Q: Engine started exhibiting sputter noise. 2003 Suzuki Vitara

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After a trip of 1700 miles, the engine started a putter sound like an old lawn mower. On the trip, the car did fine the first 850 miles, but then there was no coolant in the reservoir and I filled it up to full (did not overfill it). It drove fine the trip back home. It was two days later when the engine started the putter noise. When this happened, I released the gas pedal and then did not hear anything. I coasted home for 5 blocks, not accelerating. When looking under that hood, I saw coolant sprayed along the backside of the engine by the firewall. The coolant reservoir was completely empty. I did not hear any knocking noises, but I thought the engine might be blown. I have never heard this type of sound come from an engine before. I’m thinking it might be a head gasket. What is your assessment and diagnosis of the problem?

Hello there. This is an uncommon issue on the 2003 Suzuki Vitara. With coolant leaks such as you have had, the biggest concern is overheating of the vehicle. If the problem is detected and resolved before the engine overheats then there are usually no issues. If the engine overheats, then it is possible to damage the cooling system or head gasket. You did not state whether the car has overheated at all or if the temperature gauge is reading high at all.

When the head gasket is damaged or failing it allows the coolant and oil to mix together. The result is the oil becoming chunky and thick and the coolant can turn a brownish color. It is possible that the head gasket is damaged, but I can’t say one way or the other without a visual inspection. There are tests that can be performed by qualified technician in order to diagnose the sputtering noise you’ve observed and let you know how this can be corrected.

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