I’m never a happy camper when my car starts giving me crap. So I was none too pleased by my GTO’s behavior over the last few weeks, during which time it started displaying myriad symptoms of some unidentifiable illness or another, all of which seemed infuriatingly unrelated. It started with occasional sluggish starting, escalated to mystery messages in the Driver Information Center (DIC) and finally to problems with the HVAC system and even a sudden inability to cram a full 16 gallons of fuel into the tank. Needless to say, I was walking on eggshells every time I got into it, wondering what would be next to go.
Along the way, I mostly blamed myself for it. It was a hellishly long and hot summer, even for Texas, and my GTO (or the “goat” as it’s colloquially called, at least partially because it eats everything) spent the majority of it on top of a parking garage in broad daylight. And it’s black; did I mention that? Getting into the car after work was like walking into a paint baking booth. I practically needed a change of clothes from the sweat when I got home, despite working in a frigid cold office all day. To its credit, the air conditioner kept up admirably, and I kept the paint coated with UV-rejecting polish, but I wondered how long it would be before that damnable heat started taking some kind of noticeable toll.
Ironically, I had my answer not long after I finally ponied up for a parking space in the office garage. On some mornings, particularly Mondays after the GTO had sat up for a couple of days without use, the starter would crank fairly sluggishly. It would always fire up, but my ears are attuned to the typical sounds my car makes and are hyper-sensitive to any variation. The battery in my wife’s Mazda6 had completely crapped out near the tail end of the summer, and I’d heard some pretty startling statistics about the number of car batteries that had been killed dead by this summer’s torturous heat, so I wondered if the GTO was next in line for the same fate.
However, it kept cranking every morning and nothing else seemed to be amiss, so I shelved this interesting anomaly in the back of my mind. What with my wife being seven months pregnant at the time, and both of us busy with childbirth class, grocery shopping and all manner of preparations every weekend, I hadn’t much time to spare worrying about “what-ifs”.
Then the phantom warnings started.
Every once in a while — perhaps one or two times per week — I’d climb into the GTO in the morning on my way out to the office, turn the engine over, and just before it ignited an agitated “bloo-bleep!” would sound from the instrument panel. It’s one of the many electronic noises that the goat’s gauge cluster makes when a warning message is displayed in the Driver Information Center, the LCD screen directly below the tach and speedometer. The problem was, by the time I’d glance at the DIC, the engine would fire and the message would immediately disappear, replaced by the cyclopean “0” of the digital speedometer. I’d stare at it, waiting for something to happen, and it’d stare right back at me in silence as if to say, “What? I didn’t say anything.”
Well, I figured the message was probably something like “Low Voltage” or some other warning of impending battery failure. Once or twice I thought I caught a glimpse of a couple of lines radiating out from some kind of shape on the DIC screen, and in my mind I envisioned the shape as the typical rectangular battery icon. But that was about as far as I could get with it until one day a friend had a good suggestion, and one that I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of myself.
We were hanging out at Speed Shield, a local auto shop that specializes in “clear bras” and window tint, when I mentioned the issues I was having and my friend said, “Why don’t you use your iPhone to take a video of the dash every time you start the car? It might be a pain in the ass but eventually you’ll catch whatever the message is.” Brilliant! So I started doing just that, and fortunately it was only a couple of days before I caught the offending thing on video. Right, now it’s off to have the battery tested, yes? Oh, wait:
OK, so I never really believed that the anti-lock brake system was acting up. The car’s actual performance when stopping seemed completely unchanged (although I’m never in a hurry to perform the kind of maneuver that would cause ABS to fire). The message only appeared momentarily during sluggish starts on certain mornings and never while driving. Still, it would have been more reassuring to see a message that was directly related to the battery or charging system, y’know?
But the GTO, she was not yet done surprising me.
A few weeks ago I ran by a gas station to fill up the car on the way to work, and it wasn’t until after I’d actually jumped in afterwards and started her up that I saw the fuel gauge was reading only about 4/5ths of the way full. Huh? But the pump had stopped, and I’d even “topped it off” a little to be sure. Figuring it was a fluke, I filed this tidbit of information away, too. But then on my next fillup, and the next, the same thing happened. 4/5ths of the way full, and the pump refused to put any more in. On the third try, when that point had been reached, I turned the ignition to the “on” position and let the fuel trickle in slowly the rest of the way, watching the gauge from the back window. Pain in the ass, but it worked.
A little research on the LS1GTO forums suggested that there might be a bad vent solenoid near the evap canister, as the fueling issue was a problem that several other GTO owners had experienced, and one wrote a fairly detailed explanation of how he solved it. Apparently the vent solenoid is wired to open when the ignition is turned off, allowing the fuel tank to vent as you put gas into it. At least one particular owner’s solenoid had failed shut, and replacing it (a $10 part) solved the problem. Not an expensive repair to be sure, but getting at the solenoid is another matter.
Just as I was letting this sink in, something else happened. We had some pretty chilly weather last week, and while on my way home in the GTO one particularly nippy evening, I decided to turn up the air temperature and direct it to the floor vents so it wouldn’t be blowing on my face. Maddeningly, only three seconds after my floor vents opened up, they would immediately close again. I tried both the bi-level and floor settings, and switched back and forth several times between the various settings on the HVAC mode dial, but the floor vents refused to stay open. All I could hear was the sound of the blower firing air against the closed panel baffles, and as soon as I’d switch back to panel mode, it would all come rushing out at me. Mother frigger.
By the time I was getting on eBay and camping on listings for used HVAC control clusters pulled from junked GTOs, I decided that it was time to actually start working on these blasted issues. Apple and I celebrated our last childbirth class yesterday, so during the rest of my spare time this weekend, I set to work on the goat. First, I took the battery out and marched it down to the AutoZone near our house, hoping that a quick test would show it was near death. At least that would clear up the weird stating issues, and hopefully the phantom ABS Fault messages as well.
AutoZone informed me, however, that the battery load-tested OK, but it was low on charge. They immediately turned me away, advising me to check my connections and bring the car in for a free alternator test, since it looked like a charging system problem. What? Oh, yeah, that’s really what I want to hear — that I need a new $700 alternator now of all times. Somehow, though, this diagnosis did not sit right with me. I vowed to dig deeper.
This afternoon, while changing the GTO’s oil out in the garage, I whipped out my trusty Radio Shack battery and alternator tester. It’s about the simplest gadget you can imagine: six LEDs, three for alternator voltage and three for battery voltage, connected to a positive and negative probe. I checked the battery first. Sure enough, it came up low at barely 12.0 volts. Next I fired up the engine (hello, there’s the ABS Fault again) and tested the battery terminals while the car was running. Hmm. Reads normal, a solid 14 volts. What the devil?
I took the battery back out and decided to schlep it down to the other AutoZone in town. Not that I’m married to AutoZone, mind you. But the battery had originally been purchased from AutoZone a few years ago after we got back from Thailand and found both of our cars dead as doornails, so if there was any chance that I had some warranty left, it would be in their computer system. (Laughably, I dug up the original receipt out of the goat’s glove box for proof — but found that the thermal paper it was printed on had gone completely blank. Yet another casualty of the grueling summer heat.)
Much to my pleasant surprise, the other AutoZone location threw my Optima D35 on their battery tester and in five seconds flat had determined that it was bad and needed replacement. OK, this is the first good news I’ve had since this whole debacle started. Get me a new battery post haste. I was in no mood to pay $210 for another frigging Optima battery, especially since both the warranty and the CCA rating were actually inferior to other batteries at half the cost. The Optima’s remaining pro-rated warranty got me a new battery for $62 and I high-tailed it out of there.
Here’s where it gets good. Upon arriving home I installed the new battery and fired up the car — the starter was back to its normal sound, and the DIC wasn’t throwing any messages. So far, so good. I cleaned up the tools and materials from the oil change, then decided to test the HVAC system again to see if I should get serious about picking up that used control unit from eBay. Much to my surprise, the floor vents opened up — and stayed open this time. What in hell? It’s possible, I decided, that a low voltage condition had played havoc with the motor or the HVAC control system. It’s a simple manual system and mostly vacuum-driven, but you never know. I’ll test it again tomorrow on my way to work, but so far, this looks promising.
Dare I hope that my fuel tank problem has been fixed as well? It’s entirely conceivable that the vent solenoid has been refusing to open because battery voltage was too low, especially since it opens when you turn the engine off and the battery is providing your only power. The next time I go to fill up, I’m going to hold my breath hoping that the goat’s last gremlin has been exorcised.
It’s been a busy weekend overall, but a very successful one with lots of stuff getting done. But as you might imagine, I’ve felt most satisfied with the result of my work on the GTO this afternoon. Fresh oil and filter, new battery, and a handful of problems apparently gone in a flash.
And as extra icing on the cake, this week I wrapped up a side project that netted me the last of the money I needed for the new stereo head unit that I wanted to put in the GTO. The JVC KW-XR810 Dual USB/CD Receiver may not have navigation, a fancy touch screen or satellite radio built in (which, in my mind, just means that it’s less likely to get stolen), but it does have exactly what I wanted: Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free calling, MP3 playback support, a 3.5mm auxiliary input and two USB inputs. (Connect a 500GB storage drive full of music and stuff it in the glove box!)
Even better, its display colors are completely customizable so they’ll match my dash, it comes with a mountable microphone for hands-free calls, and it also supports wired steering wheel control adapters (one of which I also ordered to go along with). Finally I’ll own a car with a bloody auxiliary input on the radio — and lots more besides.
I’ll think of it as payback for a month’s worth of automotive issues.
While the HVAC system continues to work better than it did a week ago, I am disappointed to report that it is not operating 100% correctly. Now, if I turn the HVAC mode switch directly from panel to floor, the floor vents do not open at all. However, if I first switch to either bi-level or defog/floor — the settings immediately adjacent to the floor setting — then the floor baffles will open. Following that, I can switch to floor-only mode and they will stay open. So it actually will do everything it’s supposed to, provided you perform the workaround.
This exact same behavior has been reported on the LS1GTO forums countless times and every time the fix has been to replace the HVAC control unit. So, I just came from buying a clean-looking used set of ’06 HVAC controls from Hawk’s Third Gen Parts on eBay for $23 (not bad, considering the brand new part is $200). Since I’m tearing open the center stack soon anyway to install my new radio, I should be able to take care of the HVAC control swap at the same time.
The only remaining test now is whether I can fill the gas tank. Will report back.