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My 1999 Pontiac Sunfire 2.2L OHV is having a hard time starting. Please see the description of the symptoms and what I already tried. I am looking for 2 or 3 more things to try before I give in and go to a professional.

These are the symptoms:

  • For about two weeks, the car has become progressively harder and harder to start. Now, it won't start by itself.
  • The weather has become progressively colder each day as the car has become harder to start. I don't know if this is related.
  • The first few times that the car wouldn't start by itself, a jump start worked.
  • After each jump start, it becomes progressively harder and harder to jump start. I fully recharge the battery between each jump start attempt.
  • The battery takes a charge and it gets the engine spinning quickly, but there is no "cha-cha-cha-cha" sound. Only a spinning engine.
  • When the engine is started, it runs beautifully. There are no check engine or check battery lights lit up on the dashboard
  • The positive battery terminal bolt was missing nearly all its threads, and it was loose.

This is what I already tried. None of these procedures fixed anything, but they also didn't make the symptoms worse. I have been able to start the car, with difficulty, and drive it after each of these procedures.

  • I replaced the battery terminal bolts.
  • I cleaned and sanded all connections to the battery.
  • I disconnected, cleaned, and sanded all connectors from the battery to the grounding screw on the engine block. I similarly cleaned all connectors from battery to the solenoid and from the solenoid to the starter.
  • The autoparts store load tested the battery and said it is fine.
  • The autoparts store told me it was likely a bad alternator. So I replaced it. When the car is running, the new alternator keeps the system at 14.2 volts, so it is good.
  • When I installed the new alternator, I thoroughly cleaned the mounting surfaces so the alternator would be properly grounded.
  • I jump started the car by hooking the negative jumper cable directly to dead car's engine block and the positive cable directly to the starter. This jump start procedure bypasses the battery wires. I was able to start it this way, but it was just as difficult as when I was starting it with the normal jump start procedures.
  • While an assistant turned the ignition key, I did the following voltage drop tests: The voltage drop from the negative battery terminal to the starter's grounded chassis was 0.10 volts. The voltage drop from the positive battery terminal to the starter's positive terminal was 0.10 volts. The voltage drop from the starter's positive terminal to the starter's grounded chassis was between 11 and 12 volts. These voltage drops all look good.
  • I replaced the spark plugs and wires. I gapped the spark plugs to 0.05.
  • I removed the starter and the autoparts store tested it. They said it is good.
  • When I reinstalled the old starter, I thoroughly cleaned the mounting surfaces so the starter would be properly grounded.
  • I installed a new battery and it doesn't fix anything.

Many thanks, RJH.

  • Welcome to Motor Vehicle Maintenance & Repair! Have you cleaned all connections to the main wires, both positive and negative (IE: opposite end from the battery terminals)? While it may be correct, the gap you used for the plugs looks a little broad. IIRC, most should be in the .045" range. Even the HEI which used to be gapped at .060", it's now recommended to gap them to .045" (IIRC). GM showed where it was causing more issues having them gapped wide as compared to a more "normal" gap. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Nov 13 '18 at 19:08
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    @PAULSTER2 The plugs that I removed were gapped at 0.08, and the car had been running fine at that gap for years. So I already lowered it a lot by going to 0.05. So I don't expect that this is the issue. – RJH Nov 13 '18 at 19:12
  • I don't expect that this is "thee issue" either. I was just relating something to you was all. The wider gap of older spark plugs is not uncommon as the materials wear away. On newer ignition systems, the ECM compensates for the wider gap, but it only goes so far. As the gap increases, it gets a little harder on the ignition system overall, which can lead to premature failure. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Nov 13 '18 at 19:25
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    You seem to be focused on the electric side, are you sure that the fuel system and the timing are fine, you can try starting the car with starting spray and see I'd it make any difference, is it harder to start when cold then starts easier when warm ? Can you check the fuel line when it's not starting ? – Chebhou Nov 13 '18 at 21:46
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    Many thanks to everyone who helped. I made a new discovery. I have a spare lawnmower spark plug. So I tried connecting it to to the car's ground and directly to the ignition coil using some jumper wires. When I connected the plug to the #3 piston terminal in the ignition coil, the spark plug sparked away perfectly. When I connected it to the #4 piston, no spark. So I know it is a problem with the ignition system. My repair manual tells me that this is beyond an ordinary DIY repair. So I am going to a mechanic and I will answer this question after the mechanic fixes it. Thanks! – RJH Nov 16 '18 at 19:15
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The problems were caused by an undersized or poor quality battery.

The engine starting troubles developed in the fall and got progressively worse while the Chicago winter got progressively colder. I garaged the car until spring with a battery keeper. The weather eventually warmed up. I just started it last night (April 10th) seven times in a row with absolutely no problems.

I had led myself to believe that the battery was not the cause because I had just bought it in the spring and it worked all summer and it was still pretty new when the problems developed in the fall. The autoparts store tested the battery and said it was fine. Later they replaced the battery because it was under warranty. The problem here is that the replacement battery was just as undersized and poor quality as the old battery. Swapping a 7 month old undersized battery with a brand new undersized battery won't fix anything, even if the battery can pass a load test.

  • +1 This was an interesting read. Question though. What about your earlier comment noting an issue with the #4 piston sparking.....did that end up being a red herring, or did you address that and continue to have trouble? – elrobis Apr 11 at 15:50
  • @elrobis I am not a real mechanic, obviously. And my methods are not bullet proof. I believe the spark plug test that I concocted was faulty, or I wasn't doing it right. – RJH Apr 11 at 21:26

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