Dear Car Talk:
I have a 2006 Ford Fusion that is working well, except for a periodic starting issue. Every now and then, when I turn the key, I hear a metallic "ping" without the usual slow cranking sound I associate with a dying battery.
When I get the ping, the engine doesn't crank or start. If I turn the key to the off position, and then try to start it again, it will fire up without a problem.
I've had a mechanic spend a couple of hours trying to duplicate the problem, and he could not. Any ideas? - Charles
That's all that's wrong with it after 15 years? Are you sure?
If you're lucky, Charles, what you've got is a bad starter. Normally, a starter that's failing will make a clicking sound. That's obviously not what you're hearing.
But if the starter's pinion drive - a small gear that pops out of the starter to mesh with the larger flywheel - is sticking and not popping out all the way, you can get a quick, metallic "brrrrring" or "zzzhhhiiing" sound. If you're lucky, that's the "ping" you're hearing. The reason I say "if you're lucky" is because the alternative is a lot more expensive.
If you're not lucky, there's a worn or broken tooth on your flywheel. And replacing a flywheel is a big, expensive job. If your flywheel is damaged, some of the time, when that pinion gear pops out of the starter, it'll try to mesh with a missing or worn-down flywheel tooth. And failing to engage with a gear, it'll spin and make that metallic "zhhhiiiiiing" sound.
Here's what I'd suggest: Have your mechanic remove your starter. Once the starter is off, he'll be able to see part of the flywheel. He can then manually turn the flywheel 360 degrees and look for a bad tooth.
If he's smart, he'll mark the flywheel with a piece of chalk before he starts to turn it. If he's not smart, and he's still turning the flywheel a couple of hours later, you can tap him on the shoulder and suggest the chalk idea. If he doesn't see any flywheel damage, that's great. Then, have him put in a new starter and, chances are, your problem is solved.
If he does see one or more bad teeth, tell him to put in a new starter anyway. Since you've already paid for the labor to remove the starter, it'd be silly to put a 15-year-old starter back on there.
And then keep driving it. I wouldn't recommend replacing the flywheel at this point. Since this problem occurs rarely, and the car always starts on the next try, it doesn't sound like you're in imminent danger of being stranded.
It'll likely get worse over time, but it may deteriorate very slowly. You could be fine for a couple of years.
And, if no other major parts of the car fail first, it gets to the point where you do get stranded someday, call AAA, get the car started and then drive right to your mechanic. Or the trade-in lot. Good luck, Charles.