Saturday, May 19, 2007

Listening to a Sound from Saturn

About a week and a half ago, I started hearing a particular noise coming from the undercarriage front end on my Saturn Ion.

At first I didn't think much of it, then for a day or two I romanticized it (aka denial) by thinking it was just part of the growing collection of maturing "noise" sound my cherished Saturn makes.

Only I really knew I was lying to myself.

So what follows is public service announcement for Saturn Ion owners.

First some key words for Google Search faithful

Saturn Ion front end suspension noise deep metallic rattle clunk sound 5 to 10 mph low speed

That should do it.

Welcome visitors.

The Sound

The sound was noticeable only when hitting a bump or rough road surface at low speed; about five to 10 mph. Any higher and it didn't appear. It was almost like a cow-bell, but heavier and deeper.

Almost like a cow-bell on steroids.

Hitting a speed bump square on with the front wheels would not produce the sound.

The rear shocks had been replaced some time ago, and the front pair seemed fine.

I knew from prior experience with a Renault that it wasn't a CV joint.

I had inspected the shocks and all the front-end suspension parts I could see and nothing looked amiss.

It was one of those noises that you can either dismiss easily or imagine something falling off the car and wiping out in a way to make NASCAR fans proud.

To the Doctor

Being the obsessive guy I am, I knew that putting it off would only drive me crazy with worry and distract me from the other things going on a work and I rolled on in the Saturn dealership so they could take a look.

Not half-way into my problem description did the chipper Saturn service desk rep diagnose "swaybar bushings."

OK. Sounds reasonable enough. Saturn Ions apparently have quite a history of having these things wear out. So a couple of hours later I was back on the road. Sounded fine.

Until I got off the freeway system and onto the Houston surface streets.

I thought I heard it again. Maybe. Hard to tell.

So for the next few days I thought I heard it but maybe didn't, but probably did.

An Un-romantic Late Night Symphony

Last night, Lavie and I went to pick Alvis up from a birthday party. I asked Lavie to listen to see if she could help me identify the source of the mysterious noise.

She gave me a kind look but I think I saw some alarm in her eyes as she confirmed the cow-bell-like rattle I had been hearing.

We went though the checklist: nothing in the door panels, nothing for the glovebox, not related to any technician's tools in the trunk. Definitely a noise. Definitely from the front passenger side. Not imagined.

On the return drive home we went over some particularly bumpy roadway and Lavie exclaimed (not in a good way) that she could actually FEEL the sound under her toes.

Not a Good Thing when your spouse can FEEL a car noise you'd been attempting to reason away.

That was followed with a look that suggested she wouldn't be riding in the Saturn again until I dealt with the problem.

Now I didn't want my Dearest Wife and Daughter placed in rolling jeopardy, so back to the Saturn dealership I went this morning.

A Real Diagnosis

This time a chagrined Saturn service department brought me out into the bay to show me the real issue: a bent lower right-side wishbone arm.

Seems I had hit a roadway object (City of Houston pothole I suspect) and it had bent (torqued) the rear lower arm right at where the pivot point connected to the frame mount. There was just enough overlap in the joint that as the arm traveled downward at low speed movements, it would bottom out on the frame, causing the deep metallic rattle I was hearing and the force transmittal to the floorboard that Lavie's cute little toes were feeling.

Repairs were made and the front end realigned. My wallet was significantly lightened, but the sound is gone for good and the Lavie is willing to ride with me again.

What amazes me is that my tire and rim and the rest of the components passed inspection with flying colors.

A Hazarded Guess

I am almost certain I know which City of Houston pothole did the damage.

It was a known hazard to me and I had been quite successful at avoiding it until recently. Only the day of my fateful encounter I was unable to move a bit into the left lane to avoid it due to a van driving abreast of me and riding the lane line.

The pothole was in a 40 mph zone right in front of an signaled intersection so I was already going very slow due to traffic conditions.

I suspect that I was going quite slow enough to drop my wheel safely into the 90% wheel sized hole (it may have been about four to five inches deep) without causing impact damage to the wheel or tire. But I was not going slow enough for the wheel to haul out of the hole without putting enough torque stress on the suspension member to avoid twisting.

Remarkably, the frame suspension bars and mounts along with everything else came out just fine. Rock-solid.

The pothole has since been filled in.

So fellow Saturn Ion owners, if you happen to hit a pothole or drop your suspension on a curb or other solid object and begin to hear something along the lines of a "Saturn Ion front end suspension noise deep metallic rattle clunk sound 5 to 10 mph low speed" get down on your belly and compare the bottom A-arm mount locations to the frame on both sides and see if one has a much lower clearance than the other.

That might be the cause.

Car Tech - Key Vehicle Components Explained and Illustrated

For some awesome illustrations and theory behind modern vehicle suspensions check out the following link;

Also related and worth reading for those curious about vehicle basics:

(Expensive) Mischief managed.



Sunny said...

I've been hearing a similar sound, and I was hoping it's my transmission I'm having to have replaced right now in my 2004 Ion 3 Coupe (and thank God that's covered under the warranty!). I've always experienced a somewhat bumpy ride, but this grindy noise started recently and the guy who drove me from the dealership to the rental place told me it was due to the cold weather since the Vue we were in made the exact same noise. I was pretty doubtful a sound such as that could possibly be normal. It absolutely sounds as though something is fixing to go totally and completely wrong. I hope they find the real problem while they're holding on to my car these next 2-5 days (since who knows how long it'll take with the holidays).

-32 said...

I just happened upon this since I was looking up some issues I had after hitting a curb. I've heard this noise for sometime now and I have a hit a few potholes prior as well as a piece a debris on the highway that fallen off the vehicle in front of me. Very helpful I'll check this out.

Claus said...

@ -32 - Thanks for the comment. It was a drag getting that fixed but it's been solid since.

For a while there was a new rattle sound I experienced when going over choppy roads. Took forever to figure that one out.

Turned out to be a an issue with the radiator/frame. The Ion radiators are fixed at the bottom but the top isn't. Instead they have a "peg-stud" at the top corners which float inside a rubber "grommet" which is then fitted inside the upper cross-frame member. Turns out that one of those rubber grommets fell out (?) and it was just metal on metal. There is still enough play in the mounts to allow the radiator to jiggle around and the metal stud was making contact with the frame...thus the rattling sound.

I've yet to swing by the dealer to pick up a replacement but a carefully tucked/twisted/secured shop-cloth seemed to keep the rattle at bay for now.


--Claus V.

Merri said...

Interesting... I just started to have this issue on my 05 Saturn Ion 3 and its on the passangerside near like the tire area. My daughter is the one to call it a cow bell sound and it certainly sounds like it. Funny you mentioned pot holes, we had some snow recently and from all the plows, there are new pot holes. One in particular I hit 3 times (I keep forgetting its there)on the passangerside. I wonder if thats my problem. hmm somthing to ponder and tell my dad, who is my trusty mechanic!