Does Your Saturn Ion Fail To Start Sometimes?

Even With A Good Battery? There's A Reason.

2003 Saturn Ion Four Door

Intro:

It turns out Saturn Ion ignition switches came with a flaw from the factory, excessive grease with poor cold weather performance. Thankfully the fix is fairly straight forward which puts a slightly positive note on the problem at hand. This guide will cover a few of the many methods available that address the problem.


Symptoms:

The Passlock issue presents itself as your car suddenly not starting. No lights were left on, the battery is not drained, the dome light still illuminates, you hear the starter engage and it suddenly stops even though it sounded strong and "normal", the dash lights up when the key is turned and the Passlock light is lit with the words "Service Vehicle" appearing in the dashboard message center (below the speedometer). The check engine (SES) light will also come on. There is some inconsistency here though, I've experienced the no-start condition with the Passlock light failing to light and sometimes also the check engine light. Suffice it to say if there's no obvious reason for your vehicle to not start, it's probably Passlock related. If you've noticed that waiting a few minutes seems to help, that's the clincher. Ten minutes is the magic number, that's when the computer resets. You can time this by leaving your car door closed and waiting for the radio to turn off or leave the key in the "On" position, when the Passlock light turns off you can try to start your car again.

I should mention that recently (November 20th, 2010) my 2003 Saturn Ion refused to start and I falsely assumed it was Passlock related, it wasn't. It appears my starter is actually failing. It took some time for me to determine the starter was the issue. I finally shifted my focus when I noticed the lack of typical Passlock behavior. Waiting 10 minutes did nothing, the Passlock light was not on, the SES light was on with no stored codes and no sound was made when starting was attempted. When your Ion is in lock-down mode the starter will still briefly engage on most attempts to start the vehicle. Just be mindful of this fact so you don't waste an hour (or longer) on something that won't change or fix itself.


Cautions:

The following procedure can be risky if you're not technically inclined. If you're not sure this is something you can handle then don't do it, it's not worth the risks. Perhaps ask a friend to help.

Having mentioned risks I'll cover them now. If you break your ignition switch you will have no way to leave and buy a replacement (You can fully replace the ignition switch if you break it, it only requires you follow the Passlock re-learn procedure -- described below). You could set off The airbag which is dangerous and would lead to a very expensive outcome. You could short a wire and blow a fuse or worse damage a circuit. You could damage the BCM (Body Control Module), also very expensive. If care isn't used to separate the ignition switch enclosure you could release a return spring. If this spring is re-installed wrong the ignition switch will have a tendency to move from Run to ACC or OFF on its own. This poses a serious risk. If you were driving and this happened your engine would stop and you would lose power braking and steering. Your engine cutting off while you're merging or pulling into traffic could be fatal. Should this happen, ever, shift into neutral, turn the key to start and re-start your car. Once the engine is running again shift back into drive and pull over to the nearest and safest place to do so. The farther from a lane of travel the better. Call a tow company and have a professional fix the switch or replace it.

With all warnings being given, you, at your own risk, may choose to continue. We are not responsible in any way, shape or form for any outcome or situation encountered from the use of the information presented here. You're responsible for your own safety. Only you know if this task is one you should undertake or not.


Items Needed:

  • 7mm Socket
  • T15 Torx Bit
  • Small Flat Blade Screwdriver
  • Quality Dielectric Grease
  • Paper Towels
  • 70% Isopropyl Alcohol
  • A Few Q-Tip Cotton Swabs

Step One:

To begin the procedure remove the negative (black) battery cable being sure to not let your wrench contact the red positive terminal or it will short the battery, throw sparks and get hot. An alternative is to remove the Airbag fuse, use your owners manual to find and remove it.

Let the car sit for 10 minutes. Airbags can be deployed for several minutes after the initial loss of power, this is a safety measure.


Step Two:

Lower the lever that locks the steering column. Move the steering column to it lowest position this will make all subsequent steps easier.

Steering Column Lock Lever Location Steering Column Lock Lever Location

Step Three:

Locate the three screws that retain the plastic steering column shroud on the underneath side of the steering wheel. Use a 7mm socket to remove them.

Getting the plastic shroud off takes finesse but just be patient. Press firmly (but not overly so) on the seems and wiggle the pieces, they will eventually come apart.

Steering Column Shroud Screw Locations Steering Column Shroud Seam Opening

Step Four:

Slide the left lower plastic piece straight down.

Steering Column Lower Left Shroud Removal Steering Column Lower Left Shroud Removal

Step Five:

To remove the lower right plastic piece pull slightly forward to get clearance from the lock cylinder and then swing it to the right. Once free of the lock cylinder slide it down and remove it.

Steering Column Lower Right Shroud Removal Steering Column Lower Right Shroud Removal Steering Column Lower Right Shroud Removal

Step Six:

The top plastic piece should lift right up. Grab near the front on both sides to lift and then pull forward. There is a tab under this plastic piece so lift high enough to clear it and then pull forward.


Step Seven:

Locate the ignition switch on the left side of the steering wheel behind the turn signal lever. It's round and black with a green connector. It's buried but accessible.

Location Of The Ignition Switch Location Of The Ignition Switch Location Of The Ignition Switch

Step Eight:

Press the green tab on the connector and slide it out.

Remove The Ignition Cable Connector

Step Nine:

Use a T15 Torx bit to remove the two screws that hold the switch. They're tough to get at but it can be done. Using a ratcheting bit holder like the one pictured helps a lot.

Location Of The Ignition Switch Screws Location Of The Ignition Switch Screws

Step Ten:

With the two screws removed insert your vehicle key and slowly turn it toward the start position while pulling gently on the ignition switch. You may have to wiggle the key and/or switch but it will eventually come free.

Lock Cylinder With Key

Step Eleven:

To remove your key you must press on the tip of the BTSI (Brake Transmission Shift Interlock) solenoid shown while turning the key to off. Now pull the key out and head inside, with the ignition switch. Note: This step does not apply to Ions with a manual transmission

Lock Cylinder BTSI Solenoid Location

Step Twelve:

Using a small flat bladed screw driver gently depress the retainer clips. While doing so try to keep the case separated as you go.

Tabs Latching The Ignition Switch Case Tabs Latching The Ignition Switch Case

Step Thirteen:

Gently open the two halves as much as possible as you work toward the connector socket. Depress the tabs nearest the connector. They're pretty stiff and stubborn but patience works here.

The Tabs Near The Connector Should Be Last

Step Fourteen:

When all clips have been released hold the half with the white/cream plastic showing (Top) and lightly pull the bottom half away. Try very hard to not let the switch contact carrier pop out and come free. This will release a return spring that if re-installed wrong could make your car turn off unexpectedly.

The Ignition Switch Separated

Step Fifteen:

Remove the circuit board and clean it with a paper towel to remove all grease. Once free of grease wipe the board contacts with a fresh paper towel and 70% (or higher) isopropyl alcohol. Avoid leaving behind paper towel lint.

The Ignition Switch Circuit Board The Ignition Switch Circuit Board The Ignition Switch Circuit Board

Step Sixteen:

Carefully clean the spring contacts on the upper switch half. Don’t forget the spring is there! Try not to bend the pins. They should be and remain nice and level with one another.

Ignition Switch Spring Contacts Ignition Switch Spring Contacts

Step Seventeen:

When the parts are clean and dry apply a thin layer of quality dielectric grease to the circuit board traces. You only need to purchase a small quantity of grease, you need very little.

The Ignition Switch Cleaned And Greased The Ignition Switch Cleaned And Greased

Step Eighteen:

Fit the circuit board back onto the top half. There are two plastic tabs that fit in slots on the board. Get those through first. Re-assembling the switch in this manner makes closing the case difficult but helps keep the spring where it should be.

Place the bottom half of the switch case over everything and finesse it back together. Don't press too hard, you'll break the clips or something worse.


Step Nineteen:

From here you simply reverse the whole process. The one notable exception being that you need to get the flexible dust flap on the top steering column shroud piece into the pictured track on re-installation. When you're finished don't forget to lock the steering column by raising the lock lever. It's dangerous to drive with the steering wheel unlatched.

Slot For The Upper Steering Column Shroud Dust Cover Slot For The Upper Steering Column Shroud Dust Cover Slot For The Upper Steering Column Shroud Dust Cover

Replacing The Original Switch:

You can buy a new switch that's supposedly been re-designed and performs better, it costs around $35.00 for a replacement. To install it you can follow the above guide omitting the section regarding opening the switch. After it's been installed follow the re-learn procedure described below. I've heard mixed accounts regarding success, some say the problem comes back over time.


The "White Wire" Fix:

To perform the white wire fix, start your car with the steering wheel shrouding removed. With the car running, cut the white wire that's part of the green connector going to the ignition switch (NOT the white wire with a black stripe) then immediately seal and wrap both of the newly exposed wire ends with electrical tape. This will "fix" the passlock problem once and for all. If you fail to start your car before cutting the white wire you're not going to be happy. I recommend you don't attempt this, it places your BCM in failsafe mode and may have other unforeseen consequences. Your Passlock dash light will always be on. You will have no theft protection. You may fail an emissions test, I haven't heard of this happening but there's a remote possibility depending on what criteria your car must meet. Your insurance company may use it as a reason to deny a claim. I have tested this on my own vehicle and it does seem to be reversible. I can't say whether there's an hidden cost to this, perform at your own risk.


Disabling Passlock Using A Tech2:

I don't have first hand knowledge of this but it's been said that a (former) Saturn dealership can use a factory tool (No, you can't buy one... easily or cheaply at least) to electronically disable Passlock permanently. I've received no indication regarding cost, possibility or consequences. This might affect insurance rates or coverage if this becomes known to your insurer.


Passlock Re-Learn Procedure:

To make your car recognize/accept a replacement switch you must install the switch and attempt to start the car. Most likely your car will refuse to start in the way you encountered before. You then need to wait ten minutes. After ten minutes turn the key to off and wait twenty seconds. Now attempt to start your car again. You will repeat this a two more times for a total of thirty minutes. After the third round of on for ten minutes and off for twenty seconds your car should start from then on. If your car fails to start check your connections and try the procedure again. Keep the doors closed, the radio off and all lights off during this time, you don't want to end up draining the battery and having a new problem to deal with.


Thoughts:

If you were charged for a new battery, starter, ignition switch or a tow I suggest you not let the issue drop, it wasn't your fault or responsibility. GM should take responsibility. I've filed reports with the NHTSA that have thus far gone unanswered. Forgetting the unpleasantness of being stranded in 10 minute increments (And sometimes the car fails to start several times in a row, as long as 40 minutes before) this is a safety issue that should be dealt with accordingly. Calling the problem a safety issue might seem like a stretch but let's think for a moment. What if you're trying to flee an emergency situation (stalker, landslide, fire, flood, etc.) and your car fails to start? What if it's -10 outside and your car won't start? You're now stuck in a freezing car for a minimum of 10 extra minutes, going inside isn't always an option! Leaving aside the safety examples, think of everyday life, today is big meeting day, you're ready to leave and... car won't start. Twice.

I know full well what if feels like to walk to a Saturn Ion and wonder if it will or won't start. It's not a feeling I enjoy.


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