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So I worry

Xterra’s in the shop today.

Well, not a shop, per se. It’s under a shade-tree mechanic’s carport.

Well, not a mechanic, per se. He’s actually the guy who cuts my lawn.

But he also buys old beater cars, restores, and sells them. So I’m figuring he knows what he’s doing. Works cheap, too. And one thing’s for sure: he’s not going to robotically tell me, “Well, the computer code says …” like the other two mechanics who’ve had their mitts on my precious transport.

But I worry. The idle’s been getting rougher and rougher. Dying at stop signs sometimes. Then yesterday the Xterra added something new to its repertoire of troubles. It died while I was driving up the hill to my house. No coughs, no sputters, no jerks, no jolts, no fuss, no muss. The engine just shut off.

Started right up again, but now I regard my transport with a jaundiced eye.

I sent the mechanic off with the whole list of Commentariat recommendations, from checking for vacuum leaks and cleaning the mass air-flow sensor to changing spark plug wires. Added a few more based on yesterday’s problem and some StartPage research. Something wrong with the crankshaft position sensor? Clean the throttle body? Be sure to doublecheck that mass air-flow sensor.

He tolerates my lists. And me. Whether he heeds them, that’s another thing.

I trust him. I tell myself that. I do.

But the problems have been so intermittant that even if he brings it back running like … oh, a brand-new Tesla, I’ll still be nervous about what’ll happen tomorrow. Or the next day. Dying while cruising along the road doesn’t inspire confidence. You wouldn’t hurt me, Xterra, would you?


April was a demanding month. Good, but very demanding. I started May with a vow of simplicity. I’d keep everything low-key and low cost.

Fool. The gods just love it when you make pledges like that.

Along came the Xterra with its coughs and bumps. The broken ankle. New vet visits for every member of the fur family (including an emergency for the cat). I’m probably forgetting a few things.

No big deals. Just a month of nuisances from start to finish. Everybody survived intact. I had a lot of help from my friends on everything from cars to the best way to heal that ankle.


I opened a fortune cookie the other day. It informed me I’d see a miracle. Very soon.

I’ll settle for a nice, incredibly boring month, thank you.


The ankle and the critters are doing great, BTW. And the mechanic just pulled into the driveway. So we shall see …


  1. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 3, 2015 12:47 pm

    Life is like that. I never could figure out how some people can actually be “bored.” They must only be about half alive, at best.

    I learned early about Murphy’s Law, that disasters come in threes… And quickly concluded that Murphy is a terrible person, but he can’t count. And if you ever get a chance to study on Gumple’s Law, you’ll discover that Murphy is an optimist. LOL

    You win some, lose some, and occasionally you bless your lucky stars because you took that one step to the side JUST IN TIME.

  2. Joel
    Joel June 3, 2015 1:03 pm

    Fingers crossed for you, Claire 🙂

  3. Claire
    Claire June 3, 2015 1:47 pm

    LOL! Well, maybe if things happen in threes and “third time’s the charm,” then the third mechanic will be the one who gets it. That’s really what I’m so freaked out about; not that the Xterra has problems (it’s OLD, of course it has problems), but that it’s taken three mechanics to get anywhere.

    I’m still seriously hoping for a looooong spell of total boredom.

    The mechanic did all the things the Commentariat suggested and a few of his own (new cold-start sensor, new distributor cap and rotor). Only thing on the list he didn’t mess with was the crankshaft position sensor. He said the throttle body was really full of gunk and that he found water in the gastank. I just put some Heet and some SeaFoam fuel injection cleaner in the tank.

    Drove around about 15 miles. Didn’t see anything definitive. Ran well. But when I pulled in at the post office before heading home, got an ominously bumpy idle just before shutting off the key. Sigh. Will give it a few days and evaluate.

    Service engine light’s still on, but I could live with that if everything else would cooperate.

  4. Pat
    Pat June 3, 2015 2:35 pm

    Your mention of dying at stop signs and when going up hill brought back memories with two carburated cars I’ve had. That may be the answer.

  5. Karen
    Karen June 3, 2015 3:39 pm

    We had a similar problem with the Jeep and it was something to do with the catalytic converter. I could have walked up hills faster than it would go. Knock wood no more problems for a few years(with the Jeep anyway ;-).

  6. jed
    jed June 3, 2015 5:30 pm

    But the problems have been so intermittant that even if he brings it back running like … oh, a brand-new Tesla, I’ll still be nervous about what’ll happen tomorrow.

    Something akin to that is what I was feeling about Decrepit Volvo. Though if the mechanics had definitevely said, “Well, there’s the trouble …”, I’d’ve kept it. I know nothing about idle actuators. Busy actuators – no, not them either. I’m not a fan of dumping stuff in the gas tank, other than maybe once a year a can of B&G 440K. If you know there’s water, then some sort of gas-line dryer, maybe. But there’s already ethanol in the gas. Don’t know what’s in SeaFoam either. If your mechanic didn’t drain your gas tank, he should’ve (I’ll assume he did, or, how else did he know about the water). If he did, then adding stuff at this point isn’t the thing to do. My friend Bill mentioned this problem a while back. And do follow that link he has to Pop Mechanics.

    Might also be worth paying attention to where you buy your gas. Do you always get it at the same place? Might take a while to correlate any effects, but something to possibly try would be using different brands. The basic gas is all the same, but the “secret sauce” additives can vary. Dear old Jeffro splained that all a while back – maybe I can find it, if his blog is still live (Jeffro having departed this earth last year).

    Hmmm – plugged catalytic converter? Never had one myself, but my understanding is that they get worse over time, which is what is happening with your car.

  7. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau June 3, 2015 6:21 pm

    Catalytic converters caused my old Geo Metro mileage to drop down to 55, but no idling problems and I doubt that would be the cause of it. At idle is when a somewhat plugged converter will work the best because the exhaust flow is minimal. It’s at high speed you will see plugged converter problems, IMHO.

    Don’t get too attached to your car. Replace it when it gets too annoying for you. Hondas last forever…

    BTW, do you ever do “Italian tune-ups”? That’s when you floor it all the way through the gears, to the red line, up to as fast as you’re willing to go. Once a day I try to do that with my car if I can. Tends to blow crap out, I understand. Make sure the car is completely warmed up first, though.

  8. Claire
    Claire June 3, 2015 6:44 pm

    “Don’t get too attached to your car. Replace it when it gets too annoying for you. Hondas last forever…”

    I’m not attached to my car. I’m attached to having a vehicle that functions as long as I can keep it functioning. A new, or even newer-used, car is not in the cards.

  9. Claire
    Claire June 3, 2015 6:47 pm

    jed — Thanks. I usually do buy gas at the same place every time, but I’ll vary it.

    And OMG, more research …

  10. Claire
    Claire June 3, 2015 6:49 pm

    Catalytic converters and carburetors, oh my!

    I remember what little fiends catalytic converters were when they were first imposed on us all. I remember carburetors, too. PITA — but at least you could just hop out, pop the hood, and adjust something. Fuel injection … not so much.

  11. kevin mullis
    kevin mullis June 4, 2015 1:26 am

    Google “Top Tier Gasolines.”

  12. Chris
    Chris June 4, 2015 8:30 am

    Maybe an incredibly boring month is a miracle.

  13. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau June 4, 2015 9:28 am

    If you look at craigslist motorcycle ads you will often find comments like “needs carbs cleaned”. Invariably these bikes sit over winter and the users forget to drain the carbs and the little passages get plugged up, causing poor running (particularly idling, where the smallest passages are used and easily plugged). For whatever reason (high pump pressures?) I never see that with fuel injected bikes. Fuel injection, despite (maybe!) some added complication, is in almost all respects superior to carburetors. Look for carb problems if your vehicle sits for long periods of time or if you use a gas station that does not get a lot of traffic or has old tanks.

  14. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau June 4, 2015 9:32 am

    I should add it is usually possible to get rebuild kits for carbs that often solve these problems. You get new jets and gaskets, and dunk the carb body in some nasty carb cleaner that cleans out those passages (hope it doesn’t dissolve the orings and such). I have done this several times and it usually helps with older vehicles.

  15. Jolly
    Jolly June 4, 2015 9:34 am

    What year is the Xterra? How many miles? How much oil does it use? We have a 2000 Xterra with 280,000 miles. It uses about 1 quart / 1000 miles. We experienced similar symptoms – and decreased gas mileage. The catalytic converter was worn-out. When a car’s rings are going south, they used to smoke a *lot* and use oil. Nowadays, the catalytic converters burn off all the smoke, and the only indication is using oil ( this assumes you don’t have oil puddles under your car ). Replacement with a used converter should be under $500. New ones – at least $800.

  16. Claire
    Claire June 4, 2015 10:04 am

    Jolly — 2000 Xterra, same as yours. But mine has only 155,000 miles on it and is not burning (or leaking) any oil. I hope it makes it to 280,000 miles — and beyond!

    In fact, mine has been great overall, and even now my biggest fear about the current experience has been the mechanics’ blind adherence to diagnostic codes rather than observing the reality of what’s going on with the vehicle. I remain convinced that if anything’s still wrong after yesterday, it’s going to turn out to be something simple. Maybe hard to track down. But simple.

  17. Laird
    Laird June 4, 2015 10:47 am

    Sometimes we all have months like that. The best you can do is say “I’m glad that’s over” and hope the next one’s better.

    My 1997 VW Eurovan has had the “check engine” light on for 10+ years. The mechanics have never been able to figure it out, and I’ve long stopped caring about it.

  18. Claire
    Claire June 4, 2015 1:23 pm

    Laird — Another friend mentioned that his service engine light had been on for eight years. You’ve got him beat. But both of you give me great comfort. I admit that even though that light was on well over a year before the Xterra developed its recent problems (which of course may not even be related), it always gave me a sense of DOOOOOOOOM.

  19. Matt, another
    Matt, another June 4, 2015 1:37 pm

    My 96 Nissan pickup, 235k, has had that check engine light on for at least 5 years. It only goes out when I pay a mechanic to change the oil. Current mechs said leave it alone if the truck is running ok. It burns about a quart of oil in 1,000 miles, I think that is a feature of the small high RPM engine. I can do most of the small maintenance (oil, plugs, etc) myself and only take it in for big problems.

  20. jolly
    jolly June 6, 2015 5:18 am

    My understanding is that the service engine light is STRICTLY for the part of the motor having to do with emissions. You could be completely out of oil, with no water, and the engine light will not come on. BUT, if one of the sensors gets plugged, or the catalytic converter goes south THEN the engine light will come on. On our Xterra, mileage, stalling, lack of power, etc., all accompanied the death-throes of the catalytic converter. In the OLD days, all those symptoms accompanied a stuck choke. On another car, a Chevy, it completely stalled and died in the middle of the road, requiring a tow. The problem, is that the computer uses the information it gets from the sensors to fine-tune its fuel/air mixture and such. If the sensors are bad – or reading emissions not captured by the catalytic converter – it will try to compensate, and then gets feedback, causing more interventions, and so-on. REALLY smells like emissions system needs a look. That light is ONLY for the emissions system.

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