What is the service life of a timing chain and how does having a chain drive cam benefit from a belt drive cam and vice-versa?

  • TChain Service life varies from vehicle to vehicle, it depends on how well engineered they are and how often the engine oil is changed.
    – Moab
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 17:33
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    I was very tempted to buy an incredibly well priced Audi RS4 with 68k miles, a full service history, new tires, and inspection paperwork from the dealer. until a few quick searches uncovered that in order to shoehorn the big V8 engine into the relatively tiny car, Audi replaced the front mounted belt drive with a rear mounted chain drive. This would have been fine, except they chain they installed tended to break at ~70k miles, and since the chain was mounted against the firewall, the engine had to be pulled to do the repair, for an estimated total of $6000. Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 16:47

5 Answers 5


Belts are quieter but are often less obviously worn before they break (chains stretch and loosen, belts tend to stay tight without damaged belt teeth up until the moment they snap). Timing belts are also less complicated (chains require an oil bath). Chains are generally stronger, so vehicles with timing chains often drive more than just the cam with the timing chain. Due to stretch, when you change a chain you MUST replace all the timing gears, as the teeth will wear to match the chain stretch. While not necessary on a belt driven system, a failed gear will cause a belt failure and, depending on your engine, could be very bad, so it's generally recommended to replace all idlers and gears in a belt system, too.

The amount of damage caused by a belt breaking vs a chain breaking entirely depends on the type of engine. Engines with really high compression ratios (performance cars that require high-octane fuel, diesels, etc) tend to have the valves and piston heads move such that they could come into contact if the cam stops opening and closing the valves. When a piston head smashes into a valve, you ruin the head, valve, and potentially other cylinders if pieces of shattered valve travel through the air intake system to the other cylinders.

There's a good section on the TDI Club's FAQ about timing belts, as that's what Volkswagon uses on all their turbo diesels. A belt breaking on a TDI is catastrophic. As far as I know, most cars use chains and compression ratios low enough that there's no risk of piston heads smashing into an open valve should the chain break. You can't retrofit a belt system to use a chain, you wouldn't want to do the reverse, but I have seen people replace belts and chains with direct gear drives.

  • Most engines I have come across are interference - i.e. a broken belt will result in pistons hitting valves. It is quite rare (at least in Europe) to find a non-interference engine - Fiat are the only manufacturer I can think of off the top of my head who consistently do so.
    – Nick C
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 9:54
  • All the Toyota engines I can think of at the moment are non-interference. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 13:07
  • "chains stretch and loosen", not true, they all have tensioners that keep them tight.
    – Moab
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 17:35
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    If chains didn't stretch, they wouldn't need tensions. Metal bushings on chains stretch widening the gaps between the rollers. This isn't a problem as the sprocket will wear with the chain and things will fit fine for many years and thousands of miles. But what's important is one can measure the gap between the rollers on the timing chain to predict when the chain needs replacing. And after enough stretch, a timing chain might have some slack and make noise, indicating it needs replacing. With a timing belt, things often still look fine just before a catastrophic failure.
    – bobpaul
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 22:57
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    @Moab Not all timing chains have tensioners. And yes they do stretch and loosen, also the teeth on the gears can wear (especially if coated with nylon). At which point an engine may "jump" timing.
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 20:40

I think we covered this before, but I can't find it... Timing chains have much greater service lives at the expense of slightly more noise and friction, as well as a lot more damage if they break (but odds of breakage are much less than a belt).

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    There are several questions that sit in the general vicinity of the topic. Here's one: mechanics.stackexchange.com/questions/7/…
    – Bob Cross
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 13:19
  • The problem is that you get other symptoms due to stretch before a chain breaks. Belts do not stretch so they feel like they fail all of a sudden. VW recommends up to 360k km, roughly 225k mile. Which is roughly how long chains last also (or difference is perhaps negligible) Source: volkswagen.de/de/service-zubehoer/teile/motor.html Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 18:39
  • Belts definitely stretch. Many have automatic tensioners. Some have manual tensioners that need to be periodically adjusted. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 20:08

I may not be 100% accurate but I think belts have expected lift time of 60k-100k and at 100k they should definitely be changed.

Chains are claimed by a lot of manufacturers to have lifetime duration and shouldn't need to be replaced.

They have been known to break but as Brian mentioned, that's very rare. I've also heard of a more common failure mode with chains where over time the metal stretches which alters the timing, so although everything runs, your car becomes de-tuned and to fix it, requires a chain replacement.

  • All the belts I've seen are recommended at 60k miles. However, I have one particular car that required a special oil pump modification to get the hydraulic adjuster to operate and my engine builder wants to see it every 30k miles due to reduced adjuster travel. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 19:49
  • @BrianKnoblauch: familycar.com/CarCare/TimingBelt.htm. Looks like my initial SWAG is semi close to what some others are saying.
    – DXM
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 20:05
  • VW recommends up to 360k km, roughly 225k mile. Source: volkswagen.de/de/service-zubehoer/teile/motor.html Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 18:37

I own a 2013 Volkswagen Golf TDI. Just recently, I drove a one year NEWER 2014, VW, with a 2.5, 5 cylinder Sportwagon. The 2.0 TDI, and the 2.5 Gas Engine, get the SAME Fuel mileage in town. Its the TDI that saves fuel on the freeway. Yes, the 2.5 Gas engine has the timing chain, and will last the lifetime of the car. The TDI is economical on the freeway, but its HIGHER cost in the beginning, @ purchase, and it's timing belt maintenance/replacement, is why I am going to trade my diesel in, for the gas engine with its timing chain, very soon.

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    VW recommends up to 360k km, roughly 225k mile between timing belt changes. I am not sure how the car is more expensive if you have belt because chain lasts roughly same amount of driving and costs much more expensive to change. Chain does NOT last the lifetime of the car, it depends on how much you drive. Source: volkswagen.de/de/service-zubehoer/teile/motor.html Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 18:45


  1. Normal:

    • Quieter operation
    • Weaker than Chains, higher chance of breakage/damage.
    • Made of elastomeric material which could degrade if comes into contact with petroleum products or other chemicals.
    • Chosen by car manufacturers due to economical reasons.
  2. Worn/Maintenance:

    • Replace @ every ~40k miles or so (very rough estimate)
    • Belts stretch and loosen and cause whining noise before breakage (especially when the car is cold). This is an indicator of a failing belt, pulleys, & tensioners and will let you know that you need to service your belts.
    • Easier to replace. Less time/labor charges. Tends to be less difficult. Usually manufacturers will design cars (with timing belts) to be able to service and replace the belts easily because belts inherently fail more easily and more often.
    • Cheap parts


  1. Normal:

    • Much Stronger, Less chance of breakage/damage.
    • Chains are somewhat known to be able to last the entire life of the car.
  2. Worn/Maintenance:

    • Replace when rebuilding or >100k miles (very rough estimate)
    • Harder to tell when the chain needs to be replaced. Will tend to start stretching, but unless severely stretched/damaged, the chain should not cause severe issues with the timing because the teeth will still keep the chain in the right relative location. A worn chain could start rattling. A severely stretched chain could jump teeth and you will have timing issues at that point and if you have a interference type engine, you risk damaging or breaking your valves.
    • Requires replacing/servicing the chain tensioner relatively often
    • Harder to replace. More time/labor charges. Tends to be more difficult. Chains aren't expected to break or require as much servicing, so manufacturers tend to not put as much priority on making it easy to access/service.
    • More expensive parts.

Theres also Direct Drive Gear.

In the end:
The chain is a stronger, longer lasting product, that is harder to diagnose and harder to replace. When and if it breaks, it will break catastrophically without as much warning.
The belt is more regularly replaced and is more telling when it is near its end of life. It is usually easier/faster to replace.

Balance between Durability / Maintenance / Costs

  • "Replace @ every ~40k miles or so (very rough estimate)" Most are 90K now.
    – Moab
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 17:27
  • "Chains are somewhat known to be able to last the entire life of the car." nope I replace them frequently on high mileage cars and trucks, long before they head to the junk yard.
    – Moab
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 17:28
  • "Requires replacing/servicing the chain tensioner relatively often" Not true, they only get serviced when it is time for a chain set.
    – Moab
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 17:30
  • @Moab "able to last" has nothing to do with what you prefer to do. I would suggest that it is replaced but my suggestion or preference still has nothing to do with what its "able to do". "relatively often" means often in a "relative" sense, which in this context refers to how often the chain needs to be serviced, so when you service the tensioner at the same time you service the chain, you are in effect performing the service more often than I originally meant by "relatively often". Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 18:48
  • They are not engineered to last the life of the car unless it is a short life, if you do regular maintenance and put enough miles on a t-chain motor it will need replaced. How long have you been working on cars?
    – Moab
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 22:45

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