How bad is it to drive on just 3 (of 4) cylinders?

I’m really not good about servicing my car (2000 Dodge Neon). My last oil change was somewhere around 6-12 months ago, and I can’t even remember where I did it. A few weeks back, the “engine service” light came on, which means (according to the manual) that the engine is ok but there’s some problem with the emissions. I checked the oil and it was low, so I put in 2 quarts at that point, but the light stayed on. A few days ago, the oil light came on, and I put some more oil in, and the oil light went out. But with the “engine service” light on continuously for a few weeks, I figured it’s time to bring it in to the dealership.

They say the oil filter was loose, and almost all the oil dripped out, and this caused one of the four cylinders to stop functioning. They put in a new oil filter, but they also think I should spend $3800 for a whole new engine. So I have two questions:

  1. Is there any way this could be covered under warranty? I figure that if the loos of oil was so bad that it caused this kind of damage, the oil light should have been on more.

  2. How terrible is it to drive on only three cylinders? The service guy tried to scare me into thinking that this will damage one of the remaining cylinders, but if I stay under 50 mph, maybe the engine won’t be strained so much?

Probably not a “Great Debates” topic, dontcha think?

The quick answer is “it’s very bad and you probably DO need a new engine”. More detail if/when someone moves this to an appropriate area.

You are wanting someone to debate that running on 3 cylinders isn’t bad?

This will likely get moved to GQ.

If your still registering oil on the dip stick when its low I doubt you’ve lost enough oil to cause dammage.

Have you actually perceived a loss of performance?

Actually, I was originally going to put this in GQ to begin with, but I figured it would get moved here. Go figure.

When the “service engine” light first came on, I did check the oil right away, and I don’t remember if it showed, but certainly not much. So maybe that’s when the damage occurred. But the damn “I need oil” light never came on!

Perfect question! Answer: Not much. A little knocking on cold mornings until I pull into the street, and I can hear it straining if I try to push it past 55 mph. But I rarely try to go that fast anyway, and that’s why I’m asking.

Sounds to me like yo need to change your spark plugs.

When my 1980 Chevette (stop laughing) died in 1987, it was down to 3 cylinders. I couldn’t get the car over 35 mph. I suspect a Neon would be comparable weight/engine power ratio and so doubt you’ve totally toasted the cylinder.

Find a good independent mechanic and have it checked again. Dealers LIKE to scare people, they sell more cars that way.

Moderator’s Note: No, this definitely goes in GQ.

[Tim Allen] Didn’t you think the oil light on was important?
I thought if it was really really important a second light would come on[/TA]

Could a loss of oil cause the loss of one cylinder?
Yes, without a question. However the question becomes did it. More on this in a minute.

Would this be covered under the warranty? Two chances of that, slim and none. READ your warranty, it tells you that you must maintain the car to the car maker’s standard. I don’t remember when I last changed my oil does not meet that standard. Also if you read your owner’s manual I will bet that under the oil pressure light it says Stop the engine!
Now I have a question. In your OP it says

but in a later post you say

OK it’s offical, I’m lost here. Extactly which light came on? I’m guessing it was the red oil pressure warning light. I’m gonna go a little further out on this limb and say that this is probably the only oil related warning light on the car. So what was it?

Now the question comes up, did the lack of oil damage the engine to the point that it must be replaced? An engine that has lost 1 out of four cylinders will run extremly rough and be very low on power (at least 25%) Your description doesn’t sound like that. What exactly did the dealership tell you was wrong with the engine. On what diagnostic test do they base this diagnois on?
Oh and driving on a dead cylinder can damage the cat coverter in very short order.

I’m not convinced it is anything major, being a 2000 year model. Many vehicles may knock for a few seconds especially on cold mornings. Even with it being a few quarts low, this would not have hurt your engine. One friend of mine took his new pick-up in for an oil change and the idiot at the dealership forgot to tighten the oil plug, so virtually all of the oil drained out, but he still managed to drive it for a few miles to get home. There was hardly any oil left. That was 22 years ago, and he still drives it, and it still doesn’t burn much oil. One of my vehicles is real old, with over 160,000 miles on it. The “check engine” light comes on all of the time. It still runs good. I eventually took it to a mechanic I trusted and had him run a diagnosis. The computer will give numbers back on what is wrong. With mine is was several smog device related items, so I choose not to replace anything. The “check engine” light still comes on from time to time, but it’s no biggee, at least in my case. It still gets good gas mileage, and has no loss of power. I would do what another poster suggested earlier by first checking the spark plugs, and other wires. It could also be some other malfunction thats on the outside of your engine. If you had lost a valve, or major internal damage, I would think you should hear a banging noise all of the time or at least have major gray smoke (not black) coming out of the tail pipe. Be careful dealing with mechanics. How exactly did he determine that you needed a new engine? That would have indicated again, some internal damage to rings, bearing, valves or the like.


It is interesting that you didn’t mention that you noticed your car’s performance and sound. An engine missing on a cylinder is pretty obvious. How was your gas mileage when the cylinder was busted? Before you took it in. Did it drop? Does your engine sound normal, or is it a rough idle? You should be able to tell just by listening if one of the cylinders isn’t firing. The harmony of the sound will change. I would find it odd that a dealer would try to cheat you, but… some do. Still, you should have noticed.

Maybe after a $3800 bill you will appreciate the importance of car maintenance. Sorry to sound rude here but I just had to spend $2000 for a transmission rebuild when I take care of my car. However, a year ago (or so) one of my spark plugs broke off inside the engine block. Let’s not play the “who’s stupid” game or anything. :slight_smile: Needless to say I was driving my car around with one cylinder not firing for a month. But I don’t want to get your hopes up. Sorry. I knew what was going on. I have a 6 cylinder engine. One out of 6 cylinders isn’t as bad. And there wasn’t any mechanical damage. I also only drove my car very rarely. I took the bus to work whenever I could. I ended up stripping the engine myself and had a heck of a time getting the spark plug out of the head. She runs like a kitten now. :slight_smile:

Lack of oil is a VERY serious problem. If you EVER see the oil light come on, EVER. Pull your car over immediately. You do NOT want to be driving at 55 or 70 or more MPH(KPH) when the engine siezes. You don’t know if oil is streaming out of your engine or if the gauge is faulty. (How loose was the filter?) Best play it safe. IF this happens to you, drive slowly and carefully (with your hazard lights on) to your mechanic, or at least home. Sorry I know a bit late for the OP. But lesson learned, right? Remember, every 3000 miles or 3 months, whichever comes first. Transmission check every other year, or sooner. I prefer every year. Check your manual. It should have a recommended schedule.

Did the dealer tell you what was wrong? What is causing the cylinder to “stop functioning?” Is the block cracked? Head warped? Is the cylinder frozen in place? Camshaft warped? What? If it is a mechanical problem, and not something stupid like my problem, it could indeed ruin the other cylinders or worse. If the block is not cracked then that is a plus. I would not take it to the dealer, unless they fix it under warranty. You will get better service if you can find a good mechanic. And it will save you a bunch more money. You can also probably get an engine from a junk yard for a few hundred dollars. That is what a mechanic would do. He’ll charge you more for it though, plus removal and installation of your old engine. But I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll save at least $1000 doing it that way.

Damage caused by a lack of oil would most likely be major and very noticable. The afore mentioned grey or blue smoke resulting from burned rings allowing oil into a cylinder and showing up in your exhaust. That would not however mean that the cylinder is not firing and producing some power as long as the plug does not become fouled. Other than the rings being burned I can’t imagine what damage a lack of oil would do to just one cylinder. A rod bearing would generally be the first thing to go from lack of oil and you would know that something was really wrong in that case. If you haven’t noticed any big decrease in power or any persistant tapping/knocking, consider using a 50 weight motor oil to reduce the amount of oil getting by the burned rings and perhaps a PTFE additive to reduce friction and increase power.

okay, let’s just cut to the chase and say that it’s a BAD thing… (assuming that you really did have a cylinder not firing and that your dealership’s service dept wasn’t just pulling a scam on you).

That said i have run a car with one fewer cylinders than originally intended and both the car and i lived to tell the tale. The car was a brand new '96 Mustang GT so in this particular case i was running on 7 cylinders instead of 8 but it was EXTREMELY obvious that something was wrong immediately (the dash full of blinking/flashing warning lights was a bit of a hint too). In my case apparently one of the spark plugs was improperly installed at the factory resulting in water trickling down into that cylinder overnight and shorting out that spark plug upon startup the next morning. The car started but the ECM promptly shut that cylinder down. On only 7 cylinders the car ran incredibly rough and the engine sounded very weak (didn’t even try backing out of the driveway, just shut it down right away and called for a tow truck). Had the car brought back to the dealership and they made the needed repairs (just to be safe they replaced: that spark plug, the spark plug wires, the catalytic convertor, changed the oil, as well as replacing several other components i can’t recall at the moment…) and sent the bill for it all right back to Ford. The car was fine afterwards and i put quite a few hard miles on it without a problem over the next few years before eventually trading it in on something just a bit less conspicuous to the local law enforcement personnel.

If a powerful v-8 engine shows very obvious symptoms with one cylinder out it makes it very hard for me to believe that a Neon running on only 3 cylinders would sound/feel much the same as it does with all 4 cylinders firing normally. I say have the car looked at by a trusted independent mechanic (or even several) and see what the verdict is there before commiting to any major repairs. However, definitely get the car checked out and don’t keep driving it as is just hoping that everything will turn out okay.

I drove from NJ to Washington DC and back on 3 cylinders. Ran rough, never got above 55 mph, required more pressure on the pedal than normal. So I guess at the very least you burn more gas.

Thanks for all your comments everyone.

I have not had any bad smoke coming out of the car. Mileage might have dropped a bit, but not much: I was getting about 35-40 when it was new, and about 30-35 now. The knocking is typical of many cars on cold mornings, and non-existent once the car has warmed up and on the road.

The main performance problem is that it doesn’t like going over 55 mph. It could be having difficulty accerating too, but I’ve never been big on jackrabbit starts anyway. Most of my accelerations are sort of gradual and the car is handling them acceptably.

We are bringing the car today to another mechanic. I hope he’ll have more a hopeful diagnosis.

You are NOT running on 3 of 4 cylinders, The power would be cut in half easily. You would also fry your Cat. Conv. due to unburnt fuel passing into the exhaust.

There is no way for 1 cylinder to seize w/o seizing the rest, so it’s working. What you may have done is lost compression in that cylinder which makes it less effective. You can get a compression check easily enough to test it. Also with the engine running, remove the oil filler cap (some oil will come out so don’t wear your good suit), if there is some serious blowby out the filler cap hole then it seems like you have lost a good deal of compression.

k2 has got you in the right direction.

I would check oil levels daily and drive at various speeds, just making sure it sounds and feels about right. If it does, you are probably ok, although you could still have some loss of compression, and therefor power.

Over time, compression varies anyway, and modern engine mgmnt systems can do a little compensating. Most modern cars are far from underpowered versus 70’s and 80’s rides, so missing a few horses doesn’t jump out. Transmissions are better, timing is better controlled, and the engine can vary in compression - a bit - and keep you happy.

Taking it to the next level, getting a compression check and inspecting the plugs can tell alot about what is going on in the cylinders.

But severe damage makes itself known to the daily driver.

I think there may have been a misunderstanding between you and the dealership.

If an engine lost enough oil so a cylinder wouldn’t actually fire, your engine is well down the road towards total faliure. So, I am not going to further much more speculation on the “running on 3 cylinders” phenomena. Yes, it can happen, no it’s no healthy. Nasty stuff can happen over time, such as fuel getting in the oil, scoring of the cylinder walls, burnt catalytic converter, etc. None of them are cheap.

However, that does not mean that your engine was not damaged. Low oil is an awful thing. If your oil was indeed 2-3 quarts low for a while, the life expectancy could have been shortened.

Who’s responsible? Should it be covered under warranty?

Well, warranty, no. This is not a manufacturers defect. However, who changed your oil last? You don’t sound like the kind of person that does that him/herself. More likely than not the person that did not tighted the filter properly. Do you still have the reciept? Can you prove they changed it?

I know of people personally that have sued minute-oil change places for neglecting to put the drain plug/filter back in all the way and damaged engines. You may have a good case.

Something else I wanted to mention. I would be very suprised if there was not a big puddle of oil where you park your car. It’s a good habit to look where you park for new puddles and a person can be proactive in cases like this.

k2dave is correct. You shouldn’t lose one cylinder without seizing the entire engine (unless one of your spark plugs/wires is damaged/missing). How did you figure you’re running on 3 cyclinders? You should notice pretty bad vibration (depending on which cyclinder isn’t working.

The low oil issue will mostly cause over heating engine parts, reducing the life of the engine. Your rings are probably fried as well so you’ll be losing oil left, right and center. I’d be surprised if you noticed a performance change since once you’re out of oil, your engine will sound really weird then die pretty quick.

I used to work at those minute oil change places. Never heard of any problems with forgotten oil etc. 6-12 months is way over anyone’s recommended oil change interval so you’re out of luck there. How much driving in that 6-12 month period? Even with “normal” consumption of oil in any car, 12 months of driving will burn up most of your oil.

BTW, engine service lights don’t always mean emissions. It could mean your engine is not running within specs caused by damaged engine parts. Emissions is generally the indicator once your engine starts burning oil.