This article was meant to be a victory lap for me and my most recent automotive purchase. Initially titled “How I Turned A $700 Chevy Tracker Into A Respectable Off-Road Daily Driver For Dirt Cheap,” the piece was going to chronicle how this body-on-frame 4×4 was the deal of the century. I’d describe how I’d scored a soulful, mostly rust-free, manual transmission off-roader equipped with a low-range transfer case for an absolute song, and how the thing drove like a dream. But last night, just after I’d decided to hold the article for this morning, disaster struck, putting the kibosh on my victory lap. The fact is, given the latest setback, it’s clear that the Tracker was a mistake. Let’s look at how much I’ve sunk into this deceivingly-cute Suzuki.
[Editor’s Note: Oh boy. – JT]
I’ll be honest and say I knew the Chevy Tracker wasn’t a smart buy when I pulled the trigger on it earlier this summer. I’m trying to reduce my fleet so I can move to LA, and facts are facts: “Plus one” is not the same thing as “minus three” — it’s simple math. But this was a manual transmission Suzuki Grand Vitara AKA Geo Tracker AKA Chevy Tracker — a vehicle known for its off-road toughness, and fairly highly regarded in terms of reliability; for $700 bones, I figured I couldn’t lose. It seemed to be in decent shape overall, and there were tons of these machines in local junkyards, so parts would be plentiful and cheap. And while that has ended up being true, the expenses do pile up. Worse, though, is that the one thing I don’t have right now is time, and the Tracker is stealing every ounce of that from me.
Here’s What Happened Last Night
Before we get into the dollars and cents, let’s just talk about the disaster that struck last night.
I’ve driven the Tracker about 100 miles over the last few days, and it’s been great. It’s comfortable, and handles better than any of my other vehicles, with much sharper steering (since it’s my only car with a rack and pinion setup). I was quite pleased with my purchase until around 7 P.M. yesterday, when my dreaded charging issue resurfaced.
I’ve been battling this for quite some time now. Every now and then, I’d read 13.8 volts at the battery, indicating that the new alternator I had just purchased was doing its job. But then I’d drive around and my lights would go dim and my engine would start to sputter as the fuel pump and ignition system lost juice. I pored over wiring diagrams, checking every fuse and wire I could find that might have something to do with that alternator not putting out enough current to keep that battery from draining. Last weekend I stopped by the junkyard and snagged a daytime running light controller, as the wiring diagram indicated that it was tied into the alternator’s battery voltage sensing wire:
But this did nothing. I searched for other potential current draws by paying attention to which systems worked and which didn’t. Maybe if I found something that wasn’t functioning properly I could narrow down where in my electrical circuit the problem lay. What I discovered were two seized electric motors — and important ones, at that. The first one was my wiper motor; technically, it wasn’t seized — the wiper transmission was (that’s the linkage that turns the rotary motor motion into back-and-forth wiping action). So the motor was basically stalling, drawing absurd amounts of current when the wipers were on. Whether they ‘d been on while I was driving, I’m unsure, since they didn’t work anyway and I hadn’t paid attention to the switch position. I swapped the wiper motor and transmission from one I’d gotten from a junkyard for $30. This required some modification, because Chevy apparently made some running changes over the Tracker’s manufacturing span, but the job was fairly straightforward.
My friend Brian discovered that the electric “pusher” fan in front of the condenser was completely seized. This could also draw quite a bit of current, and could explain why I’d seen significant coolant temperature spikes during my short test drives. So — again, with a modification (to the connector) — I swapped the part with a new one I’d snagged on eBay for $70.
With the two stalled motors replaced, I began driving the Tracker, and it worked wonderfully. I took it to an old Chrysler engineering friend’s house on Sunday about 30 miles away, ate some ice cream, and drove to take care of some errands. There were no issues. I then washed the car in preparation for this article, because — again — the thing actually looks quite nice, and given how well it was operating on Sunday, I wanted to highlight how pleased I was with the purchase. It’s possible I was also going to applaud car culture in Michigan; “You can buy a car for $700, throw a few junkyard parts into it, and have a cool daily driver. What a place!” sounds like something I might have written.
But when I fired the Tracker up at the grocery store last night, it cranked rather slowly, and I immediately knew I was screwed. I understood what this meant; the alternator was no longer charging, and I had just a few minutes before the car would shut down. I rushed home, noticing that my turn signal dash lights were dimming; my airbag light began to flicker on and off, and my tachometer needle started going apeshit. My headlights were clearly dimmer than they should have been, and on the final half-mile stretch, when I hammered the throttle, the car began to sputter. I upshifted early to keep my foot off that rightmost pedal; this helped, but the car began bucking all the way until I pulled into my driveway. That’s when the car overheated.
“What the hell?!” I thought. “I fixed this charging problem, didn’t I? Also, the coolant temperature gauge looked fine!” I declared before realizing that nothing on my gauge cluster was to be trusted after that electrical meltdown sent the tach and airbag lights going bananas.
The problem, which I thought I’d solved with new fan and wiper motors, a new alternator, a new daytime running light module, and even a new $100 ECU, was still there. My heart sank, and I went to sleep. It felt like I was fighting an endless battle against invisible electrical gremlins, and I was never going to win.
Trust The Process
But this morning, with a clear mind, I reminded myself of one of the most important wrencher’s adages: “Trust the process.” That process refers to the diagnostic process, which is informed by your knowledge of how systems work. I knew that my engine had overheated. Why? And why did it happen at the same time that my charging system went bad? I’d figured that my previous overheating issues were a result of my electric fan not coming on, so maybe the drained battery wasn’t spinning that fan fast enough? “No, that doesn’t make sense,” I realized. The Tracker has a mechanical fan that kept the vehicle cool all day; at no point did the auxiliary fan fire up — why would it have to do that when it was colder in the evening?
That’s when it came to me; I knew what the issue had to be. Aside from the auxiliary fan that the Tracker clearly doesn’t need most of the time, the vehicle’s charging system and cooling system are connected in only one way: They’re both hooked to the car’s Front End Accessory Drive (or FEAD, as they call it in the industry). Oddly, though, I saw no issue there. The belts were all intact, and I noticed no slipping; in fact, the belts seemed to be in decent shape, with no melted bits or rips. This is where trusting the process came into play.
No, there were no issues with the belts, and looking at the accessory drive while the engine was running showed that the belts were turning. So this wasn’t an issue then, right? No, wrong — as I said before, I knew what the issue had to be. There are no other options; I know how this car works, and I know that somewhere on this accessory drive, something is screwing up both my charging system and my cooling system. Somewhere there is a problem. So I looked harder, and here’s what I found:
As you can see, the harmonic balancer/crankshaft pulley that uses belts to take the engine’s crankshaft work use it to spin a water pump, power steering pulley, alternator, and fan had failed. Yes, the balancer itself — which to a layperson looks like just a single-piece pulley — had split at its rubber junction (the rubber helps damp vibrations from the crankshaft). It was an essentially invisible failure. The naked eye cannot see the split, which is why the “trust the process” adage is so important. If you know how something works, then when it fails in a way that cannot be seen with the naked eye, you’ll have the confidence to say “I don’t care that I can’t see it. It’s there.”
A similar situation happened to me when I was driving my 1948 Willys CJ-2A cross-country to Moab back in 2017. I lost all compression instantly in all cylinders, and I knew this could only happen if there was a timing issue. But I looked at my timing gears and saw that nothing was wrong; even the timing marks on the crankshaft and camshaft gears were still lined up. I buttoned the Go-Devil engine back up and towed the vehicle; later, after some thought, I came back to the gears and told myself: “I know I don’t see anything, but this has to be it. The problem is somewhere here.” And indeed, I found a failure similar to the one my Suzuki is facing: The center of the timing gear became delaminated from the outer portion, meaning the crankshaft gear was spinning this camshaft gear, but the outer portion was rotating without spinning the camshaft that was keyed to the center section. My Suzuki has the opposite issue: The inside bit is spinning, but the outside pulley bit is not.
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So now I have to replace that harmonic balancer. This will require me to remove the radiator and use a puller tool to get the balancer off the crankshaft. This will probably be a pain in the ass. Why I bought an eBay crankshaft pulley that is a quarter the price of all other Suzuki 2.0-liter dampers I saw, I don’t know. But for $15, I figured I’d risk it. I’m a cheap bastard. Hopefully that doesn’t come back to bite me.
[Editor’s Note: History suggests it’ll be fine, just fine, with no problems at all, ever again, forever! Anywhere! – JT]
I Paid Twice As Much For Parts As I Did For The Tracker Itself
I really thought fixing the Tracker would be a cinch. When I arrived at the seller’s house earlier this summer, he told me the $1,600 SUV ran and drove great; it overheated every now and then and needed a jumpstart. This seemed trivial to a former cooling system engineer like myself.
The seller accidentally switched the positive and negative battery cables, frying the Tracker’s main fuse. Unable to prove the car ran, the seller told me he’d let it go as-is. I wasn’t sure exactly how much it would cost to fix whatever had been friend — it could have been the ECU for all I knew — so I offered $700. He agreed.
I had AAA tow the little body-on-frame off-roader to my house, and then — after a bit of research — I went out to find a part that would yield the cheapest fix of all time: the main fuse.
Indeed, the $5 fuse rejuvenated that 127 horsepower 2.0-liter inline-four. Just listen to that thing purr.
This is where I optimistically thought I’d just clean the car up and start driving it, but of course, this being a $700 shitbox, that’s not how things work. If one buys a car for under $1,000, there is a 99 percent chance that it will suffer from some kind of significant mechanical or electrical problem if not immediately, then certainly within the first week of ownership. That’s been my experience.
And of course, a soon as I went to test drive the Tracker for the first time, I realized that the vehicle was undrivable. It wasn’t just that the steering kept locking up (this was sketchy), but the lights began dimming while I was driving, and eventually the car started to sputter as the fuel pump went weak. The charging system was toast.
So I slapped in a new $46.50 eBay-sourced steering intermediate shaft, and that took care of my steering issue. As for the charging system, I threw $35 at a junkyard alternator, and when that didn’t work, I tossed in an $87 one I bought from Amazon. When that didn’t work, I threw in a $95 ECU, then the aforementioned $72 electric fan, then the aforementioned $37 junkyard wiper motor and transmission, and two $16 daytime running light modules (one was the wrong part).
I also replaced the awful tires with $200 junkyard tires that are quite nice. Add that price to the installation cost, and I was out about $350 on rubber.
I had to throw on new lugnuts after my old ones got stuck onto the lug studs, so that was another $20.
The Tracker had a lot of cracked interior trim. Based on the paint spots on the rear carpet, I think this thing may have been owned by a house painter. In any case, I replaced that rear carpet and much of the interior plastic trim; I think I probably paid about $60 for all of it.
The four-wheel drive system on these Trackers is far more complicated than it should be, as I described in my article about my ingenious fix to the electric front axle disconnect system. Before that Harbor Freight solution, I did buy two 4×4 controllers for about $15 each. So all in, my silly repair actually cost around $50.
I also had to install a new junkyard taillight. That cost me $20.
As for all the fluids — the engine oil (plus filter), transmission oil, rear differential oil, transfer case oil, and coolant — I probably dropped another $80. Add the vacuum I used at the local car wash, plus the car wash itself and all the cleaning fluids, and I probably dropped another $50 just to get this thing clean.
The cleaning operation happened after I fixed the dent on the rear quarter panel on the driver’s side:
My friend Brian came over with his Jeep Wrangler TJ Unlimited (also called the “LJ”), and we used his front winch to pull the dent out a bit.
From there, I tried my hand at Bondo body filler, which I’d never used before. First, I had to secure the taillight, and since it no longer lined up with the holes in the rear quarter panel, this meant strategic use of a drill and some zipties:
Next, I had to fill in the space between the quarter panel and the light. I know I’m going to get some shit from old-timers on this, but I just shoved a bunch of aluminum foil into the gap:
After not realizing that I needed to add hardener, and wiping the first layer of Bondo off, I mixed up the filler nicely and lathered it onto that foil, filling the gap. I then let the filler dry, sanded it, added a few skim coats, and then primed and painted it.
The result after clear coat is far from beautiful, but it’s better:
I spent about $80 on the body filler and paints.
Other than that, I removed the rear hitch and then tried using some special $10 compound to darken the gray front and rear bumper covers. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but it’s now a bit darker. Honestly, I think the little Tracker looks great:
Note: If that gas cap door not closing bothers you, don’t worry: It bothered me, too. So I spent a few bucks on some rare earth magnets, and that took care of it:
Obviously, I still need to replace that crankshaft damper and all the belts that go with it (together, assuming my cheap eBay damper works, thats about $70 in parts). And I need to steam clean that interior, but otherwise I think the Suzuki is just about ready. Here’s the full cost roll-up so far:
|Taxes and Registration||$100|
|4×4 system fix||$50|
|Bondo and paint||$80|
Those last three italicized rows are parts I haven’t yet installed. I figure, since I’m doing the belts, I should replace the water pump. Plus, I noticed some cracked CV boots, so at some point those will need to be done.
In any case, I’ve dropped abut $2,100 on this car in total. Three times as much as the initial purchase price! Yes, I could have been a bit thriftier, but I had no time to waste; plus, with the balancer in and those axles installed, this really will be a decent little car. It won’t be worth much more than what I paid for it — it is a 176,000 mile Chevy Tracker after all — but I bet it will be a nice, reliable daily driver for whoever I sell it to in the next few months. After I off-road the everliving crap out of it, of course. Stay tuned for that.
[Editor’s Note: I’m not sure if I should have David read the comments here or not. Just know if you take this as an opportunity to kick a well-meaning wrencher when he’s down, I’ll be JUDGING YOU as well. I mean you can, and it’ll probably be fun, sure, but deep down you know you love that David does this shit, and owns up to his stumbles and failures, because, dammit, that’s how we learn. And I’m sure he’ll get this steaming pile of shit made into a steaming pile of drivable shit once again, because I’ve seen him do it. Don’t underestimate the Raja Of Rust. – JT]