Knowing what kind of timing system our car has is essential to keep up with maintenance. When we buy a brand new car, the manufacturer will usually give us a checkup calendar. With this date in mind, we shouldn’t worry too much, no matter the timing system. The authorised repair garage will schedule an appointment when we reach a certain mileage or years.
However, if we are buying a preowned car, the seller might omit this piece of information, or simply not know it. In this article we will teach you how to identify whether your car works with a timing chain or with a timing belt. There’s no need to be a car expert or consult a professional mechanic.
Refer to your Car Manual
First of all, look up in your car manual. It’s the easiest option; this handbook usually remains within the vehicle and tends to include this kind of information. If you cannot find it, you can always search for the manual on the Internet. The car manual is an essential resource that can get us out of a few predicaments. It tells us all we need to know about car maintenance, how to set up the car in case something goes wrong and it can help us to fix the vehicle during an emergency. If you don’t have it in hand, download it in PDF and always carry it in your cell phone.
If our vehicle booklet does not tell us what kind of timing system is used, we can always identify it ourselves. We will start by opening the hood of our vehicle and finding out whether the engine is positioned longitudinally or transversally to the central axis of the car. All this, looking at the car from the front. In longitudinally arranged engines, the distribution is usually right at the front of the engine, and it is usually quite easy to see. On the other hand, if the placement is transverse, the belt or chain is usually placed on the left side of the engine.
Another trick is to examine the motor side cover. If theres a plastic or tin casing in the previously mentioned side, the engine provably uses a timing belt. This case is there to protect the belt from outside dirt like mud or gravel. Taking off the pastic case should reveal the timing belt.Chain-driven engines have the belt integrated into the engine block, so it does not nedd extra covers. The timing chain is a little more difficult to discern with the naked eye, so we identify it by process of elimination: if there is no cover and the belt is not visible, the car is usually chain-driven.
Search in Our Website
However, we might not be able to look inside our hood and identify the different components of the car. In modern vehicles, it is common practice to place plastics and covers to make the whole more aesthetic and prevent the user from accessing certain parts of the system. If this happens, we should search by make, model and engine identifier of our car. These data are more than enough to make a search and to know if our vehicle works with a timing belt or timing chain.
On this site, we have detailed lists by brand and model. We have a very complete list of engines by model, distribution, power and year. That way, you can quickly check if your car —or the car you want to buy— has a timing belt or a timing chain.
If you are on the hunt for a new car, you might be wondering whether a timing belt or a timing chain suits your needs. In general, this decision is not as crucial as choosing the engine and fuel type, or even the body color.
Is it worth it to take time and learn about their differences? In this article we are going to address both timing systems. Here we’ll tackle each one’s cons and pros, so that you can reach your own conclussions and decided which syncronization system is more interesting and better suited to your needs.
What are the different types of timing systems?
We always talk about timing belts and timing chains, but those are not the only timing systems on the market. There are three ways o transmit movement to the camshaft:
Timing belt: most extended system nowadays. The majority of engines we know use a timing belt. This elastic belt is the most affordable option out there, and lowers the engine production costs. There are two different types of timing belt: the ‘wet belt’ and the ‘dry belt’. The wet belt is sumerged in oil, which severely affects its durability.
Timing chain: it is a metalic belt which which is stronger and more durable than a timing belt, although they function in much the same way. The timing chain’s principal quality is that, at least on paper, it will not need to be replaced during the car’s lifespan.
Cascade gear system: this one is the most reliable system out there. We can find this timing system in older engines and motors for large-displacement vehicles. Some modern allroad vehicles also make use of this timing system, since timing chains would have their lifetime greatly reduced due to dust and erosion exposure.
Lastly, there are vehicles that have no timing system. We are talking about electric cars, automobiles that run on an hydrogen cell and even Wankel-type combustion engines.
Which timing system is better? Chain vs. Belt
Now that we know how many timing systems there are, it is time to compare them:
Which system is cheaper to replace?
Here’s the dilemma: a timing belt does need some maintenance. The rubber this engine component is made of will eventually degrade with use. Therefore, we need to replace this piece at a certain mileage, which will be indicated by the manufacturer.
A timing chain, on the other hand, does not need to be replaced as frequently. In fact, the great majority of cars with this timing system will be sent to the scrapyard with the original timing chain they had the day they left the manufacturing plant..
However, the timing belt wins this round. Timing belt repairs are very affordable, even their entire replacement is less costly. If you are ever in the position of needing to change a timing chain, the mechanic will need to disassemble more engines pieces, which translates into more man-hours and a substancial bill from the repair shop.
Which one lasts longer?
Punto para la cadena, como no podía ser de otra forma. La cadena de distribución está pensada para que no tenga que ser sustituida nunca. Eso sí, eso no significa que no se degrade o que no sea recomendable hacer un reemplazo en algunos casos.
Points for the timing chain! A car’s chain is designed to last forever. However, that does not mean it cannot degrade, or that replacing it is not advisable in some cases.
With a few exceptions, almost all manufacturers state in their maintenance books that their cars’ timing chains are ‘lifetime’ : that means, this engine piece will outlast the vehicle itself. However, the car needs a correct general maintenance throughout the years for this promise to actually happen.
Regarding timing belts: their durability is also outstanding. Thanks to technological advances, they are now made with new materials that can last 100,000 or even 150,000 kilometers (60,000 or even 90,000 miles).
Which one is more resistant to external agents?
Apart from sheer mileage, there are many factors that can degrade an automobile and its components. Wind, humidity, dust or sand can affect a vehicles performance with the passage of time.
Although it is true that all these variables can erode a timing chain, the timing belt is specially vulnerable to external factors. The only substance that could seriously affect a timing chain in a short time would be a poor quality engine oil.
The timing chain, being encased inside the engine, is practically invulnerable to any external agent. On the other hand, the timing belt is susceptible of being damaged by oil and coolant leaks, despite being in a different enclosure and isolated from the engine crankcase. Moreover, the timing belt could also start to malfunction if the service belt (i.e. the auxiliary belt of the alternator) broke.
Which one gives a warning before breaking?
Forewarned is forearmed… Unfortunately, the timing belt is a treacherous engine component, for it does not give advance notice before tearing off. When a timing chain does stretch, the engine syncronization will falter, giving a fair warning to the driver that something is not right.
If an engine with timing chain cannot start when cold, or jerks at idle speed, you are due to change either the timing chain or the tensor. There are also other symptoms that give away an inminent timing chain failure.
As we were saying, a timing belt is not that predictable. A driver with acute hearing might notice something is wrong, but this is not common. A faulty metal timing chain is far more noisy. A belt, usually made of kevlar and similar materials, is not stiff enough to clank.
Which one would leave me in the lurch in case of failure?
It is widely known that if a timing belt or a timing chain break, we can say goodbye to our engine. However, both timing systems work with other components. This is what we are refering to. What happens if the auxliliary belt fails? Faced with a breakdown of this caliber, you are more likely to return home if you have a car with a timing belt.
Almost all engines with a timing belt have a water pump attached. Engines with a timing chain have it separate. If we are left without the auxiliary belt in a timing chain system, our engine will have problems to regulate its temperature, and ultimately shut down.
If our auxiliary belt breaks off in a timing belt system, it is possible to keep driving a few miles before the overheating signal pops up. Why is that? Because the water pump will keep running. Also, in this second scenario, if the car’s battery is in good condition, we will be able to power the car’s electronic systems until we reach our destination.
Which one withstands engine power?
High-performance engines tend to use timing chains, so this is a fairly easy answer. A timing chain holds power and torque much better, so it is a safe bet for larger engines. It is, in fact, uncommon to find big motor blocks that use a belt to syncronize its valves.
We could say that both timing systems are evenly matched. A chain can save maintenance costs, although we will need to pamper it to avoid damaging it. Timing chains can withstand temperature changes and extreme weather. They also give a fair warning at the slightest failure.
A timing belt, on the other hand, is affordable, far less noisy, and will not be very fussy if we keep up with the car maintenance. Since it is attached to the water pump, it will give is a precious few miles to drive to a repair shop in case the auxiliary belt breaks.
That is all! If you have made up your mind about what timing system you would prefer for your car, take a look at the vehicle lists we have in our website. That way, you will find out which cars have a timing belt and which ones have a timing chain.
As we have discussed many times in this blog, all internal combustion vehicles need to use a chain or timing belt to synchronise the different mechanical components that make up the engine. The chain has many advantages over the belt, as they are designed to last as long as the vehicle itself. This element is located at the front of the engine and is connected to a set of gears and pulleys that provide power to multiple mechanical components, including the crankshaft and camshaft. For the engine to start, the timing chain must rotate smoothly around the sprocket with no difficulty. Although the timing chain is made of tough metallic materials, it is subject to wear and tear and can break. This breakage can be caused by either poor maintenance or a factory defect and can lead to total engine failure if the chain is not replaced if necessary.
The timing chain consists of a series of links, similar to the links in a bicycle chain. The connecting rods move on toothed sprockets located at both ends of the crankshaft and camshaft. These sprockets are responsible for opening and closing the valves in the cylinder head and moving the pistons and connecting rods in the combustion chamber. During its lifetime, the timing chain can become stretched and worn over use or time, which will cause the engine timing to be inaccurate. Fortunately, it is these timing faults that will give us the clue that something is wrong under our hood. Take note, because these are the 5 symptoms that give away that we have a problem with our timing chain.
1. Misfiring or poor engine performance
If there are problems with our chain, it may happen that over a period of time, the timing chain stretches, momentarily slipping off the cam or crankshaft sprocket. This can cause the engine timing to exceed the calibration range and often lead to misfiring. The engine may also run poorly and lack acceleration power. If this happens often, the timing chain may be damaged and should be replaced as soon as possible.
2. Metal shavings in the oil
Most car manufacturers recommend changing the oil and filter at approximately 5,000 to 10,000 kilometres (although this may vary depending on the oil used). Over time, the oil begins to separate as it warms up and comes into contact with the natural solvents in the petrol. If the timing chain begins to wear, small strands of metal will break away from the chain and enter the oil sump.
If you find small bits of metal stuck in the filter or scattered in the fluid when changing the oil, you should know that your timing chain is starting to fail. This is one of the best indicators of timing chain failure. Metal shavings are also common when cylinder head valves, seals, cages and other cylinder head fittings become excessively worn. If this happens to you, take photos and take your car to a mechanic to have the problem checked and appropriate repairs made as soon as possible.
3. Engine creaks when idling
Abnormal sounds are also a common warning sign of internal engine problems. Under normal conditions, the engine should have a steady sound, indicating that everything is operating normally. However, when the timing chain is loose, it can cause vibrations inside the engine and a rattling sound may occur when the engine is idling. Rattling always means that something is loose inside the engine, so it must be intervened before it can break and cause further damage.
4. Engine Failure Warning Light on the Switchboard
The “check engine” light might turn on for many reasons, one of which may be a timing chain malfunction. The car’s on-board computer will display a warning light, which should be checked and scanned for fault codes to determine the source of the problem. When the ECU detects a problem with the exhaust system or a problem with the engine operation, the “check engine” light may switch on.
Stretching of the timing chain will result in decreased engine performance and increased emissions, which will activate the “check engine” light and store the diagnostic trouble code. If you don’t want to make your life mopre complicated, all you have to do is simply take the car to the garage. The mechanic will find the fault code using his diagnostic machine via the vehicle’s OBD socket. If, on the other hand, you like to play mechanics or want to go a little deeper into the subject, you can use a fault code reader. They are quite affordable and are extremely useful for clearing the list of already fixed faults, removing warning lights from the dashboard or diagnosing problems with your vehicle before they show their face.
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A damaged timing chain will cause the engine not to start or to run poorly while driving. If the chain is very close to breaking, the engine may not have enough compression force to start. If it breaks or jumps while driving, the piston and valves will eventually collide, causing major and expensive damage to your engine. The chain may also be loose. A chain that is not taut makes jumps inside the engine that we perceive as jerks and erratic noises. In this case it may simply be a problem with the tensioner. However, it is a problem that needs to be solved quickly, as the chain can shake and damage other parts of the engine.
With these five signs and cues you can anticipate a problem with your timing chain. By being proactive and knowing these little tricks you can save a lot of money by preventing chain breakage. If you notice any of these warning signs, contact your trusted mechanic as soon as possible to diagnose the exact cause and make the appropriate repairs as necessary. We also remind you to take a look at this guide we published on how to keep your car’s timing chain in perfect condition.
How long does a timing chain last? After how many kilometres does it need to be replaced?
The timing chain is a crucial element in the operation of our vehicle. They usually last for the whole car’s life cycle, but… Is there any maintenance to be done so that we never have to change our timing chain?
As we have discussed previously on this website, the timing chain is designed to last for many miles. While a belt can rarely last more than 60,000 miles, most manufacturers guarantee so many kilometres on their timing chains that it usually lasts as long as the vehicle itself. So we will never have to visit the garage to change this component. The average is 155,000 miles of useful life, although as we say, depending on the vehicle, they may last longer or shorter. If we use a commercial vehicle, such as a truck or van, we are more likely to replace the chain than a person who uses a utility vehicle to commute to work during the week.
So… There’s no need to replace the timing chain?
Most engines that operate with a chain-driven timing system are designed to last almost as long as the car itself. However, this does not mean that it should never be replaced —whether it’s due to wear and tear or a factory defect, some vehicles will need replacement during their lifetime.
Spare parts selling websites are full of timing chains, which tells us that it is not the infallible component people believe it to be. In any case, if you follow the advice below, it is unlikely that you will ever have to visit the workshop for a chain replacement (as long as you do not have a car with a defective unit from the factory). However, if any anomaly is detected, it is always best to visit a mechanic to prevent further damage.
How to Maintain the Timing Chain?
In contrast to cars with a timing belt, cars with a chain do not require extensive maintenance. There is no need to replace it when they reach a certain mileage or to perform any special procedures. This is why cars with a timing chain drive are suitable for people in the professional sector and for individuals who do not usually take special care in the maintenance of their vehicles.
However, there are adjacent elements that we must never forget even if we have a vehicle with a timing chain:
Timing chain tensioner or tensioning pulley: this is the element that keeps the chain tight. It prevents the chain from slackening or even slipping off the sprockets. It is therefore highly recommended to replace it every 60,000 miles. The operation is inexpensive and prevents us from having major problems in the future with our timing system. It is also important that during this small maintenance we check the condition of the chain, in case it has suffered any damage.
The water pump can go unnoticed in a car with a chain system. This is a mistake. Normally in vehicles with belt drive we replace the water pump at every belt maintenance. In other words, every time we change the belt, we also change the cooling circuit. The water pump is a very cheap element, but its replacement is expensive due to the many hours of labour required. Since we are already working on the belt, it is the perfect oportunity to also change the water pump and be on the safe side. If your car has a timing chain, you should also check the condition of the cooling pump every so often or after a certain milage.
Oil. Checking the oil levels of our engine and changing them every year or after some milage is crucial for our vehicle to keep the timing chain in good condition. Lubricating oil is essential to keep the chain clean, as dirt (dust, rust, metal residues, etc.) is collected by the fluid, preventing the chain links from deteriorating due to excessive friction.
How can I take care of my Timing Chain? Tips for Extinding Its Service Life
Just like with a vehicle’s clutch, the timing chain can be significantly damaged or deteriorated by rough driving. Sudden changes in speed cause jerks that add stress to the chain, causing the metal to suffer minor rubbing, which can eventually lead to a broken link. If this were to happen, buying a chain-driven car would not have brought us any benefit over a belt-driven car, as we would have a very similar engine breakage and a high repair cost.
In addition to erratic driving, which puts stress on the various elements of our vehicle, the weather can also take its toll on our precious timing chain. While it is true that spending time outside a garage suits no car, our chain can be damaged by very high temperatures during a heat wave or very cold temperatures in the winter. It is therefore advisable to prevent our vehicle from spending too many hours or several days in a row in extreme temperatures, as the expansion can gradually deteriorate both the chain and other instruments of our precious car.
And while we’re on the subject of parking on the street, it’s also not a good idea to park your car on beaches or drive in places where there is a lot of dust in suspension. In addition to scratching the chain, it is quite likely that dust and sand will end up clogging the air filter or even damaging a valve. On the other hand, it is also advisable to avoid very damp places. Moisture can wreak havoc on the mechanics of our car by producing rust in quite inaccessible places and it could take months to detect it.
In any case, there are situations where it is not possible to avoid something on this list. If we live on the coast, near the beach, we will always be exposed to moisture and sand. Therefore, the most sensible thing to do in these situations is to keep the maintenance sheet up to date and check the chain regularly. In addition, it is advisable to drive moderately, checking the engine oil levels and monitoring the tyre pressure regularly to avoid putting more strain on the engine than normal.
How often do I have to change the timing chain?
For normal vehicle use, the chain should normally last the lifetime of the car. However, there are exceptions, and this should not be generalised. Every driver should take a look at the vehicle handbook and check whether the manufacturer recommends a replacement of the chain after a certain number of kilometres or whether specific maintenance is required.
Another interesting practice is to check the Internet from time to time for information about our vehicle, especially when it is a new model on the market. Reading the problems that other users of a unit like ours have detected can give us a head start in the event of a manufacturing defect, not only in our engine or timing chain, but in our car in general. And of course, this is also interesting to do before buying a used vehicle. Before jumping into a second-hand car with timing chain, it is interesting to investigate if the car we have in mind has any endemic problem. If it does, we should be able to ask the owner if the problem has been solved before agreeing to the sale.
One of the most recurring questions is what would happen to our car if the timing belt broke while we were driving it. A breakdown of that nature provokes severe damage to the whole engine, meaning a repair bill that can be prohibitive.
What happens if the timing belt breaks?
When the timing belt breaks, there is no longer synchronisation between the cylinder head and the crankshaft. The engine pistons continue to generate movement, while the cylinder head has stopped, as it is not receiving any movement from the belt. Eventually, the inevitable happens: the pistons end up colliding with the valves (located in the cylinder head) which are stuck in the wrong position.
Once the belt breaks, the level of damage is a game of chance.Most commonly, the pistons will pull the valves out of the cylinder head and the engine will have to be restored. In more extreme cases, the pistons may even end up broken, so that it would not be worth repairing a vehicle that has suffered this type of mishap. For this reason, good maintenance of vehicles with a distribution system that works with this technology is key to prevent this kind of accident.
Would it be the same if a timing chain broke?
Yes, it would. Apart from some technical differences, which would depend on the manufacturar, the breakdown of a car’s timing chain would have very similar effects.
However, timing chain failures are not so common, as they are designed to last. They occur mainly in odd cases of models with an endemic failure. Most of the time, it only happens to cars which have been poorly maintained or have been droven abruptly. A vehicle equipped with a timing chain normally never has to visit a workshop for a timing chain replacement.
Despite all this, you must not let your guard down. Learn how to maintain your timing chain and don’t risk a timing chain failure. Taking proper care of it is the key to avoiding breakage. If you want to learn more about this topic, you can take a look at these other articles on maintenance.