1997 Ford Taurus lemon

My girlfriend has a 1997 Ford Taurus, 80K miles. Since buying it slightly used in 1998, she has paid several hundred dollars per year to make the
SERVICE ENGINE SOON light (aka the PAY MECHANIC NOW light) go away, which lights up at least once or twice a year. Rarely has the car exhibited tangible symptoms of a problem-i.e., dying on the road, unusual sounds or behavior, etc. But it sure seems think it's sick a lot.
Unfortunately, Arizona MVD no longer cares about the actual emissions from a vehicle; they care about lights. If your SERVICE ENGINE SOON light is on, you fail, regardless of whether the reason has to do with emissions. (Perhaps all states have the same rule now.) Therefore, she's had to pay whatever price necessary to make the light go away in order to get her yearly tags.
The latest problem seems to be threefold: bad gas gage sensor, bad throttle position sensor, and bad "accident" sensor. Repair cost will be $500. (As for the gas sensor, my girlfriend indeed said her gas gage wasn't working properly. I don't know about the TPS other than that her car has been driving fine. The "accident" sensor is allegedly something that'll shut down the car if it gets in an accident. Anyone know about this? I don't have too many details, as I didn't talk to the mechanic personally.)
Now, as in the past, the problems are usually attributed to sensors. So, does this mean that problems are usually electronic rather than mechanical? When a sensor senses a problem it could just mean that the sensor itself is malfunctioning, right? (Hope my questions make sense.)
I'm wondering whether all these problems are the symptoms rather than the cause. Could an electrical short just be causing various sensors to fail quite often? If so, is the OBD2 diagnostic not sophisticated enough to see the cause behind the symptom?
I understand that cars age and you must pour money into them. However, my 1996 Saturn station wagon has had twice the miles and half the problems of my girlfriend's 1997 Taurus. She really wants to dump the thing. Are Tauruses of that generation just lemons?
Ethan
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>> light (aka the PAY MECHANIC NOW light) go away, which lights up at least once or >> twice a year. Judging from your wealth of questions re: basic automotive mechanical/electrical troubleshooting it seems you and your girlfriend don't have much of a choice but to continue paying the mechanics to fix your car, if you are not comfortable driving around with the light on. If you don't want to fix your cars that's what a mechanic is for, and why their services are valued.
Otherwise, at least try asking the mechanic to write down the codes for you, "for reference". If he won't do it, go to an Autozone and get them to report them for free. You can post them here if you want to solicit opinions and maybe ways to fix the problems, which seems the case.
My wife's 2000 Taurus wagon had the light on for about six months, but I figured it was for a bad DPFE sensor. Code was P0401. I spent $100 on a code reader for ODBII to hook up to a PC. You will easily part with this much $$$ for a mechanic to just to touch your car.
Googling the code above produced a wealth of information regarding the high failure rate of these sensors on many Ford models/years. I took a chance and for $30 I replaced the sensor. No more light.
Bamm!
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I am assuming that the "accident sensor" which you are talking about is the inertia switch. Its purpose is to cut power to the gas pump in case of collision, so your friend won't perish in a ball of fire from a ruptured fuel line. These are quite sensitive, and for a good reason. If your friend is in the habit of hitting curbs or driving over speed bumps at excessive speed, the switch may trip. The good news is that there is no need to 'pay the mechanic' in order to reset it. All it takes is pushing a button, and the user's manual (which your friend is well advised to read) tells exactly where to find it. If the switch keeps tripping for no reason at all, it's worth taking a look if it's still solidly attached and not rattling around, or perhaps accidentally being hit by something, before replacing it. Anyway, it's an easy to replace and very inexpensive item (around $15).
I have never seen one of those fail on my cars, but the TPS is an electro-mechanical device, which moves all the time, and ultimately wears down. It's a farily inexpensive (around $50) and easy to replace item. If your mechanic diagnosed its failure correctly, it's well worth replacing, or your friend will experience drivability problems or poor idling, sooner or later. Unless the wire harnesses or connectors have been abused by someone who does not know what they are doing, it's very unusual to have a short mimicking for a TPS failure.
A fuel gauge malfunction won't set the MIL ("Service Engine Soon"). The failure might be of the sender (in the fuel tank) or of the gauge itself. Either costs around $60. Judging by the overall $500 quote that you mentioned, it sounds like the gas tank is coming off. Or perhaps, that it's time for a second opinion...
The computerized self-diagnostic capabilities are quite powerful and getting better all the time. A brand new vehicle will be smarter than your friend's 1997 model. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how far a computer can diagnose, factoring cost into the mix. Typically it will point to a symptom or a subsystem, leaving the exact defective component to be determined by someone who understands how things work and is equipped with the proper tools. In the grand scheme of things, that's a lot cheaper than building all those tools and diagnostic intelligence right into the vehicle. Things would look a lot different if your friend's Taurus was flying in outer space, where a service call requires a space shuttle flight...
No way to comment on your generic complaint that this car is a lemon, because of the frequent 'check engine light' incidents, as you gave no details. One or two of them might have been as simple as a loose gas cap (did I mention reading the manual yet?)
Your state, just like mine, is using the built-in OBDII monitors instead of measuring actual emissions from the tailpipe. In my opinion, it's a good policy. Though the vehicle cannot really measures its own emissions, it's doing a great job of identifying problems that CAUSE increased emissions. Reading the status monitors stored in your engine's computer is a lot faster, cheaper and more accurate than exercising your car on a dynamometer through a variety of simulated driving conditions. And the abundance of AWD vehicles would require an expensive four-wheel synchronized dymo to even run such tests.

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Here's an update. Paraphrased from the receipts:
Repairs done 11-04:
Dianostic and labor: $200
P0460 Fuel level Sens Circuit: $93
As for the question of the gas tank-yes, they said they had to remove it to do the work. As for the inertia switch, it seems that was a phantom-the mechanic thought that was part of the problem initially but later conceded it wasn't. After these repairs, the SERVICE ENGINE SOON light came on again two days later. We took the car back today, and repairs were as follows:
Repairs done 11-09:
P1120 TP sens out of range low
P1125 TP sen circuit intermittent
Parts: $80
Labor: $60
The mechanic said this still might not be the end of it. If the light comes on again, he suggests we have the PCM replaced to the tune of $300.
Yes, it is good advice that my girlfriend read her manual. But between her job, volunteer work, and hobbies, she has little time to become car-savvy. She's something of a girly girl too. I try to help her when I can, with my limited knowledge, but my own job sends me out of town for long periods. We do have both the owner's manual and a Haynes manual, and I'll be reading up on them. I'm tempted to buy that $100 code reader too. Thanks for the help.
Ethan
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Neither of those are major problems, and I wouldnt say they are indicative of bad design.. the TPS is a wear part and fairly common failure.
Bad part is that you might have easily done that fix yourself. Same with the crash/intertia fuel cut-off., if it comes to that.
First thing to do is either get the readout tool and learn to use it, or get codes read at autozone or other store that does it free.... then come on here.
Sometimes the car will be just fine until you can figure out what to do, other times it's imperative to fix the problem ASAP
--
Yeh, I'm a Krusty old Geezer, staving off dementia here..DEAL with it!

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I've never had a TPS fail. In fact no one in my family has (bunches of Fords, lots of years, many many miles). However, mechanics often replace them because almost any other failure that causes a performance problem will also set the TPS error code as well. The Ford Diagnostic procedures indicate that you should repair all other problems and clear all codes before replacing the TPS. Few mechanics do this. In their defense, TPS are cheap and easy to replace. It makes a lot more sense to replace one if the code is set, than to clear all the other codes, only to have the Customer come back a couple of days later becasue the TPS really was bad (in addition to all the other problems).
Ed
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I've had two fail on my cars... both 'scratchy' in the idle, or barely open position.. but those were both mid-late 80's... the adjustable type.
None since.

--
Yeh, I'm a Krusty old Geezer, staving off dementia here..DEAL with it!

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Backyard Mechanic wrote:

Me too... '86 Tempo & '87 Taurus. Both issues pointed straight to the TPS, replacement fixed both.
Rob

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I have no clue what 'mechanics often do' with the TPS, as I am not one of them. However, The P1120 and P1125 that the OP listed indicate voltage falling out of the normal range of the TPS wiper travel. This is purely electrical -- could be corroded connectors, frayed wires, or even defective PCM, but definitely a malfunction of the TPS circuit, not some other failure 'also' setting the TPS code.

The Ford Diagnostic procedures indicate

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Today I had my girlfriend take my car to work so that I could take a look under the hood of her Taurus, do some basic hose and fluid checks, and familiarize myself with the location of the TPS that the mechanic had replaced. I found something disturbing. The coolant reservoir was dry save for perhaps a quarter inch of fluid at the tapered bottom. I regret that neither my girlfriend nor I had checked the coolant level before taking the vehichle to the mechanic. (Flame us if you wish!)
Could the lack of coolant have anything to do with the original "SERVICE ENGINE SOON" issue? Could they have drained it and forgot to refill it?
I called the mechanic and asked about the lack of coolant. He said he had never checked the coolant level, and that it would have nothing to do with any of the OBD2 codes.
I was under the impression that when mechanics are dealing with undiagnosed problems they generally check some basic fluid levels and hoses, just like I do with my own Saturn. Is this not the case?
I'll add some coolant and see if it holds. The hoses look good and there appear to be no leaks elsewhere.
Ethan

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