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General Motors has issued a service update for the ‘19 model year trucks and ‘21 SUV models for lifter issues. What makes brand new lifters go bad?

This concern is the news you need to be aware of if you own a late-model GM SUV or truck or are planning on purchasing one anytime soon. Even though no recall has been issued, several class-action lawsuits have been filed against General Motors over valve lifter-related issues in many of their 5.4L and 6.2L engines. The vehicles affected are the 2021 Chevy Suburban and Tahoe, Cadillac Escalade, and GMC Yukon Tahoe. In addition, 2019 - 21 GMC Sierras and Chevy Silverados have also been included. In response to the public outcry, GM has issued a service mandate, where technicians are advised to look for broken valve lock pin springs. The tests are designed to assess potential engine damage and, as you might expect, are making many owners very nervous. The fact that the company has issued a service update means that the company suspects a severe issue and only solidifies the arguments owners have been making for a while now.

While bad lifters are an occurrence you expect in older cars (primarily if they have not been properly maintained), they can occur in any motor. A lifter malfunction results from not enough oil being circulated through the motor. When it fails, the condition can result in serious engine failure.

Many customers are waiting months for a repair due to a lack of parts and the number of incidents. Some dealerships are simply overwhelmed. These complications are not helping the company’s image in the eyes of the public. As competition in the last couple of years heats up, no manufacturer can afford to have a major service campaign where they are replacing engines every time they turn around. To make matters worse, no customer wants to be without their vehicle for months.

What are the causes of lifter issues, like the one GM is experiencing, and more importantly, what can be done about it? Let’s see if we can’t explore this subject and shed some light on the issue.

Table of Contents

What Is a Lifter and Why is that Important?

In an internal combustion engine, each cylinder has a chamber that has a piston that moves up and down. As the piston moves up, a lifter opens the intake valve allowing air to enter the chamber and mix with the direct injection of fuel. As the spark plug fires, the combustion of the gas/fuel mix explodes, creating energy and forcing an expansion of the mix. The expansion pushes the piston downward, and as it does, a separate lifter opens, releasing exhaust gases through the exhaust manifold, catalytic converter, and out the exhaust pipes. The lifters are located between the car's camshaft and cylinder valves. As internal combustion engines have become more efficient, a computer shuts down some cylinders when the load is not needed - for example; this allows a V8 to operate more like a four or six-cylinder, conserve fuel, and increase mpg.

If a lifter malfunctions, a valve can stick or become permanently locked, open, or closed, inhibiting the free flow of intake air or the release of exhaust fumes. As you can imagine, this condition can have disastrous results; causing a misfire, bending a pushrod, or even sending a rod through the engine, basically the same as your engine taking a bullet to heart.

What are the Signs of a Bad Lifter?

The first sign of a malfunction will probably occur when your vehicle’s diagnostic system reports an error code and the engine light appears on your dash. As you take the affected vehicle to your dealer, the technician will plug a code reader into the sixteen-pin port below your car's steering wheel. Then using wifi, the technician has a computer (usually an iPad) to connect with the manufacturer's onboard diagnostic program. After running through a series of system checks, the technician should be able to read what the car is saying is causing the issue. Most dealerships do not charge for the basic scan, but if they go farther than just a simple plug and read, you can expect to pay money unless, as in the GM cases, the vehicle is still covered under the manufacturer's warranty.

There are other signs of bad lifters, which can include

  • Excessive tapping or clicking when the engine is running
  • Sudden loss of power
  • Engine shudders (like the human body shivers from cold temp)
  • The engine goes into limp mode (where it will not go over a certain speed)

What are the Causes of GM’s Bad Lifter?

GM has offered no official word about what exactly is causing the lifter failure, and it may be impossible to determine it. The service bulletin issued to dealerships instructs technicians to diagnose customer complaints of misfires, excessive clicking or tapping (which is the primary indication you have a lousy lifter), and after running codes, tear into the affected cylinders for repair. The service bulletin from Sept. 2020 (and the updated bulletin from Aug. 2021 had technicians inspect valve springs and then determine the extent of engine failure if needed.

Most of the time, older vehicles that have not been adequately maintained have lifter issues. A vehicle with contaminated or dirty oil, or not enough oil to pump through the engine, leaves critical parts unlubricated and weakened, and the excess heat makes these pieces brittle and prone to cracking or breaking. For vehicles not covered under a manufacturer’s warranty, the cost to repair a busted lifter can push a couple of thousand dollars.

What are the Solutions to a Bad Lifter?

If you experience one of the issues mentioned above (loss of power or limp mode), it is best not to drive your truck or SUV to the dealership. Since the roadside assistance GM and Chevy offers is five year/60,000 miles, it is much safer to push your OnStar button and arrange for a tow. The folks at OnStar will dispatch a wrecker and tow your vehicle to your local dealership (there is no mileage limitation, which many other manufacturers have). The tow operator will hand the keys and information to the service consultant, and hopefully, the dealership will reach out to you just to let you know that your vehicle has arrived safely. (If you are away from home, the tow will go to the nearest dealer).

Typically, customers affected by this issue would bring their vehicle to the dealer and have their truck or SUV repaired, and many GM owners have done so. But the problem has been so extensive that essential parts (gaskets, lifters, and other parts) have been hard to come by. A worldwide supply chain disruption and a global pandemic have not helped matter in the slightest.

Unfortunately for GM, initial attempts to fix the issue may have only worsened matters. Several class-action suits allege that even after the repairs, the problem persisted. This may mean that dealers replaced the defective parts with equally bad replacements. (Imagine how frustrating it is to wait weeks or even months to have your SUV repaired, and then only to get it back, to have the issue occur again, forcing customers to have their new vehicles towed back to the dealership a second time, only to be told that parts are unavailable).

A recent update indicates that if a customer has not had a previous repair for this issue and the vehicle has less than 8,000 miles, the dealership will replace the lifters on both banks of cylinders. Any vehicle over the 8,000-mile mark will receive only one bank replacement and provide an extended powertrain warranty for six years up to 100,000 miles. Customers also have the right to ask the service manager to reach out to the District Service Representative to present their case and see if more can be done. If your dealership refuses, you should immediately call the customer hotline, create a case number and have the national folks intercede for your cause.

So, the bottom line is that if you suspect your vehicle may be acting up, please reach out to the dealer to see what options you have. A service consultant will help schedule an appointment for you to bring your vehicle in for a diagnosis. Once the technician runs an OBD scan, you should have the information you need to know better how to proceed. (It is important to note that misfires can also be caused by other issues, like oxygen sensors failing, so just because your vehicle is misfiring does not automatically mean your lifters are malfunctioning).

Some GM customers are pursuing additional legal action concerning lemon laws. If you suspect that GM sold you a lemon, all states have lemon laws that vary from state to state. There is also a federal guideline called the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which provides consumer protection. An attorney can advise you concerning your options regarding this course of action.

Brand New Lifters Going Bad? Here's What To Do (Causes & Solutions)

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

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