The Rattle Your Cage Report

January 7th, 2016

Call me obsessive-compulsive, or perhaps hyper-critical, but I just cannot stand the sound of rattles and squeaks in cars, or any motor vehicle. Indeed, I always cringed a bit when I heard the din on a typical New York City bus when going over large bumps. Since I pretty much grew up riding buses and subways in New York, you can imagine I must have had an annoying childhood, but I learned to endure it. It’s not that these vehicles would be subjected to the sort of fine tuning to which we’d subject our own personal vehicles.

Understand, I’m not expecting perfection. I know that any combination of metal, plastic, rubber and other parts, when they come together, can create all sorts of noises. Some of those noises, such as the soft rumble over a bump or the engine whirring or roaring, can be downright pleasant. It’s part of the sound of a well-functioning machine. Sometimes the noisier the better, and auto makers are known to enhance the sounds made by a relatively quiet engine courtesy of the infotainment system. It’s done sometimes with hybrid or electric car to make them sound a little more “normal.” Yes, I am serious!

A few squeaks here and there, even a rattle, might occur over large or repetitive bumps. You can’t expect perfection, But I’ve driven some vehicles where the unwanted sounds got so loud, I would sometimes feel I was at the steering wheel of an old truck where things were coming loose.

Curiously, the noises have been worst in the more expensive cars I’ve bought or leased. I remember two occasions where I leased a Mercedes Benz in the 1980s, when the monthly payments were actually lower than typical mid-sized sedans of the period. I took advantage of high resale prices to put myself in what I perceived to be the hands of luxury.

But in both cases, the cars arrived, after dealer prep, with loud squeaks and rattles emerging from the dash. Unfortunately with such noises, it may not happen 100% of the time, and thus may not be present when you visit the dealer. Intermittent symptoms are especially frustrating, because the dealer can’t begin to make an effort to fix the problem without being able to duplicate it. Worse, they aren’t always interested in dealing with rattles and squeaks, although manufacturers will usually cover such repairs in the early days of ownership.

What make the process doubly difficult is the fact that, even if you hear the problem, locating the source may be difficult. The possible dashboard rattle may actually be traced to an inside door panel, or something inside the door. If it’s not two plastic parts rubbing together, maybe a screw has come loose, or a small part was left there by mistake at the assembly plant. But sometimes, the problem is well known. There may even be service bulletins on the matter, but dealers will only undertake repairs if you complain.

That takes us to the white 1993 Saturn SL2 I bought in late 1992. This was GM’s better idea for a car that you could buy at a fixed price, without the need to undergo the usual dealer song-and-dance. On paper, the car promised lots, up to 34 miles per gallon, and peppy performance. Seats were comfortable, the radio and air conditioning worked well, but oh that buzzing sound from the front doors!

Well, the dealer knew what to do, which was to remove the inside door panels and shore up the insides with strategically placed foam fittings to silence the vibration. This was evidently a manufacturer-mandated fix. You wonder why it wasn’t done at the factory. Perhaps in the rush to get these cars to market, or maybe GM hoped to save a few dollars on each unit with the expectation that the problem would be inconsistent or customers wouldn’t complain.

And please don’t get me started about what Ford did in the 1970s with the infamous Pinto’s gas tank and connectors to shave a few dollars from production costs.

Back to my Saturn: It took the tech an hour or two to sure up the insides of the door panels, after which the car lived its useful life without delivering any further untoward noises. Despite its relatively small size, I was able to pack up the family, and drive with relative comfort on a 2,375 mile trip from my New Jersey residence to our new home in Arizona, near Phoenix.

A few years later, I traded it in for another SL2. This time, it was clear Saturn had paid attention, as there were no unusual squeaks or rattles that I noticed. Indeed, dealer prep was almost perfect, and I only visited the service department for oil changes and other routine maintenance. So you can say I was sort of sold on GM.

But when I checked out a new Saturn a few years later, I was sorely disappointed. GM had fixed what didn’t need to be fixed. The seats were uncomfortable, and I decided to trade up.

So I leased a 1999 Cadillac Catera, a low-end luxury car built by GM’s troubled Opel division in Germany. Driving the car home, it rattled like a truck, and the wheel alignment was clearly way off, since it had a strong rightward drift. It took several dealer visits to address these defects, which should have been repaired or adjusted during the pre-delivery process, only it appeared the dealer did little more than to wash the car and bring it out to me.

Other than the wheel alignment and rattles, the Catera was riddled with defects, which resulted in my suing GM for a refund. Otherwise my automotive acquisitions in the ensuing years have been relatively trouble-free. Evidently manufacturers have found ways tighten tolerances to reduce the occurrence of rattles and other untoward sounds, although I had them occasionally.

The most curious rattle, however, occurred to a VW Passat I once owned. It rode and handled beautifully, except for that intermittent rattle. After two dealer visits, during which they treated the right side airbag department and other possible sources for rattles, the noise kept returning. But usually when I drove home, so it was hard to reproduce it for the dealer.

On the third visit, the mechanic rode in the passenger seat with me to diagnose. He heard the sound and pointed me to the sunglass compartment on the roof, attached to the front interior light assembly. I pulled out my wire-rimmed reading glasses, and the sound was gone!

With those common plastic-to-plastic squeaks, car service people will often apply some WD40 or silicone spray to the affected areas, which will usually silence the noise, at least for a time, since the two surfaces thus slide together smoothly. But I would not suggest you follow the same procedure, although I’ve seen dealers liberally treat squeaky cars in this fashion when the need arose.

If you want to check whether a car has a tendency to rattle, you might look over the Consumer Reports reliability ratings, which are based on reader surveys. Look for the “body integrity and hardware” category. The motor vehicles that score worse will usually be the ones that are rattle prone. If you still want to get that car, ask the dealer whether the warranty covers squeak/rattle diagnostics. A VW dealer once told me that coverage for such issues by the factory usually extends to the first year, after which you’re on your own.

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