Saturn Timing Chain Recall is Inadequate to Prevent Engine Failures
Image: General Motors

Saturn Timing Chain Recall is Inadequate to Prevent Engine Failures

Only a small population of vehicles were recalled while other owners continue to suffer timing chain breakage

Back in 2005, we notified you of a defect petition we submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in reference to engine stalling and engine timing chain failures in 2000-2003 Saturn L-Series vehicles with the 2.2L engine. The engines, our petition alleged, have defective timing chains with an oiler nozzle that does not provide adequate oil flow, which potentially cause catastrophic engine damage. Under extended low rpm idling, the timing chain may not have the proper amount of oil delivered to it, increasing the stresses on the chain and increasing the risk of failure. Over time, the chain could break or skip teeth on the gear, causing damage, potentially at highway speeds.

General Motors was aware of the problem

The manufacturer was aware of the problem for some time, having released the new design chain for its 2004 model year. In fact, after 2003 there have been no complaints of engine damage due to timing chain failure.

"The manufacturer knew there was a problem, and knew the problem could happen as early as 25,000 miles," stated former NCCC Executive Director Brad Lamb. "They would rather the consumer incur the expense of a new engine rather than make the necessary upgrade."

An Investigation and Recall

The issue was investigated by NHTSA and a subsequent recall issued. While under investigation, the number of complaints continued to rise.

Almost two years after filing our petition and what can only be numerous engine replacements at consumers' expense, General Motors decided to conduct a recall into only some of these vehicles. This recall is the second recall of Saturn L-Series vehicles that resulted from direct NCCC involvement.

NHTSA's reasoning for the recall

In a November 7, 2007 letter, General Motors (GM) notified ODI that it had determined that a safety defect existed in certain model year (my) 2001 Saturn L-Series vehicles equipped with the 2.2l 4-cylinder (l61) engine built from November 2000 through February 2001. The defect could result in engine stall while driving with no restart. GM will recall (07v-519) the vehicles to replace the timing chains with redesigned parts. During this engineering analysis GM and ODI contacted Saturn owners that had warranty work performed related to timing chain replacements or repairs in order to determine certain safety consequences associated with timing chain failure.

Based on analysis of warranty claim verbatim text for indications of stall while driving (SWD) and the results from a survey of warranty claims with ambiguous text, GM estimated that 55% of all timing chain warranty repairs involved SWD incidents. ODI's analysis estimated approximately 76% of warranty repairs may have involved a SWD. The surveys were also used to assess the safety consequences of the SWD incidents. The calls found that none of the vehicles that experiencing stalls due to timing chain failure could be restarted. In addition, approximately one-third of the stalls occurred at speeds greater than 40 mph and about 20% indicated that they were not able to get the vehicle out of traffic after the engine died. GM's statistical analyses of failure data estimated stall while driving rates of 1.7% and 5.2% at 3 and 6 years in service. ODI's analyses estimated slightly higher rates of 2.3% and 7.0% at 3 and 6 years in service. This engineering analysis is closed based on GM's recall.

We were not satisfied with recalling only some vehicles

"If the manufacturer conducts a recall of any size, NHTSA will consider the matter resolved," continued Lamb. "In this case, it appears as if the manufacturer found a convenient trend in its repair data and used it to limit the scope of the recall. That's not right!"

A manufacturer generally must also compensate consumers for repairs performed out-of-pocket for an issue for the preceding year before a recall is issued or during an engineering analysis. If GM was to recall all Saturn L-Series vehicles, it would have had to compensate many more owners.

Is the Problem Limited to the Recalled Vehicles?

We do not believe so. The complaint data listed on the NHTSA website indicates that the timing chain problem is not isolated to vehicles produced during this four-month period. In fact, a 2001 Saturn L-Series vehicle with a 2.2L engine owned by a former NCCC Board Member experienced a timing chain failure. His vehicle was built in September 2000, two months BEFORE the vehicles affected by recall 07V519000. He caught his problem early and the damages were limited to about $1000. Other consumers aren't so lucky and incur a nearly $6000 total engine replacement.

Can We Expand the Recall?

NCCC again petitioned NHTSA to have all Saturn L-Series vehicles with the affected component recalled and repaired free-of-charge; however, as of April 2009 NHTSA has determined that continued investigation is not an appropriate allocation of resources despite the subject vehicles continue to experience failures. NHTSA cites that in the seven to nine year life of the subject vehicles no crashes or injuries have resulted from the failures. No crashed or injuries does not mean that the potential for crashes or injuries is not present, especially when dealing with a defect that can leave a consumer in traffic.

NHTSA Denies Request for Second Recall

On May 22, 2008, the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) was petitioned by the North Carolina Consumers Council (NCCC) to broaden the scope of safety recall 07v-519, which was conducted by General Motors Corporation (GM) for model year (MY) 2001 Saturn L-Series vehicles equipped with the L61 2.2L engine and built during a 4-month period from November 2000 through February 2001 (dp08-002).

On October 16, 2008, ODI granted dp08-002 and opened pe08-061 to investigate timing chain failures resulting in engine stall while driving (SWD) in the Saturn L-Series vehicles equipped with L61 engines and that used the same design timing chain and timing chain lubrication system as the recalled vehicles. A redesigned timing chain and lubrication system were implemented late in my 2002 production (may 1, 2002). Hence, the subject vehicles for this investigation are all MY 2000 through 2002 Saturn L-Series vehicles equipped with 2.2L L61 engines and built prior to May 2002 that were not included in recall 07v-519.

In this investigation, ODI analyzed updated complaint and warranty claims data for timing chain failures resulting in incidents of engine stall while driving, which comprise slightly over half of all timing chain failures occurring in the subject vehicle population. ODI's analysis of complaint and warranty data shows that vehicles produced with the subject timing chain and lubrication system experienced elevated failure rates when compared with the my 2002 through 2003 vehicles using the revised components. However, the analysis also showed that the my 2001 Saturn L-Series vehicles recalled in 07v-518 experienced a significantly higher rate of timing chain failures than the subject vehicles.

The complaint rate for timing chain failures resulting in SWD was approximately 5 times higher for the recalled vehicles, 19.2 incidents per thousand vehicles (IPTV), than for the subject vehicles, 3.7 IPTV. The warranty claims rate for chain failures resulting in SWD was over 3 times higher for the recalled vehicles, 2.4 percent, than for the subject vehicles, 0.7 percent. The complaint and warranty rates for the subject vehicles were similar to rates recorded in other recently closed investigations for conditions that could result in SWD with no engine re-start, ea07-015 and ea07-018. Analysis of all complaints, field reports and warranty claims found no allegations of crashes or injuries associated with the alleged defect in the subject vehicles after approximately 7 to 9 years in service.

ODI's analysis of the stalling incidents that have resulted from timing chain failures in the subject vehicles found that they can occur at any speed and almost always result in a no restart condition. These are generally considered to be factors that increase the severity of stalling incidents. However, analysis of SWD failure rates in the subject vehicles show that they have occurred at much lower rates than were observed in the recalled population. In addition, the SWD complaint and warranty rates for the subject vehicles are similar to rates observed in prior investigations involving similar categories of engine stall consequences that were closed with no action.

Further investigation of this matter would not be an efficient allocation of agency resources. Accordingly, this investigation is closed. The closing of this investigation does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist. The agency will continue to monitor complaints and other information relating to the alleged defect in the subject vehicles and take further action if warranted.

Now What Can We Do?

Unfortunately, there really isn't too much consumers can do. It saddens us to hear consumers contacting us frequently with reports of engine failure. It appears, however, that GM dodged a bullet this time around. Recalls are generally not performed on vehicles over ten years of age, of which all the subject vehicles have attained. We are truly disheartened that GM did not replace the chains in these vehicles and instead chose to alienate good consumers.

NCCC encourages consumers to continue reporting this defect and other safety-related defects to NHTSA.

Failure Warning Signs

In the meantime, consumers who hear any odd noises coming from the engine compartment should IMMEDIATELY turn off the engine and have the vehicle serviced with the new timing chain kit. With some negotiation, a GM dealer may be persuaded to make the repair free-of-charge or at a discounted rate, but don't count on it.

'Do Not Buy' Advisory

In a first-ever move, NCCC issued a 'do not buy' advisory and does not recommend that any consumer purchase a Saturn L-Series vehicle now or anytime in the future until GM decides to do the right thing and compensate consumers and cover repairs for broken timing chains.