Does Your Saturn Ion Fail To Start Sometimes?
Even With A Good Battery? There’s A Reason.
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.
Update: Since this guide was originally written the bulk of the ignition switches used in the Saturn ION line were recalled for other safety reasons (like having a weak spring causing the car to unexpectedly stall with loss of power braking and steering). There is a good chance you can bring your car to a GM dealer and have your switch replaced at no cost.
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
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
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.
T15 Torx Bit
Small Flat Blade Screwdriver
Quality Dielectric Grease
70% Isopropyl Alcohol
A Few Q-Tip Cotton Swabs
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.
Lower the lever that locks the steering column. Move the steering
column to it lowest position this will make all subsequent steps easier.
Locate the three screws that retain the plastic steering column
shroud on the underneath side of the steering wheel. Use a 7mm socket to
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.
Slide the left lower plastic piece straight down.
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.
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.
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.
Press the green tab on the connector and slide it out.
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.
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.
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.
Using a small flat bladed screw driver gently depress the retainer
clips. While doing so try to keep the case separated as you go.
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.
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.
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. Coffee filters also make good lint free wipes.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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