1998 Chevy Cavalier: Dash Indicators and Starting Problem


Earlier this week my mother’s car started having problems with the dash indicators (and apparently the entire dashboard console) while driving. Concerned her car was about to stop running, she drove it back home and then called me to give her a ride. Before we left I found that we couldn’t start the engine.

I tried starting it again later that day to no avail. The electrical system seemed to be working but it just wouldn’t turn over. All I’d hear was a fast clicking when I tried the ignition.

My initial thought was a problem with the battery, starter, or alternator. Both of my brothers also suggested it could be a short.

Within a week before the car “failed” she had noticed her battery indicator was staying on so she took it to an auto parts store and had her battery and alternator tested. She was told that both tested good.

I wasn’t positive what the problem was, and I had been looking at buying an ODB-II reader anyway, so I went ahead and ordered a unit that is composed of a custom cable and an iPhone app. It worked and could read the car without the engine running, but it didn’t detect any errors codes. The engine light wasn’t on so I wasn’t completely surprised.

This Saturday I went over to work on her car. I first removed the battery and took it to AutoZone. Fortunately, removing the battery from this 1998 Cavalier was straightforward, unlike my old Dodge Intrepid that required I first remove the passenger side tire. An employee tested the battery and reported that it was coming back as bad and only had 16% charge. He offered to charge the battery, which took about 40 minutes. After it recharged he said it was testing good.

I took it back, installed it, and was immediately able to start the engine. It was a little slower than normal but consecutive cranks went fine. At this point I noticed the battery indicator was on and stayed on. I also noticed nothing unusual with the dashboard so at this point I was convinced the alternator was the problem and began working on removing it.

Overall, removing the alternator wasn’t very difficult, though this 2.2L model seemed to differ slightly from the Haynes manual. The manual showed only two bolts that had to be removed but her car clearly had three bolts that it was mounted with. There were two electrical connections I disconnected.

The hardest part, which shouldn’t have been so difficult, was “rotating the tensioner clockwise”. Ideally, I could have just used a driver but the gap between the tensioner and the frame wasn’t wide enough. Not wanting to make a trip to AutoZone just to grab a tool and then have to go back again, I managed to push on it with a flat-tip screwdriver enough to be able to get the belt off of the alternator.

We then took it to alternator to AutoZone and they tested it. This was probably one of the few times in my life when I was relieved to see something fail a test. They ran it one more time and again it failed. I was going to purchase a new alternator but they didn’t have any in stock so I went with a refurbished one with a lifetime warranty (about $120). While there I also spent another $25 to buy a “Serpentine Belt Tool”, which was long enough and narrow enough to fit down where the tensioner is. I could have rented one but figured there was a chance we might eventually use it on our cars or loan it to friends (and I have an aversion to renting anything that is relatively inexpensive to purchase).

Of course, some things just aren’t as easy as they should be. I’ll skip the longer story to just explain that we ended up putting only one bolt in (at the bottom of the alternator) to slightly lower it closer to the belt (temporarily). There was one major problem (sometimes I just hate automotive engineers).

It turns out that any such tool isn’t as easy to use when there are A/C lines and engine mounts in the way. Together these created three “zones” in which the tool could move only a few inches. I had to once again push on the tensioner with a screwdriver to force it down to the point at which I could insert the tool and then push the tensioner further down and then hold it with the screwdriver and move the tool to the next zone and get it back on the tensioner. It was a pain, to say the least. I’m not sure how this should normally done without removing things that I don’t feel qualified to remove… But we were able to get the belt back on.

So far, the car seems to be working fine again. The battery indicator hasn’t come back on since and it has driven normally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.