Home » The General Motors 3800 V6 Is Still One Of The Greatest Engines You Can Find: COTD

The General Motors 3800 V6 Is Still One Of The Greatest Engines You Can Find: COTD

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One of the more interesting side effects of writing about cars is that your friends and family always seem to ask you for an opinion about cars. Either they’re looking at buying a car and want to know if it’s good or they already bought a car and want to know if they got screwed. My father bought a second-generation Chevrolet Avalanche and its Active Fuel Management system (cylinder deactivation) had already failed so horribly that you could hear metallic clanging from down the street. Oof.

When people ask me about reliable cheap cars, I often point them toward cars with proven reliability records, like something powered by a GM 3800 V6. Today’s Shitbox Showdown was a competition between a 2000 Buick LeSabre Limited and a 2002 Toyota Avalon XLS. Neither are thrilling cruisers, but both are comfortable. Today’s COTD winner is RootWyrm for preaching the values of the mighty 3800:

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This isn’t even a contest.

The LeSabre is a Buick. A Buick with a 3800 Series II and a 4T65E. And it’s a high spec LeSabre; leather was decidedly NOT a standard feature on these. (Don’t look down on the cloth; it’s actually ridiculously good too.)

200,000 miles? You might need to do the coolant elbows, oil, and transmission fluid.
300,000 miles? Oil and transmission fluid.

Toyota’s mythology doesn’t hold up to reality. Especially not with timing belts. How many Avalons you still see on the road? Yeah. About none. Their V6 and transmission are good for maybe, maybe 200k.

We had over a dozen regulars (LOF, tire rotation) with 3800’s that had well over 250,000 miles on them. A mid-90’s Regal that had over 400,000 and was only on it’s second transmission. We had a livery company that put over 100k a year on LeSabres. We had a 3800 Supercharged that drove in under it’s own power with 5 fingered pistons. We had a 3800 that bent 4 rods from hydrolock and still ran (found it because it failed compression.)
You CANNOT kill a 3800 with anything short of gross negligence and abuse. And even then, the damn thing will still drive itself off the flatbed.

edit: oh, and these 3800’s? They’re a LOT more efficient than you think. 32-35MPG highway is typical. High speed cruise can hit 38+. City can reach 20.

While I have no experience with that Toyota engine, I can back up some of RootWyrm’s 3800 claims.

My wife, Sheryl, bought an Oldsmobile LSS with a naturally aspirated 3800 Series II.

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When that engine was healthy, it sipped on fuel at highway speed, scoring above 30 mpg. Power numbers also weren’t bad for the day, as the engine laid down 205 HP to the front wheels or 240 HP with a supercharger. Amateur tuners have also found these engines to be easy to work on and receptive to modifications. Sheryl’s 1997 LSS hit 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, not bad for the 1990s and that wasn’t even with the supercharger.

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Unfortunately, her engine died at the hands of a local shop. The only certified technician in the shop went on vacation, letting his non-mechanic brother run the establishment. That brother cracked the engine’s plastic intake and also performed a coolant flush without any bleeding.

I was performing an airport run in the car when it hydrolocked on its own coolant on the highway. A different shop performed an autopsy and found four cylinders full of coolant. The damage report included four bent rods, scored cylinders, a cracked block, and a blown head gasket. The technician believed the engine sucked in coolant from the intake but also just couldn’t keep itself cool from the terrible coolant job. He wasn’t entirely sure what failed first, but I guess that didn’t matter.

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Mercedes Streeter

Sheryl won her lawsuit against the shop, but by that time it was too late. Incredibly, the car still ran on the two cylinders that survived. When Sheryl sent her “Lissy” to the junkyard in the sky, it limped itself onto the flatbed. That engine didn’t want to die.

If you’re looking for a cheap car that will take care of you, consider something powered by a 3800. Just take it to a real mechanic…

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Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
11 months ago

Same here, the family beater LeSabre has 218,000 miles and when our son had it at college it did more miles off road than the average Subaru. Since
he bought it in 2017 it’s had one mechanical failure when it lost compression on #3 and still ran as a V5 for months until we had a house where we could swap the front head for one from a salvage yard.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
11 months ago

There are metal aftermarket replacements for those coolant elbows. The first time an elbow cracks, just replace them with metal ones and forget about it.

The GM 3800 was one of the best engines of all time. I’m not sure it is fair to cast shade on Toyota, because random GM failures will bite you at least as often as Toyota maintenance intervals. And Toyota has long since switched to timing chains and much longer maintenance intervals, but that’s not a fair comparison because they mostly did that after GM stopped making the 3800.

In short yes, an old GM with the 3800 is most likely a very reliable used car.

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