Piston Slap: Water pump nightmares from engine timing torture
Sajeev, the quintessential Ford dude! My wife has a 2018 Ford Explorer Limited with 52,000 miles. It’s been good so far. I’ve heard horror stories about the N/A 3.5 V-6 having catastrophic water pump leak/failure issues. A few questions:
- Is it buried down in the “V”?
- Are there warning signs?
- Will this happen?
- Should we sell before this happens?
- When will it happen?
This is a fantastic question with ramifications as deep as the location of the water pumps in these 3.5-liter Cyclone V-6 engines. The economic differences between an OEM’s production costs and the individual owner’s service expenses are somewhat fascinating.
But before I go into a huge nerd hole trying to convince you of that, let’s quickly answer James’ questions.
- You bet! Ford put the water pump inside the timing cover, spinning it via the timing chain on front-wheel-drive vehicles.
- Yes, it’s quite expensive to repair ($2000 or more), unless you can do things like dropping a vehicle’s front subframe in your own garage.
- This applies to both naturally aspirated and EcoBoost 3.5-liter applications.
- This doesn’t apply to the Mustang or F-150, as these have externally mounted water pumps like traditional American engines.
- You are supposed to see a leak near the alternator, and it’s usually not too late if you keep an eagle eye on that area.
- All water pumps fail eventually, but regular coolant services as per owner’s manual will extend the lifetime significantly.
- People kick the can down the road for many reasons, and this is a darn good one. Just be straight up with the next owner, or trade it in and make it the dealership’s problem. (They lowball used cars for good reason!)
- Given your mileage, if you flush the cooling system immediately and keep an eye on that alternator leak hole (technical term) you aren’t likely to have the problem for well over 100,000 miles.
- The informative YouTube video below also mentions doing an oil analysis, if you really want to be ahead of the game. While I pinned it to the most enlightening part, watch the whole thing for more details.
And this is where we go deeper, considering the customer’s tolerance for repair bills years after the warranty expires. Who out there actually wants to service their coolant regularly, much less spring for an oil analysis on waste motor oil?
There’s a better way to force coolant services: by using a replaceable timing belt instead of a timing chain. That’s what countless belt-driven imports from the last 40+ years relied on, and it’s contributed greatly to their reputation for durability over American brands that avoid timing belts. Put another way, neglect a “not mandatory” coolant service in a 1990 Essex Continental and you quickly blow the gaskets between its aluminum heads and iron block. Bad news, but neglecting coolant in a 1990 Lexus LS400 has zero downsides because a blown timing belt ensures regular coolant servicing. I’m not suggesting the Lexus LS wasn’t a tour de force in luxury car quality, just that the delta between them and others doesn’t reflect its need for mandatory servicing.
It’s as if Ford gets timing systems and internal water pumps wrong far too frequently. Like back in 1981, when the Ford Escort “World Car” utilized Ford of Europe’s CVH engine. It, like the Pinto before it, had a timing belt. Unlike the Pinto, it was an interference engine. Ford’s American clientele clearly didn’t learn from blowing belts on Pintos, forcing the automaker to make broken-timing-belt-friendly pistons by 1983. The clarion call likely went like this:
“I’m not gonna service my Ford like some Yuppie European Weenie, you can’t make me, and your dealerships better be nice to me when I break something!”
But the 3.5-liter mill is nothing like yesteryear’s Escorts, because adding timing chains to an internal water pump makes it bit more durable. But it comes at major expense for the poor sap who owns it 8+ years into ownership, because labor costs are orders of magnitude more than servicing an old ‘scort in modern times; I got an entirely new cooling system, new power steering pump/hoses, new alternator, new A/C compressor, and a new timing belt in my 1982 Ford EXP for less than the price of a water pump swap in a modern 3.5-liter Ford.
It’s a shame, because the 3.5-liter Ford coulda been just as durable as the previous 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 found in older Ford Fusions, Five Hundreds, and Freestyles. External water pumps ensured the 3.0’s rotating assembly was essentially bulletproof, making for a compelling purchase at the bottom of the depreciation curve. But the “quintessential Ford dude in me” reminds everyone that Dearborn wasn’t the only manufacturer to do something this ridiculous. Chrysler did it with the 2.7-liter V-6, and several VW engines followed suit.
But they added a plot twist: VW’s internal water pumps came with the added bonus of plastic impellers. VW was successfully hit with lawsuits, but similar efforts against Ford’s superior-ish design have yet to succeed.
It’s a shame that somewhere in the hallowed halls of these automaker’s office buildings are people thinking of ways to advance the automobile at the expense of longterm ownership. This is a terrible way to treat your brand, but one perk of the EV revolution (as it were) is that all automakers are slowly adapting to the electric vehicle’s simple powertrain architecture. There’s so much less to screw up in an EV, especially compared to a plastic impeller VW or a 3.5-liter FWD Ford product.
The only flaw in my logic is the EV’s battery, but it’s never a hidden “gotcha” like these awful water pumps. And how great is that?
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