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My parents have a 2001 Pontiac Aztek that's been sitting for two years.

Apparently, before they stopped using it, there was an oil leak that caused starter problems (they couldn't find the leak), and they replaced it multiple times. And, the battery is as dead as dead gets...doesn't hold a charge to save its life.

Based on the first part, I would assume it's a starter problem, but articles like this one: https://www.championautoparts.com/Parts-Matter/automotive-repair-and-maintenance/Car-Wont-Start.html, make me think the blame lies squarely with the battery, because it does turn over without any clicking or weird noises.

However, it only turns over when hooked up to another car, but even after leaving it jumped for 30 minutes, it was still barely (slowly) turning over. The headlights are bright when I turn them on, while being jumped, but dim significantly when trying to start the car.

Electronics seem to work, and the only warning light I get is for the battery.

First question: should a car with a completely dead battery always start while being jumped if there are no other problems?

Second: can a starter or alternator go bad without any weird noises?

Update:

I got it started, woohoo! I replaced the battery (which was way more difficult than it should have been), and got the car started. However, the following things happened:

  • my first time turning the key, the car turned over and then stopped. I thought maybe the battery was low quality, so I jumped it.

  • Car clicked over and over without turning over.

  • Tried again, click, click, click, then nothing.

  • Fiddled with the jumper cables, tried again. The car started turning, then grinding, then smoke. Based on a quick search, it seemed the starter was gone.

  • Tried again, and after a few turns, it started! I was really excited, and thought it would start again, so I shut it off.

  • It didn't. I tried a few more times..more clicking, more turning off.

  • After maybe thre more tries, it started again. I reved the engine to hopefully clear air or old fuel from the lines. I took it out for a quick drive and gassed up a bit.

  • When I first started the car, a lot of really thick exhaust came out, but it seemed to clear up when I put more gas in it.

So, is this definitely a starter problem? Also, the starter was replaced recently before the car was parked. My sister told me the starter went out twice because of an oil leak that can't be pinpointed. Does this sound plausible?

  • 5
    I think your parents should be given a medal for Bravery Above And Beyond The Call Of Duty for keeping an 18-year-old Aztek. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Dec 31 '19 at 16:27
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    Make sure you put fresh fuel in the tank. I remember watching a show about life after oil, and they said that both diesel and petrol end up going stale after about a year or so.Though I might be misremembering stuff since this was like 15 years ago. – Nzall Dec 31 '19 at 17:59
  • Note that after two years the fuel system may be badly gunked. – Hot Licks Jan 2 at 1:23
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    @christian - whatever happens, please do remember to come back and fill us in on progress. – Criggie Jan 2 at 1:44
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    I didn't see anyone specifically say it, but a bad alternator will not cause a car to not start. The alternator isn't even spinning fast enough to do its job while starting, so don't worry about that for now. – JPhi1618 Jan 2 at 15:25
27

If the battery is completely dead, especially after sitting for two years, it most likely won't take a charge. Without the battery getting charged, you most likely don't have enough juice coming through the jumper cables to give it the power it needs to turn the Aztec over. Double check the voltage at the battery without the jumper cables on it. If it is still low (or non-existent), replace the battery. I would bet this will solve your issue.

You'd have to be using some heavy duty jumper cables (I'm thinking 2-gauge or larger) to pass enough current through them to get an engine to start with a completely dead battery. Most regular jumper cables aren't anywhere close to this.

As far as your second question about the starter/alternator going bad without any weird noises ... sure, but first things first. Change out the battery or get it fully charged, then work on separate issues. Usually, a starter and/or alternator will not go bad just sitting for long periods of time.

Also, don't pay any attention to the battery light until after you get it started ... it isn't really stating the battery is bad ... it's there to tell you there's an issue with the charging system in general. If the engine isn't running, you won't be charging anything ;-)

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    Replace the battery, or as @alephzero suggests for a temporary test, borrow a good one from another vehicle. You will need to replace the original battery in any event. – DavidSupportsMonica Dec 31 '19 at 10:12
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    That battery is dead. It has ceased to be. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It has kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the Choir Invisible! This...is an EX-battery!!! :-) Take it out, take it to your friendly local auto parts store (saves having to make two trips), buy a good battery (NAPA batteries are pretty decent, IMO - better than Walmart at any rate), put it in, and things should be better. Whether you also have a funky starter isn't something you can diagnose until you've got a good battery in there. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Dec 31 '19 at 16:23
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    The only downside to replacing the battery, rather than borrowing one, is that it is money sunk in a car that may have other, possibly fatal, problems. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 31 '19 at 16:37
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    @BobJarvis-ReinstateMonica - NO! It's just pining for a Ford. – Don Branson Dec 31 '19 at 17:21
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    Good for you. Ultimately it's an 18-year-old Aztek, so you can hardly mess it up any worse than GM did in the beginning. :-) – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Jan 1 at 22:32
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It's the battery

Starting an engine takes a much larger energy impulse than jumper cables can deliver directly through their typically-thin wires and the small surface area of their alligator clamps. (Unless you use very heavy jumper cables).

So the way jump starting works, is you slowly add enough energy to the weak battery until it's charged up enough to do most of the heavy lifting. The jumper cables might handle 50 amps for 200 seconds, then when you start it for 10 seconds, the jumper cables still handle 50 amps but the battery itself provides the other 450 amps.

This isn't working for your battery because it's a potato. It's not even a potato battery. It's stone dead for one of two reasons: first they only last 4-6 years, so if it was older than 2-4 years when you parked it, it was doomed anyway. Second, leaving a battery to sit for 2 years like that is very rough service for a lead-acid battery, so even a halfway healthy battery wouldn't have survived it.

Lead-acid batteries are stupidly fragile and short-lived like that. If you want a battery that lasts 30 years, look at the Ni-Cd wet cell batteries, they are used on jetliners to start APUs.

A modern car like an Aztec simply cannot function with a potato for a battery. All the other symptoms you describe are explained by the dead battery: there may be nothing else wrong with the car.

Go get a $20 used battery from a local mechanic, one that has a battery tester, and you should be good to go, at least for a few months while you make sure everything else is right with the car. Then when the cheapie battery shows signs of aging, get a proper one.

  • 1
    Could the aircraft APU starting battery system be something like Trigger's broom - the same broom for 20 years — "17 new heads and 14 new handles"? – Andrew Morton Jan 1 at 19:45
  • I appreciate you explaining how jumpstarting works. I was under the impression it was a bit more simple, but that totally makes sense. If one of my parents' other car's batteries don't fit the Aztek, I will stop by a mechanic and try to get a used battery. "there may be nothing else wrong with the car." I really hope so! – Christian Jan 1 at 22:14
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    In other words, the old battery could be taking/absorbing/wasting power that should be supplying the starter. – Criggie Jan 2 at 1:43
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    @Criggie In my experience dead batteries don't take/waste any power at all, i.e. they're a potato. My point is the starter need e.g. 500A while the jumper cables can only carry e.g. 50A. So the old battery needs to work well enough to store up a few minutes of charge. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 2 at 17:58
  • Updated! (check the end of the original post) The car started, but now what do you guys think I should do? – Christian Jan 3 at 5:14
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Others have already told you the battery is a goner, I'll go into why:

When a battery discharges lead sulfate builds up on the plates. It is deposited in very tiny crystals that will covert back to lead and lead oxide when the battery is charged again.

However, if the crystals are allowed to sit they slowly merge, forming big crystals. These won't revert back when you try to charge the battery--the battery is now forevermore just two plates of lead sulfate in water.

If you're going to store a lead acid battery for an extended period you put a trickle charger on it to avoid this happening.

  • Thanks a ton for the explaination! I will keep that in mind for the future. – Christian Jan 1 at 22:12
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    While I agree with your premise, don't use a trickle charger ... use a battery maintainer instead. This provides the charge only when needed and keeps the battery fully charged without overcharging it, which a trickle charger has a nasty habit of doing. I understand most people use the term 'trickle charger' as a generic, but to the uninitiated, it's not a good thing to be using. There is a difference between the two. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jan 2 at 18:57
  • @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 good call. I don't have many details since it was like 20 years ago but my grandfather's place burned down because of a fire caused by a trickle charger (or something like it). – briantist Jan 2 at 20:52
  • @Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 I've seen devices sold as having both functions. I haven't investigated the inner workings to know if that's fluff or that they turn off at full voltage. What I throw on the car when we go on vacation puts out an amp or two, without it the battery will be flat when I get back. – Loren Pechtel Jan 2 at 23:25
  • There's no fluff ... a trickle charger will continue to charge. Even at 2 Amps, it can overcharge and boil the battery (literally boil the water out of the sulfuric acid) which kills the battery. A tender will only charge up to the point the battery is full, then it will monitor it for when it inevitably loses enough power to need charged again, at which point it will provide enough power to bring it back up. The big difference is, the tender monitors the battery while the trickle doesn't. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jan 2 at 23:49
4

It's the fuel (as well as the battery).

After 2 years, the fuel in the tank has almost certainly gone bad. It's most probably also gummed up your fuel injectors.

Try spraying some starter fluid down the air intake to see if you can get it to run a little while. If it does, but immediately dies once the starter fluid evaporates, you need new gasoline.

2

I keep thinking why was the starter motor "changed a few times"; That is not normal,as you know; oil leaks do not affect the starter motor much,it is very enclosed,the oil flows around it;

1- First answer:Yes; but...a totally dead battery is a no-no; for 2 reasons: a) it will require extraordinarily good jumper cables,in the order of 100 dollars for the set; and b) big problem if the car starts,because "there is no battery" there; it's totally sulfated,it's junk,and the alternator will not "see"it!! And this may cause great harm to the voltage regulator in the alternator and/or to the ECU ,and other electronic modules(Expensive!!!); ALL car service manuals caution you, not to undo any battery terminal with the engine running,ever; a totally flat,sulfated,battery is quite the same as not being there;

2- Second answer; Yes,either can go bad without weird noises; of course the starter can go bad by not making any noise; i have also seen,although rarely, starters go bad for sitting many years(over 5) when the copper segments on the rotor commutator go black and do not make good contact with the brushes,the solution being the removal,and just running emery cloth on the commutator to get the copper bright and shiny again; and it doubles as a brush set check;

So,back to the multiple starter motors,2 or 3 years ago: it's possible (i have seen that many times!!) that the fat ground cable(s) from the battery to the chassis,and from the chassis to the engine block, is not effective any more: the bolt is loose,the cable crimp became bad,etc; You'll need to measure voltage drops with a simple multimeter,while cranking the engine; select 20 V. scale,place one probe,either one, on the battery post,right in the middle,and the other on the engine unpainted metal,say,against the cylinder head or bracket,or block; and then have someone crank the engine; you must see 0.5 volts or less; if you see much more than that,2 or 3 or 4 volts,you found the problem; if not ,do the same test for the other,the positive cable,from the +BAT to the starter (its solenoid); And,the very first thing, i would remove that old battery from there(it's junk,trust me) and put a fresh one in; the car must start on it's own,every time. Hope it was something simple, maybe get some fresh gas,or filter(gas needs to get to the top of the pistons),good luck.

  • Yeah, the oil leak thing is a bit weird. It's just what my little sister said (the person who drove the car about a year leading up to parking it). I did read something that seemed to back that possibilitty up. I can't find it now, but when I was a teenager, my car leaked oil for years, and I just filled it back up once in a while with no other issues (I was a poor fast food worker, no judgement haha). Anyway, I appreciate the answer and explaination about the battery. I will definitely not be trying to start the car with the battery that's in it now – Christian Jan 1 at 22:20
  • "You'll need to measure voltage drops with a simple multimeter,while cranking the engine; select 20 V...." This sounds above my pay grade, but I will give it my best shot after a bit more research. Thank you for the warning! – Christian Jan 1 at 22:21
  • Updated! (check the end of the original post) The car started, but now what do you guys think I should do? – Christian Jan 3 at 5:14

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