By on May 24, 2019

Chris Writes:

Greetings Sajeev!

We’ve just been informed that our 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth has 180-180-180-20 compression and likely needs a new engine. Options are somewhat clouded by a remaining note of about $6,000.

Looks like this boils down to:

  1. Get out, despite the sunk costs and remaining note, and get into a
    more conventional car.
  2. Go the used engine route to save a few $$.
  3. Source a new engine and commit for ~5/6 years +

The SU (spousal unit) is the primary driver and adores the car. I drive it infrequently and find it tedious. It has about 80,000 miles and has been OK on other maintenance issues. All work will be done by a pro – this is so far over my head, mechanically, that there’s just no way – and the car is a daily driver, so commute/mobility issues create additional urgency.

Help! 

Before Sajeev’s slow-ass self could respond…

Greetings, again, Sajeev:

This is the epilogue of the Fiat 500 Abarth engine swap saga that we exchanged email about last week.

As I was thinking over the options before me, I realized what I really needed was a better diagnosis. I spoke with the service writer at the Fiat dealership nearby and he assured me that the engine replacement was at minimum an over-reaction, at maximum a tragic mistake-in-waiting. Clearly needing to see the car to make a conclusive decision, he said that the need for any internal engine work, or even head/valve work, was remote, and the issue was most likely a sensor or a solenoid that was inoperative due to…we’ll let you know.

I called the independent shop where this saga started and urged a slow-down in this seeming rush to judgement. The service writer – who I’ve worked with for nearly 20 years – started at square one and found a cracked insulator on one spark plug. After a borescope inspection of the no-compression cylinder and replacement of all 4 plugs, then resetting various codes, we’re back in business. A pre-emptive oil change was also performed just to be sure that fuel contamination would not be an issue. 7,000 RPM and lots ‘o boost make that very prudent step one I could endorse without much deliberation.

The verdict is in: the car runs like new, starts and idles fine, and runs to the redline – and full boost – eagerly. A win after much hand-wringing.

The big lesson is, a relationship with the shop helps, taking charge helps, getting the facts (i.e. a full and factual diagnosis) before any repair is started really helps.

Sajeev concludes:

Son, I wish every automotive malady (both here and in my own garage) solved itself so effortlessly. Perhaps I should add something

You should ask that shop where the “180-180-180-20 compression” test result came from.  Because that’s a seriously misguided diagnosis if new plugs fixed a (seemingly obvious?) misfire. Since you have a long history with them (or just the service writer?) they should be made aware they put you through a fair bit of stress for no good reason. And I mean no good reason at all: because I’m having a hard time finding a correlation between low compression readings being resolved by new spark plugs.

Perhaps their compression tester bit the dust after testing the last cylinder?

So to you, Best and Brightest: what’s up with that initial compression test?

[Image: FCA]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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72 Comments on “Piston Slap: All Abarth That Bad Diagnosis!...”


  • avatar
    Sundance

    How about repairing the engine?

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    So what symptoms was it originally exhibiting that sent it in for the compression test? Was it a misfire, which was then solved by replacing the bad spark plug?

    If I had to guess I’d guess that the last cylinder is hard to reach and the technician didn’t get the compression tester fully connected to the cylinder.

    For now, keep driving it.

    Edit: if the symptoms reoccur, and the compression test again reveals the same bad cylinder, pull the head before replacing the engine, a valve job may fix the issue.

    • 0 avatar

      ^ Technician error most likely. The OP was wise to seek a “second opinion” on the issue. Indeed, as Sajeev mentioned, it would be nice if all of these types of maladies were so easily solved – better yet without the added stress the OP experienced.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      I also assume it was a sloppy compression test. They honestly should have done a relative compression test first anyways, current-clamping the starter, something as dramatic as the apparent 180-180-180-20 should have been very obvious and definitive.

      Good quality diagnostics are hard to find, and can save a lot of money and heartache.

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        Yeah – 20 on one cylinder, that turned out to be false positive? I’d avoid that shop in the future, and maybe give them some stinging online reviews. They’re either incompetent, or crooks.

        I would say Better Business Bureau, but since he didn’t actually let them repair it, it would never go anywhere.

      • 0 avatar

        I learned as a teenager that if you get a bad compression test always redo it. I was working at a boat dealership when I was 18 and had done many compression tests since I was about 15. But for some reason this one came in real low on two cylinders, and I didn’t recheck it. I then freaked out the sales manager who had taken the boat in on trade. Of course I reran it after the freak out and it was fine. Ooops.

  • avatar
    cbrworm

    Sounds like operator error – the tech being the operator. If you see compression results like that, you pull your equipment and check the sealing surfaces – including and junctions between the tester end and the gauge end and try again on that cylinder and a known good cylinder. You also look into the operating principles of that new-fangled engine to see if any electronically activated valve oddness could be causing your poor reading.

    I’ve done compression checks on engines that reported excessively low compression in one or more cylinder to find out it was a one time deal – possibly due to dry rings or a valve hung open the slightest bit during cranking with no effect of actual operation.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Any efficient and modern shop should be doing relative compression tests with an oscilloscope to begin with anyways.

      • 0 avatar
        VWGTI

        Maybe in 1975- no one uses scopes anymore. Scopes do not work with direct spark or coil pack ignition systems. I see really nice Sun scopes for sale (cheap)all the time and would love to have one for old times sake, but I don’t own anything with a distributor.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          “no one uses scopes anymore. Scopes do not work with direct spark or coil pack ignition systems”

          What in God’s name are you talking about?

          I’m talking about a modern scan tool with built in oscilloscope capability.

          And yes Scoutdude you’re right, I got ahead of myself. If there was a stored code for misfires, it should have been trivial to isolate it to a particular cylinder. Once that was done, if compression was indeed suspected, it would have taken about 1 minute to setup a relative compression test and remove any doubt.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            Relative compression test: voltage clamp the starter, read graph. It’s literally faster than pulling a plug, let alone all 4, even on something as straightforward as an I4 without an intake manifold getting in the way. Yes I suppose you’d want to inspect the plug first for the misfire before you started suspecting compression issues so the manual test makes sense there since it’s already out. But after a 20PSI reading I’d be putting it back in and running relative compression for a quick and easy gut-check. I dunno, I’m playing armchair diagnostician at this point based on how I see a number of mobile diagnostics guys do stuff (minimally invasive, minimum wrench turning, maximum efficiency). These are guys knocking out 3-4 diagnosis per hour at $150-200 a pop all day long. They don’t have time or inclination to do digging in if they’re don’t need to.

          • 0 avatar
            VWGTI

            The ‘scope’ I’m referring to was officially known as an ‘Ignition Analyzer’- it allowed a trained mechanic to look at ignition events in real time. They were built by Sun, Marquette, and Bear. IMHO, Sun was the best by a long shot. A large CRT screen showed various patterns from which all sorts of useful info could be gleaned. Cap flashovers, sticky advance weights, wobbly distributor shafts, fouled plugs, bouncing points, and lots more- all the stuff that could be hard to find when the engine wasn’t running. More sophisticated scopes had a power balance feature that would ground out the coil, one cylinder at a time in the firing order, and would print out a chart and graph showing power loss for each jug. Quicker, easier to do, and more repeatable than compression testing. Such a scope would also have a built-in leakdown tester. I used a Sun analyzer daily, back in the day.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            I think you mean amp clamp the power wire to the starter, though fact is you can do it right at the battery cable. As you stated elsewhere compression with this many miles would typically be the least likely suspect after spark and fuel. So yeah I’d be going for live data and Mode $06 before and then almost certainly go to spark next. Oh so many years ago when I had my mobile auto repair business while I did mainly do retail I had a number of shops that would call me in for diagnostics when they would get stuck.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        No they wouldn’t, the reason to do that instead of a compression test is because you are working on an engine where spark plug access is difficult at best. The miss code would have pinpointed the cylinder and with 80k on the clock pulling the plug and taking a look at it would come before a compression test. Particularly if the service writer had does their job properly, asked the customer the right questions and put the relevant information on the RO.

        Once that spark plug is out and if there is zero indication that ignition is the problem then it might be time to think about compression as the problem and since that plug is already out check the compression on that cylinder and that cylinder alone.

        However before that spark plug was pulled a properly trained tech in a modern shop would switch over to mode $06 and look at the individual cylinders miss fire counts and see if they increase smoothly or if the cylinder is occasionally able to make something happen. With a cracked insulator on the plug, chances are at idle it was able to occasionally make something happen but as soon as the load is increased have it totally died.

  • avatar
    TR4

    I’ve had my compression tester fail twice over the years. They have a special valve core in the inlet port with a very weak spring and they are not as durable as a regular core.

    However, a decent mechanic would have followed the compression test with a leakdown test to isolate the cause of leakage. This would have shown little/no leakage and suggest further investigation of the problem, which I’m guessing was a misfire.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      This. It was an incomplete diagnosis and a jump to conclusion. The next step after finding low compression is to find out *why* and where it’s going.

      A sharp writer wouldn’t let a tech get away with a sloppy diagnosis like that. Consider finding a new shop.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah agree new engine seemed a bit extreme even if it was really low. Need to figure out the root cause. But I see alot of shops that still jump to parts changing. It’s one of the reasons I still do so much on my own. I have a few guys my family and I use that are pretty good but they still do dumb things from time to time.

  • avatar
    iNeon

    Maybe buying a commuter car next time is something to think about.

    Nothing about the Fiat 1.4t is average, and people shouldn’t expect anything but to be a doting ‘victim’ when they’ve got such a specialty engine.

    I sold mine at 50k trouble-free miles because I was tired of specialty parts and services. Those cars are great fun. They’re a technological marvel— I don’t have time to play Geordi LaForge anymore.

    Specialty plugs every 30k. Just silly.

  • avatar
    gtem

    FWIW My brother and his mobile diagnostics buddies are seeing a lot of these Fiat “multi-air” motors with valvetrain issues, used car lots pick these things up for nothing at auction and are getting burned a lot of the time. Generally speaking a throw-away car.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      They’re fairly simple and easy to work on if you have the tools and knowledge. Most issues are related to incorrect oil viscosity or poor maintenance / ignorance.

      • 0 avatar
        iNeon

        ^^ same

        The car uses 5w40 oil and platinum plugs at 30k intervals. Those two things alone increase anyone’s chances of getting one that’s been serviced— but is still ill.

        These are good engines. They just require specialty parts.

        Edit: pretty sure they’re iridium, not platinum plugs.

        • 0 avatar
          Featherston

          +3 to gtem, danio3834, and iNeon for these insights.

          Isn’t 30,000 miles about 1/3 to 1/4 of what the service life of an iridium plug should be in a “normal” engine?

          I’m not actively shopping, but a slushbox–I know, I know–Abarth is intriguing to me for the type of driving I do.

          • 0 avatar
            MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

            I drove an autobox Abarth and it was quite fun!

          • 0 avatar
            Featherston

            @ MiataReallyIsTheAnswer – Tip of the cap to people who prefer a traditional manual 100% of the time, but I like an auto if I’m crawling in city traffic, which is the vast majority of my driving. As such, an automatic Abarth would be my choice over a manual-only Fiesta ST.

      • 0 avatar
        ravenuer

        If you have “the tools and knowledge”, you could fix the Space Shuttle.

        • 0 avatar

          True enough. But fixing things is not as black art as some people make it seem. Although there are plenty of people who don’t have the right mindset to make it work. Research and patience help alot.

        • 0 avatar
          Featherston

          Do we work together, ravenuer? A decade- ago, my company got bought by a competitor. A comparison table was drawn up for our then-industry-leading product and our new overlords’ decidely-not-industry-leading analog.

          Our product manangers had drawn up a very honest list of yeses and nos for various functionalities. Their product managers listed “unlimited” for the same functionalities, based on the reasoning that you could redevelop the underlying technology (which of course would require unlimited resources to effect).

          I told my colleagues, “Well, based on their logic, you could say that my parents’ Toyota is capable of a mission to the moon. We’d have to make some modifications, but it *is* possible.”

    • 0 avatar

      My father has a 1.4 in a dart. His has been fine at 50k miles but the maintenance (which he follows with the dealer) is quite expensive considering what the cars worth.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        This actually sounds remarkably similar to the (Fiat based) Yugos: no one buying a dirt cheap economy car wanted to fill it with premium as specified, or remembered to do the 40k timing belt changes. If you did all that, mechanically speaking apparently (the engines anyways) they held up just fine.

        • 0 avatar

          Yeah he bought it new and likes the car so it’s worth it for him but if you were the 2nd owner and paid 9k for it I doubt your putting up with the $500 36k mile service. People pick on it but the car is very roomy for 36 mpg (his current average) compact. It is also a better highway cruiser then most compacts. His is a 6spd manual and it’s fun to drive but a bit tiring as a daily driver as it has 1980’s style turbo lag. His only real complaint other then the maintenance cost is that the fabric seats are cheap and show dirt like crazy.

        • 0 avatar
          VWGTI

          Wow, is that ever wrong. The Yugo was a copy of the FIAT 127- not a great car to start with.
          I knew a service manager for a Yugo dealership- those cars were built with zero quality control and a profound lack of knowledge regarding strength of materials. Low mileage crankshaft failures were common, as were exploding gearboxes, failed driveshafts, electrical fires, actually, if a part or system could fail, it would. I’d like to see where it says the Yugo required high-octane fuel, because such fuel did not exist behind the Iron Curtain.

  • avatar
    CoastieLenn

    How does a broken spark plug insulator yield poor compression? Spark plugs have to be removed to do a compression check on each cylinder. The compression testing gauge gets inserted in place of the plug.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      That’s what I’d like to know.

      • 0 avatar
        StudeDude

        If the cylinder is not getting fire from the plug, the injector keeps pumping gas into the cylinder which dilutes the oil needed for compression and causes a “gas wash” situation. The original shop should have squirted some oil into the cylinder after getting the low reading to see if the compression changed and gone from there.

    • 0 avatar
      IBx1

      That was my thought, there’s no other way to check the compression.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I don’t see any mention of what issue prompted the compression test.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      What strike me as horribly wrong is that I would expect the ignition problem to have thrown a code that would have stuck out like a sore thumb and would have been verified before even *thinking* of a compression test.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        this. 20 psi compression *should* have triggered a flashing CEL (repeated misfire.)

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        On my previous car I had a bad misfire caused by a failing coil pack, no CEL appeared. The misfire was quite pronounced to where I limped the car to a repair shop. A persistent misfire is a good way to roast a catalytic converter.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        bunkie it probably DID throw a code, that code being “multiple misfire, cylinder #X” But from there, a misfire could indeed come from a number of different things: lack of ignition, lack of fuel, lack of compression. Statistically, lack of compression would definitely be the LEAST likely cause, although with modern DI motors coking up valves more, it is more of a problem than in the past years of fuel injection.

  • avatar
    iNeon

    They were the original plugs, weren’t they?

    • 0 avatar
      IBx1

      I’d hope not, the Abarth needs plugs every 30k.

      • 0 avatar
        iNeon

        Not just the Abarth— any Chrysler with a Fiat 1.4t.

        I’m going to start combing sales channels for a 1.4t Renegade 6-speed with these problems. Deals will be great!

        My Dart Aero(with the Madness tune) was a beast of a mid-sized sedan. Breathed fire when necessary. Got 52mpg once on a windows-down drive to soFla from Birmingham. Lifetime average of 38(I hypermile when I’m not hammering them) and it was as big as a Taurus from 1987.

        I kind of miss that little turbo car. Needed more ride-height and ended up in a N/A 4×4 that makes just as many weird whizzes, bangs and whirrs by just as much mechanical wizardry.

        Its the proverbial blessing and curse to buy technologically-advanced cars— but someone’s gotta keep the state-of-the-art moving forward.

        If ever there were an Oldsmobile man in 2019…

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Maybe shop is O.K., but BAD ‘mechanic’ .

    I recently got a 60 # compression reading on an old single cylinder Motocycle, did the valves and installed a new piston, it still ran poorly so I re did the compression test and Lo ! by brandy new compression tester was no freaking good =8-^ .

    As mentioned, check and double check your work .

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Since the issue is already fixed, I won’t speak on that outside of the fact that you should seriously question your trust of the first shop after that bad diagnosis.

    However, one point the OP brought out is quite similar to my own spouse’s; she absolutely loved her Fiat 500 and didn’t want to give it up–but she needed something bigger for our traveling (our other vehicle was no longer trustworthy for road trips) and I’d just acquired a ’97 Ford Ranger that wouldn’t let us carry the dog inside when we visited the in-Laws, along with a manual transmission she couldn’t operate. Since then I’ve replaced the Ranger with an extended-cab Colorado which can handle the road trips and she really wants to find a way back into a Fiat 500.

    My point? If the spouse wants to keep it, do your damndest to keep them happy.

  • avatar
    statikboy

    Was that title supposed to be a play on All About The Bass?

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    This OP reminds me of something I’ve put on TTAC previously.
    Back in the Malaise era we got a phone call at the shop. A customer had referred a friend who’s Volvo wagon was in another shop with a diagnosis of a “blown head gasket”.
    To summarize a long story; my then business partner bought the Volvo and when he went to fix it found the compression to be OK and no coolant or oil leakage from the head gasket. However the engine would only run on 3 cylinders. Some checking found no fuel going to one of the injectors. One of the plungers in the fuel distributor was stuck. That was repaired. His wife drove the car for a year, but they were not happy with the fuel mileage so they sold it.
    Six months later he got a call from the, then, very angry buyer. The engine had started miss-firing again and the buyer ended up at the shop that had made the incorrect diagnosis more than a year before. Instead of questioning that, the gasket replacement was approved, done and paid for, but the Volvo still ran on only 3 cylinders. That’s when the angry phone call happened. A similar fuel injection problem was fixed and the wagon went away never to be seen again.
    Why the guy never went back to the other shop and told them, “I just paid you guys to fix my car and it’s running the same as when I brought it in after XX $$$. You should fix it correctly.” I will never know.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    What if an engine replacement was needed?
    Would you have recommended a used engine? This would have been my recommendation. Definitely not a new from the dealership engine.
    There is a new zero mile engine and transmission on ebay for $3800. Not a bad option there.

  • avatar
    Morea

    Take it from someone who owns three Italian cars, never, ever, under any circumstances, and I can’t emphasize this enough, take your car to a mechanic who does not routinely work on Italian cars.

    • 0 avatar
      iNeon

      The only difference on these cars is that they use oil to actuate the top-end.

      Multiair is a difference, but the bits are robust and the supporting systems simple.

      There’s no magic here. Its mechanics, mechanics which were invented by mindful engineers that left us all the information we need to keep these things running— same as any other car. They’re all a little different.

      Your suggestion that only a ‘euro’ minded mechanic should work on these things is exactly why ‘euro’ mechanics charge what they do— its also why they’re impossible people once the customer asks a question.

      I don’t have patience for anyone that supports trade secrets remaining secret. My degree is in Art History— I was trained to tell all the secrets and to not profit from the process. :)

      • 0 avatar
        Morea

        Just three rules to remember:

        1) Don’t let your dentist put a new roof on your house.
        2) Don’t let your roofing contractor work on your teeth.
        3) Don’t let your Ford mechanic work on your Fiat.

        It’s all really quite simple.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    What makes the Fiat 1.4 spark plugs need 30k replacement? I took the ones out of my GM 3.6 at 80,000 (mostly to put moly antiseize on the threads because I was afraid of them locking in forever) and the electrodes looked almost new.

  • avatar

    OP here:

    As many have pointed out, any shop that had such a huge swing-and-a-miss on such a basic thing should get the same treatment that the Cylons got on Battlestar Galactica – out the airlock door, and good riddance.

    However….

    The service writer – who was getting iced out by the shop owner, for reasons that they’ll need to work on themselves – was a stand-up guy about getting things back on course. I noticed that he was calling from his personal cell phone, and not the shop’s landline, as we moved towards our resolution.

    The technician was beyond apologetic, and offered a very heartfelt apology for all of the chasing around that ensued from the whiff. The shop owner waived the fee, charging us only for an oil change – something that I insisted on after the presumed fuel contamination from endless cranking while the car would not start.

    Specifics: As the nights grew cooler in November the car became hard to start. It would display a CEL code warning, which would just as mysteriously un-appear, only to cycle through the whole deal all over again. Finally, a no-start. Boo!

    So – yes, this never should have happened. Ultimately, the shop did what I asked and went back to square one and slowed down and figured it out. Snicker if you must about getting what you pay for, but the shop rate at the indy is about 1/3 of the rate at the dealer, and parts are OE at the indy. So on balance I’m comfortable with the indy shop. My eyes are in the wide-open position, though, as we look ahead to what comes next.

    Other – maintenance has been by-the-book. The original plugs were not in at 80,000 miles. Overall the car is not super-fussy and it has its charms, primarily that it’s light and has great brakes. My 928 seems like a locomotive in comparison, but that’s my joint.

    Happy wife = happy life.

  • avatar
    AtoB

    Unless something has changed in compression tester tech the tester REPLACES the spark plug for the test. A bad plug would not be present in the cylinder being tested therefore its impossible this would be the fault. I’m glad your car is repaired but take the diagnosis with a healthy dose of scepticism.

    Its more likely the plug and tester were loose, maybe sloppy threads, or not torqued properly. The replacement plug might have had some grease put on to seal the threads.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    500 owner was a victim of outright fraud.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Confirmation bias. Your hunch says bad compression in one cylinder, causing you to accept a freakishly low reading instead of verifying your work.


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