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Chasing down an intermittent nonstarter

Chasing down an intermittent nonstarter

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Dear Car Talk:

I have a well-maintained, 2008 Ford Fusion with 256,000 miles.

Sometimes, the car does not start on first, second, third or more turn of the ignition key. I’ll pump the brake and keep at it, and finally it starts. There’s no signs of life during these failed attempts (no sound at all).

I had the battery replaced a couple of months ago, but it’s still happening. Is it the starter? Loose connections?

I’m getting ready for a long road trip and don’t want to be stranded. I’d like to give the dealership some hints about what to look for in case the car starts fine when I take it in. What should they check? — Christie

Well, with 256,000 miles on the car, it could be a lot things. It’s like when a 96-year-old comes into the doctor’s office, and the doctor asks “Is anything OK?”

I’m going to guess it’s not the battery, since that was just replaced. And I’m also going to guess that when they changed out the battery a few months ago, they cleaned and tightened all the cables. So it’s probably not that, either.

It could be the starter motor. This is classic behavior of a failing starter. It could also be the ignition switch. The ignition switch is what you stick your key into. And after a few million uses, it can wear out, and fail intermittently.

In addition, there are a couple of safety features that prevent you from starting the car and immediately plowing through your garage door. One is called the neutral safety switch. That’s a switch that prevents the car from starting if the shifter is in anything other than Park or Neutral.

As an experiment, next time the car won’t start, with the transmission in Park, try forcefully jiggling the shifter with one hand while holding the key in the crank position with the other. If nothing else, it’s good aerobic exercise.

If you can get the car to start that way in Park or Neutral, that points to a bad Neutral Safety Switch.

Your Fusion also has a brake-starter interlock, which prevents the car from starting unless your foot is on the brake. If that switch is out of position, or worn out, that could also cause intermittent starting issues.

So this is good news for your mechan-ic, Christie. He’ll have plenty to choose from, in terms of where to get the money for next month’s boat payment.

And you’re right to get it addressed before your upcoming road trip. These “intermittent” problems tend to become more “mittent” over time, and then permanent. So it certainly could strand you.

If you’re not able to confirm it’s the neutral safety switch by using the experiment I describe, ask your mechanic to take his best guess and try replacing something.

You’ll have to hope that he guesses right, or that if he guesses wrong, it fails again before your bon voyage party.

If it were me, I’d probably start with the brake interlock switch first, since that’s the cheapest thing to try. If that doesn’t fix it, I’d try a new starter motor. I’d try the ignition switch last.

And each time you’re in there for one of these repairs, don’t stop yourself from perusing the new car showroom. Good luck, Christie.

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