Very common problem with an easy fix. The solenoid is the mechanical part of the starter that engages it with the engine during cranking. You are likely hearing one kind of loud clunk when you turn the ignition switch to "crank". When the starter becomes solidly engaged with the engine, electrical contacts in the solenoid switch on the current to the starter. This is done so the starter motor is not spinning until it is engaged. That prevents grinding the teeth of the gears. Those contacts are worn away. If you keep cycling the ignition switch to the crank position enough times, the engine will eventually start, but it will gradually get worse over the next few weeks or months.
The starter is under the engine, right in the front and is very easy to get to. Replacing it takes about ten minutes and you don't have to jack the vehicle up. The battery must be disconnected for safety. Besides the obvious resetting of the clock and radio presets, memorized "short term fuel trims" and "long term fuel trims" will be lost in the engine computer. Most of this will be relearned as you drive over the next few minutes and days. You might not even notice any change in engine performance as this takes place. What you WILL likely notice is the engine probably will not start or will not stay running unless you hold the gas pedal down just a little. The engine computer will not know when it has to be in control of idle speed until it relearns "minimum throttle". It will do that automatically when specific conditions are met. You can make that happen by driving at highway speed with the engine warmed up, then coasting for at least seven seconds without touching the brake or gas pedals.
The worn contacts can be replaced for 20 bucks, but most people just install a rebuilt starter motor which has the solenoid built in. Cost for a new starter is over $400.00. You normally only get a new one when the vehicle is in warranty. You will get a rebuilt or remanufactured starter for less than half of that. I always replace just the contacts. I never bought a replacement starter so I don't know the cost. Other than those contacts, the rest of the starter motor and gear reduction assembly are extremely reliable.
The observation that it started once with a jump-start is a clue. The slightly higher voltage from the running engine helps force enough current through the worn contacts to get the starter motor to spin. It also would eventually have started even without the jump-start.
All of this story is based on your observation that the interior lights stay nice and bright. A less common problem is battery cables that are corroded inside the insulation where you can't see it but that would cause the lights to go out when you tried to start the engine. Your symptoms are more typical, and the worn contacts are very common.
Monday, December 28th, 2009 AT 11:46 PM