Reader Question: $1,500 Trailblazer?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Dave asks: I have a problem. My boy is broke and I am not a hell of a lot better. Anyway I bought him an 2002 Ford Explorer in January. V8, a real hog on gas. Anyway, this summer it blew out a spark plug (aluminum heads). For towing and repairs that cost $700. Now today, for some reason, the side blew out of the transfer case. That will be another $1,000 to install a new one. Am I sick of this POS. Has that dumb business where it pops by itself into 4WD if a rear wheel slips a bit.

So, a friend says he knows of a good 2002 Chevy Traiblazer for $1,500. But, I read that they have an all aluminum engine. My Gawd for the good old days when stuff was made out of iron, and they used aluminum to make beer cans, and plastic to wrap vegetables.But the boy must have a 4WD, to get to work. Any thoughts you have how this one may work and blow apart like the Explorer?

Hope you can find time to answer. I have all old stuff myself, which I keep going like a 1969 Chevy truck 396. Lovely piece of iron.

My reply: Ford had some issues with spark plug threads in its aluminum V8 heads; however, this is a potential problem with aluminum heads generally. If a spark plug is left in place a very long time (“100,000 mile tune-ups”) it sometimes takes the threads with it when a mechanic tries to remove it. Aluminum threads are also more susceptible to damage from over-tightening.

So, you’re right – iron heads are more forgiving. But they’re heavier and don’t dissipate heat as well. These are the main reasons almost all modern vehicles have aluminum heads (and blocks, too).

One of the best ways to avoid the problem you’re dealing with is to remove the spark plugs before the “100,000 mile” tune-up recommendation. I’d do it at 50,000 miles. Then re-install to the correct torque, not by feel but using a torque wrench. If the manufacturer specifies any type of thread  coating, use it – but if it is not specified, don’t.

On the 4WD: Almost all new/late-model 4WD systems are electronically controlled and some will engage the 4WD when the system thinks it’s warranted, as you’ve described. There is typically a “4WD Auto” setting, but no necessarily.

I’m with you; I much prefer manual 4WD, even to the degree of manual locking hubs. Because I value simplicity and durability over convenience and like to be in 100 percent control of what my vehicle does.

On the Chevy : Yes it has an aluminum V8, the 5.3, probably. It’s not a bad engine, though – and the rest of the driveline (especially the transmission) is better than most. But a $1,500 Trailblazer is likely to be either an incredible find – or a nightmare that found you. It is hard to find a running/operable anything for $1,500 these days – and a 4WD SUV at that price point.

Unless it’s a “friend price,” I’d be very wary – and expect it to be a money-sink close to the edge of the abyss. Worth checking into, certainly. But the price seems very wrong – unless the Chevy is very tired.

I have an alternative recommendation: Seek out an AWD Subaru from the early 2000s or thereabouts. Your money will go a lot farther shopping for an Impreza or Outback than for a 4WD SUV or truck. And the Subaru is a hell of a capable little car. I live in a mountainous, rural, snowy area (we just got 17 inches a week ago)  and every third car that lives here is a Soobie.

The gas mileage will be slightly better, too. And you’ll definitely pay less for tires – and less often.

Just avoid models with the turbocharged engine; the rest are very durable and while not th speediest things in town, make for great low-cost beaters.

Keep us posted!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Dave, find another mechanic! They make a special tool that allows ’em to do the spark plug thread fix without removing the head. With the tool, that job should have cost a FRACTION of what you stated. A FRACTION! (No more than $150). The tool (a kit actually, with an air adapter, etc.) is not expensive, and even many shade-tree mechanics have one. That guy ripped you off, royally.

    And $1000 for the transfer case? They’re a dime a dozen at the junkyard for an old Exploder/F150, and not that expensive to install…..

    And if you think the Exploder sucks…a Trailblazer will make the Exploder look great by comparison.

    Ya sure the kid couldn’t be O-K with just a front-wheel drive car? Unless ya live in North Dakota or something, or on a dirt road that isn’t cleared….it’d probably be just fine. Most Canadians even think 4×4 is unnecessary…. (That being said…both of my vehicles are 4×4- and it rarely snows here!)

    • PS. Dave,

      That Trailblazer has the front differential that goes THROUGH the oil pan! Talk about stoopit designs! Leave it to GM! No shrader valve to check fuel pressure; much more….. I wouldn’t take one if they gave it to me for free.

    • Many shops demand that the head be removed to fix the spark plug threads. That is the official way to do it. But here’s the thing, aluminum chips are soft and there’s an invention called the vacuum cleaner. I’ve helicoiled and put inserts in probably 8-10 times in my life (but not on my cars because I don’t over torque the plugs) and I never removed a cylinder head and never had cylinder wall or valve damage from chips.

      Why? Because I am careful. Lube the tap and do a little at a time and remove the chips from the tap and relube. Now some chips will still fall in the cylinder. Use a vacuum cleaner and get as many chips as you can. Then once everything you can possibly see or get blindly is cleaned out leave the plug out and turn the engine over with the ignition system disabled. This will blow whatever is left, if anything out the spark plug hole. Now put everything together. Done.

      • Yesiree, Brentwood [ 🙂 ] -Those repairs have been done “the easy way” thousands of times without problems. I don’t even know of anyone who still does it by removing the head, ‘cept perhaps the Ford stealerships.

        Funny thing is, I’ve been driving nothing BUT Triton engines [4.6, 5.4, 6.8] in a Town Car; E-series vans; F-series pick-ups and my Excursion, and thankfully, I’ve never had the spark plug thread problem- even though all of my vehicles were bought with well over 100K miles on ’em- including an E350 with a 5.4 that was “professionally maintained” by a municipality before I got it…and it appeared that the guy they were paying to do it never ever changed the #7 spark plug (van had 170K on it when I got it- and had a miss…turns out, that plug was disintegrated! -But thankfully, I managed to get it out with no harm).

        ‘Course, when I put plugs in, I use anti-seize!

        • People say Ford made a bad design with the partial thread but what it is, is a design that doesn’t do well with over torquing. Torque the plugs properly and there will rarely if never be an issue.

          Now the two piece plugs where part of the plug gets stuck, that’s a real problem.

          • Hi Bent,

            A buddy of mine is trying to learn how to work on cars. He won’t buy a torque wrench or even look up torque values in a shop manual… because he hasn’t got one of those, either.

            Yeah. My teeth ache, too!

            • Eric, that reminds me of this nut-job I used to know. He got me do a small job on his vehicle once, as a favor- and I was surprised that he couldn’t do it himself. As I was doing the job, I said to him: “See? What’s so hard about this? You could easily do this”. To which he replied: “Yeah, but every time I do something, I end up stripping bolts or breaking them off!”.

              DUHhh! So don’t tighten everything as tight as you can humanly force it to go! (The guy was truly a mental-case though- who did a lot of other nonsensical things in every aspect of his life).

              I could see maybe an old-timer being reluctant to use a torque wrench- as back in the days of iron and steel, things weren’t quite so delicate; and even for a lot of the delicate stuff- save for head bolts and bearing caps, you could pretty much get close enough just by feel, ’cause there was a wide margin of error…..

              But today, with all of the aluminum, plastic and Chineesium crap? Pffft! Try working on a carbon-fiber bicycle without a torque wrench! That would be an expensive lesson that would quickly show anyone the value of proper torque these days!

            • Well for a lot of things I don’t use one, I use calibrated fingers. But finger calibration takes many years.

              The other day I was asked what to torque some screws to. I came up with the spec of 5Nm for 10.9 class M5 screws. So I go check what I did by feel. 5-6Nm on every one.

              • Yeah, I have to admit that I rarely use a torque wrench, except on critical things, or where the torque determines how freely something moves [But I sure as heck use one on a CF bike!]

                Ya learn pretty early on how much different fasteners will take, and how much to use for aluminum threads vs. iron, etc.

                My by-feel scale runs from “Just a little more than finger-tight”….to “use the jack handle on the ratchet for the needed ooomph, and stop after ya hear a creak”.

                The guy at the place where I used to get crankshafts ground and buy engine rebuild parts was a real pro. I was doing a 20 year-old (at the time) Ford 360 once, and when I went to pick up the crank and new bearings, I asked if he had the torque specs handy for the main and rod caps. He rattled them off, off of the top of his head (And guarantee ya, in the NY metro area, it’d been a LONG time since anyone had rebuilt a 360)- Then he says “Wait” and comes back 5 minutes later with the book, just to make sure. He was right on the money. Ya don’t find guys like that much anymore.

                • Hi Nunz,

                  For me, it’s a matter of whether the item in question is cast iron – or aluminum. And “critical” or not. When I do the spark plugs in the TA, I go by feel. Very hard to screw that up unless you’re a Sasquatch with the ratchet! But intake manifolds, heads… I always use the torque wrench. Also for any critical aluminum/alloy part (e.g., motorcycle engines).

  2. Eric, are you forgetting or unaware of all the head gasket problems with the Subaru?

    My choice for a beater small 4×4 is (and was, we have a 1988) a Jeep XJ Cherokee. But avoid the “Grand” at all costs.


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