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Goof of the Month: Engine Problem or User Error?

autoTRADER.ca logo autoTRADER.ca 2018-03-01 Justin Pritchard
Engine Oil Check© autoTRADER.ca (Justin Pritchard) Engine Oil Check

Welcome to Goof of the Month! Every month, we highlight a story or situation that reinforces the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.

This month, I had a chat with service advisor Lori Boerio about an interesting discussion I stumbled across in an owner’s forum, while researching one of hundreds of used vehicle reviews for autoTRADER.ca.

The discussion centred around a strange and somewhat common engine stalling issue with a modern compact car, which, as it turned out, had an interesting cause.

This story highlights, once again, the need for owners to understand how their vehicle works, and how to properly maintain it, to prevent frustrating and dangerous problems.

The Complaint

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In this thread, numerous owners discuss random stalling of their Dodge Dart compacts. Sometimes, the stalling happens in traffic, which is a serious safety issue. Owners in this forum go on to guess the cause of the problem as being battery-related. Or maybe it’s caused by wonky electronics. Or maybe it’s bad fuel.

Though it’s not instantly apparent, it seems like most of the owners didn’t bother to have their stalling issue addressed by a trained technician who knows how the vehicle works; and instead turned to fellow owners on the internet to figure things out.

“We see this all the time,” Boerio says. “When something this serious is wrong in a modern car, you should have a professional assess it. People tend to shy away from this because it requires a trip to the shop, and costs a few dollars. But on the other hand, I see customers every week who turn to internet chat rooms for advice – and they tend to wind up wasting a lot of time and money.”

The Dodge Dart stalling problems were reported by owners of even newer, lower-mileage cars. In some cases, dealers were not able to determine the cause of the problem initially. Further complicating matters (and sending the owner’s community into a state of frazzle), some other known issues with the car, including wiring and computer module issues, confused the cause of the stalling.

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Plus, the stalling was random, hard to duplicate, and seemed to happen without any rhyme or reason.

Owners called their Darts lemons. They demanded action. They demanded a recall to fix what was surely a design and quality defect.

“Totally normal reaction, again,” Boerio adds. “Often times, even big problems have simple, little, and easy-to-address causes – but owners tend to jump to conclusions, often without any professional assessment of the vehicle. When it comes to random stalling, we see a lot of customers who first waste money replacing sensors themselves, or by pouring special cleaning additives into their fuel tank, without a clue as to what’s actually causing the problem.”

The Diagnosis

Then, the actual cause of the problem (in the majority of stalling cases) was identified. The stalling was caused by low oil levels.

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The Dodge Dart uses a unique valve timing system in which the engine’s valves are actuated by oil pressure, in conjunction with a mechanical system. When the oil level in the engine drops below a certain point, this valve timing system can’t work properly, and the engine turns itself off to prevent damage.

So, the stalling, in this case, is an owner flaw, not a design flaw.

All engines consume oil, in some amount, between oil changes. Further, modern engines go longer than ever on a single oil change. Stands to reason that, in the hands of an owner who never checks oil levels, the vehicle may go many months without having the oil level inspected or adjusted.

In the case of the Dodge Dart, oil consumption was reducing oil levels, but the affected owners were unaware, since they weren’t checking their oil levels. Accordingly, when oil levels dropped drastically, the valve timing system couldn’t work, and the engine turned itself off.

Lesson Learned

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The problem here wasn’t the engine, but rather, the fact that many owners never check their oil levels unless they happen to be under the hood for another reason – if at all.

“You’ve got to check your oil level regularly. Once a week is ideal, or at every fuel fill,” Boerio says. “Engines are machines that require maintenance. Oil level checks are part of that maintenance. It’s outlined right in the owner’s manual. But today’s driver rarely goes under their hood – so it’s not surprising that so many owners experienced this problem, without knowing why.”

Though a few of the Dodge Dart owners in this discussion experienced stalling caused by other factors like a bad engine control computer or a bad transmission control module (which was covered by a recall), the majority of the stalling problems were caused by a simple failure of owners to check and maintain proper oil levels.

The requirement to do so is clearly laid out in the Dart’s owner’s manual, but who reads that?

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