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Damsel in Distress!

by LAG / September 21, 2008 12:15 PM PDT

I will try to make this as simple as possible, I am most certainly not a mechanic. I have an 86 Dodge, bought new and taken good care of. Today, while driving up a steep hill, and having had to stop, I could barely get my car to accelerate. I had my foot right down on the gas (it's an automatic) and it would barely move. By putting it in first and then second I was able to finally get my speed up to 60kmh. There was no shuddering, shaking or noise, it just didn't want to move. I have no problems starting it or driving it on flat roads, no stalling either. I put in a new fuel pump 3 years ago so hopefully it's not that. I've also put in fuel injector cleaner but don't think it's had time to work yet. The mechanic I called said he doubted it was the fuel pump but my brother in law says it might be. I was going to take it in for an oil change tomorrow, plus air filter, but now I don't know if that will help the problem or not. I've been reading everything I can find on the net but haven't found anything relating to my problem. In all cases there have been complaints of hard starting, stalling, shuddering, noises etc. of which I have none. I would really appreciate any and all advice before I go spending money I don't have. My main concern is the fuel pump which costs a fortune, could it be as simple as an oil filter? or changing the air filter? Thanks so much.

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Possible problems
by Dan Filice / September 22, 2008 3:26 AM PDT
In reply to: Damsel in Distress!

1) If you suspect the fuel pump, a mechanic can connect a meter where the fuel line comes into the engine to test the fuel pressure. If there is good fuel pressure, then the fuel pump most likely isn't the problem.

2) Most importantly, I would check to see if you have a vaccum leak somewhere. A vaccum leak is certainly a possibility on an older vehicle because all of the rubber vaccum lines get rotten and cracked and they need replacing after a certain number of years just as routine maintainence. This would certainly cause terrible issues when you go up a hill or are at highway speeds and try to accelerate.

3) Dirty fuel injectors certainly could be the problem, but if they are that dirty and clogged, a fuel additive might not be strong enough to clean the injectors properly. A good mechanic will have the tools to do a proper fuel system cleaning where he will clean the injectors, fuel line that goes to the injectors and clean the throttle-body, etc.

4) A very dirty air cleaner could be the culprit. How long has it been since the air cleaner has been changed? Typically, when you get an oil change done, the air cleaner is checked too because this is an easy additional $30 or so that the service center can add when the air cleaner is dirty and they always want to check the air cleaner and change it.

5) There could also be something like a Crank Position Sensor being out of whack, and this would cause bad timing issues that might only show up when you are putting the engine under load. But, I would check all of the easy and less expensive culprits first before worrying about a Crank Sensor.

Good luck.

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Check the fuel filters as well
by wfairley / October 5, 2008 1:13 PM PDT
In reply to: Damsel in Distress!

I had an old Ford Mustang that behaved like this for a while, until I changed the fuel filters. My car had two, one under the hood and one close to the fuel tank. I replaced them both and the symptoms went away.

- Woody Fairley

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In reply to both
by LAG / October 5, 2008 3:23 PM PDT

Thanks for your advice! I've had some work done on the car in the last 2 weeks. First stop was to change the oil, check the fluids and filters. I had a new fuel filter put in, the old one was rusty and clogged. I thought that would have been the problem, but it was still losing power on acceleration. So, I had a tune up done the following week, changed the plugs and air filter, which the first place had missed. It was in the shop the entire day. The mechanic took it for a test drive and noticed my problem as I had described to him, this was after the plugs and filter change. He hooked it up electronically to test the fuel pump and fuel pressure and found no problem. In all, he and another mechanic took it for an additional 5 test drives, and it ran beautifully. So, at the end of the day, he really couldn't tell me what the problem was. He did say there were sensors that he could change, can't remember which ones, but that would be expensive and he'd only know 'after' changing them if there was a problem, which was to me and him pointless to do as the last test drives were good. He said he couldn't completely rule out the fuel pump, mentioned some brushes inside, don't have a clue what he was talking about!! So far the car has been running really good, no more problems accelerating, so I hope that whatever it was is fixed. One thing I did forget to ask him....I did, by mistake put in a higher grade of fuel before this started happening. I've had the car forever and had always put in the regular unleaded. I did call a place and ask (before taking it in) if this could cause a problem and was told no, if anything my car would run better. But that was just one opinion. So for now, all seems to be good, just hoping my fuel pump doesn't die on me like the last time....parked on top of a building, downtown, where tow trucks can't get to. That was quite the experience!! Thank you so much for your advice.

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need more info on car
by frosti108 / October 22, 2008 1:59 PM PDT
In reply to: In reply to both

when you would hit the gas from a stop, would the motor rev up and you wouldnt move, or would the motor just not want to rev at all?

also, what model dodge is it, and is it carbed or fuel injected?

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Had this problem myself
by progan01 / October 24, 2008 9:35 AM PDT
In reply to: Damsel in Distress!

I have an '88 Dodge. I had the same problem some years ago. Turned out a chunk of the catalytic converter's matrix had corroded, broken off, and lodged in the exhaust pipe. No acceleration, no power, and no sign under the hood that anything was wrong.

If your catalytic converter is the same age as the car, as mine was, it may also have suffered this kind of failure. A compression check won't find this unless they also check the exhaust backpressure. I'd tell your mechanic to check the exhaust system for blockages. You could be lucky and it could only be a failed muffler; catalytic converters are not cheap.

Hope this helps.

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still running ok
by LAG / October 24, 2008 10:27 AM PDT

So far so good, no more problems with acceleration and has it's 'kick' back. I'm hoping to make it through the winter, I have no idea what a catalytic converter is but I have had the muffler and exhaust system repaired in the last year. I will keep it in mind though 'if' there's a next time. To date in the last year I've spent close to $2000 on repairs and although I keep saying to myself, the next thing that goes will be the last, it's gotten to the point where just about every part is new!! Makes me hesitate buying a new car.

In reply to the previous post, it's an 86 Dodge Aries wagon, fuel injected. Acceleration on flat roads after stopping was fine, but this was on slow city streets. Acceleration from a stop going uphill was nil, which was what alerted me to the problem in the first place.


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Catalytic converter addendum
by progan01 / October 24, 2008 11:44 AM PDT
In reply to: still running ok

A catalytic converter is part of your car's emissions control system. It's a large metallic container that's on your exhaust pipe, ahead of the muffler. Exhaust gases passing through the converter come into contact with a honeycomb structure inside it that contains rare metals like platinum, which cause a chemical reaction to reduce pollutants like nitrous oxide. There are no moving parts. When exhaust passes through it, the chemical reaction releases a great deal of heat, several hundred degrees. That's why your manual tells you not to park over dry grass or leaves; if they come into contact with the hot converter they could ignite and start a fire.

With no moving parts, a catalytic converter lasts quite a long time, but it is not immortal. Mine certainly wasn't; it packed it in at fifteen. In some states, and some heavily-populated cities, the law requires you have a working catalytic converter on your car, so you may need to replace it. Sometimes the law exempts vehicles above a certain age, and your twenty-two year-old vehicle likely qualifies. Ask your mechanic; you may be able to just put in a section of pipe instead of replacing the converter.

If you have no other problems with this vehicle, then I say by all means keep it. If your acceleration problem is a broken catalytic converter, and you aren't required to replace it, the repair is about the same cost as any other exhaust pipe repair. Otherwise, the repair could be expensive; it could be as much as $2000. You shouldn't buy a used catalytic converter; if it is damaged inside, and you can't tell by looking, you could end up with the same problem again. Your mechanic can tell you if you can get by without one. Unless you're in downtown LA or someplace like that, you very likely can do without your catalytic converter.

But don't wait on this. The problem won't go away by itself, and the longer you have that backpressure in your engine the more likely you are to damage valves and the rest of the emission control system. It's not a serious problem yet, but the longer it goes on, the likelier something else expensive will break.

Hope this answers your questions.

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catalytic converter
by LAG / October 24, 2008 12:22 PM PDT

Well, thank you for explaining this to me in plain english. I have a couple of questions though.

Since I'm not having any problems with the car now, wouldn't that eliminate the converter?
Also, since I've had repairs done on my exhaust and muffler in the last year, wouldn't the mechanic have checked the converter as well?

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Catalytic converter options
by progan01 / October 24, 2008 2:20 PM PDT
In reply to: catalytic converter

Well, there's really no way your mechanic can check the converter, not by just looking at it. It's a sealed box with no way to look inside. If it wasn't loose or rattling or had a hole in it, your mechanic wouldn't see anything wrong. He'd have to check the pressure of the exhaust going in versus the pressure going out. That requires equipment; it's not obvious to the naked eye, and it doesn't make a distinctive sound.

I'm not sure about your other question. Normally even a failed converter won't affect your car's operation; you'd be polluting more, but you wouldn't notice. If your car has the same problem mine had, then you have a rare physical problem with a catalytic converter, a broken-off chunk of the stuff on the inside is clogging the pipe. Your car wouldn't show any other symptoms than what you've described.

Did your mechanic check the diagnostic codes on your car? I believe your Dodge has one of the first built-in diagnostic computers. Has your 'Check Engine' light ever come on, even if briefly? Your car's computer may still have a record stored in memory that might help. Worth a shot.

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how I'm not sure
by LAG / October 25, 2008 3:02 PM PDT

I don't have a 'check engine' light but I do have a 'power loss' light, not sure if that's the same thing. I did have a problem with that years ago but honestly can't remember what repairs I had done for that. The only time that lights up normally is when I start the car, just for a few seconds, but that is normal.
What I don't understand about all this is that my car is running really well, so wouldn't that mean that there is nothing on the inside clogging the pipe?
As far as the mechanic checking the diagnostic codes, I have no idea because I wasn't there and he did have it for the day and said nothing.

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How, I am not sure?
by rongordon / October 26, 2008 8:39 AM PDT
In reply to: how I'm not sure

Great article; I had a 1974 Eldarado with the very same symptoms, sluggish, just no good pick-up and worse when driving up-hill. Did the tune-up and air cleaner and other filters and nothing helped until one mechanic checked the catalytic converter and found that it had imploded; explained it to me as similar to a balloon in the converter and that the failed converter (ballooned) blocked off a lot of the exhaust flow. He took the converter out and replaced that section with a straight piece of exhaust pipe and the car ran perfectly ever after. I suspect the chap that said you could of had a failed piece of material clogging up your converter (or perhaps muffler) may have been correct. I am no mechanic but would guess that a piece of the converter could have blocked your exhaust and then later burnt up or dislodged thereby freeing up the clogged exhaust system.

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Have the exhaust system checked
by progan01 / October 26, 2008 10:50 AM PDT
In reply to: how I'm not sure

Your exhaust, if my diagnosis is correct, isn't completely blocked by whatever's in the pipe. If you have a jagged rock in a funnel, you could pour water past it so long as you didn't pour a lot. If you did, the funnel would overflow. Your car runs fine when you aren't demanding a lot of it, like idling or just operating at low speed. When you accelerate or try to get up a hill, you're pouring more water through that funnel, it backs up, and since it's got no place to go, your exhaust pressure builds and your engine can't provide any more power.

If your 'Power Loss' light isn't lighting when this problem occurs, then it hasn't yet caused a major problem with the engine. That's good news, as I'm sure you know. I'd think about taking your car to a muffler specialist and see if there are any blockages in the exhaust.

While I did some reading on the subject, I ran across the Car Talk guys dealing with a similar problem. The catalytic converter on a Saab 900S was replaced because the car was becoming sluggish. The replacement helped, but then, while climbing a hill, the muffler on the Saab exploded. No one was hurt, but it highlights the possibility that if pieces of the catalytic converter are blocking the exhaust from the converter, other pieces might have gotten past and into the muffler itself, causing the same blockage, with more dramatic results. That article is here:

I never blew up my muffler. But it was weeks of bad performance before my mechanic suggested getting my exhaust checked and we found the problem. I don't know how common this problem might be, but you and I and Angela on Car Talk are the only people I know of who have had it. I think it's worth checking out, just for your peace of mind.

Good luck!

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It's making sense
by LAG / October 26, 2008 11:16 AM PDT

Good article and entertaining as well! I have to take my car in for a new block heater soon, I think Gerry, my mechanic will be quite impressed when I start talking about catalytic converters and blockages, especially because he didn't have a clue what could have been wrong.
Thanks so much, and will let you know.

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Proof of the pudding
by progan01 / October 26, 2008 11:36 AM PDT
In reply to: It's making sense

I look forward to the resolution.

Incidentally, if I am wrong, I am more keenly interested than ever. Do, please, let us know what the problem was and how it was resolved.

Glad to be of help. Good luck!

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jeep liberty 05
by jeep liberty 05 / February 11, 2009 11:35 PM PST
In reply to: Proof of the pudding

i have had the same symptoms, i had my spark plugs changed ,coils are ok., when i am on the highway i must give alot of gas for my jeep to advance, i have no more power like i did at the beginning, she lost her *****, everything for her is hard to do these days, my check engine came on with a code P0303(misfire in cylinder #3), this is a new truck i have had for 35 days,when speed is down to 80Km, and i need speed i have no choice but to kick down for it to adavance, i have really poor acceleration, even whell the wheels are turned all the way either left or right and i try and advance , she is forcing like there is no tomorrowwhen going straight , its alot less present, i here the engine trying to accelerate. could the misfire have anything to do with this?, please i need help

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