed the wheels, yanked the cotter keys, spun those extremely fine-threaded nuts off the ends of the axle shafts, disconnected the lower ball joint and the tie rod from each spindle to provide the axles exit room, popped the CV axles loose from the transaxle, all with great momentum and at professional speed. Then we hit the snags.

As most all Motor Age readers know, some CV axles just slide right out of their splines, but the Saturn folks, in their infinite wisdom, decided to make these a very stiff interference fit. An air hammer wouldn’t budge these. Not a big deal, we’d use the hub puller, and Chelsea fetched the black clamshell box. 
Well, what I forgot to mention is that instead of lug studs, the Saturn guys opted to use lug bolts, German style, you know, like a VW? These 12 millimeter, 1.5 thread pitch lug bolts were too short with their steep taper to use with the puller because the hub that protrudes through the rotor center was slightly larger than the hub puller’s center area and it held the puller too far away from the lug bolt holes. That wasn’t a problem, we’d just find some appropriately sized and threaded bolts that were longer, right? How hard could that be? Like any shop, we have enough junk nuts and bolts to fill a 40 gallon oil drum, but sifting through that myriad of old fasteners produced only 1.25 and 1.75 thread pitch 12mm stuff, and it was maddening. 

A call to the parts store was in order, but my regular parts guy was in a meeting and would be for the rest of the day, so I had to talk to the second-string guy on the industrial sales counter. I was reminded after that conversation why I don’t like talking to him. If it ain’t on the shelf or hanging in a blister pack in one of the aisles, he won’t do anything to try to find one. I called another parts store in town and the owner/counterman checked his bins and told me he had three 12mm 1.5 thread pitch bolts, and so I had my regular parts house send a driver pick them up. 

When the bolts finally arrived, it turned out they were 1.75 thread pitch. When I called him back, he said, “Well, I guess somebody had put them in the wrong bin. Sorry, I don’t have any 1.5 thread pitch bolts.” I hung up the phone (somewhat disgruntled) and found some lug studs with the right thread (why didn’t I think of that earlier?) and Chelsea used those to mount the hub puller so as to get the CV axles un-splined.

Now it was time to grab the new axles, which, when we got them out of their nice blue boxes, turned out to be the wrong ones. The new ones had to come from two different parts depots, both of which were hundreds of miles away, and we couldn’t finish the Saturn until a full week after it was promised, thanks a lot!  But we did finish it, and the owner was ecstatic.

So much of what we do is rooted in either preventing problems or correcting them, and while we waded into this one not knowing how deep or how numerous the problems actually were, it’s gratifying to find that the initial diagnosis led to success. This Saturn was too nice to put on the shelf. Hopefully she’ll get a lot of miles out of it before it dies.

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