Since the advent of OBD II, every vehicle is equipped with a
sophisticated system that measures each cylinder’s contribution to engine
power, becoming one of the most difficult challenges we face. Each time a
cylinder fires, the misfire monitor uses a highly accurate crankshaft angle
measurement to measure the crankshaft position. This system needs to have an
accurate crankshaft position sensor that is able to read the crankshaft
position, even at high RPM, sending a clear signal to the PCM. Then the PCM
monitors the crankshaft acceleration time for each cylinder at the firing time.
A specific crankshaft acceleration time occurs only if a
cylinder contributes with normal power. When a cylinder does not contribute to
engine power, then it’s misfiring and crankshaft acceleration for that
particular cylinder is slowed. It’s important to note that this monitor looks
only at the crankshaft’s speed of acceleration during a cylinder’s firing
stroke and, therefore, cannot determine if the problem is fuel, ignition or
Misfires are categorized as Type A, B or C. Only a Type A
misfire will make the MIL flash while possibly causing immediate damage to the
When you are diagnosing a misfire DTC, it’s good to ask the
customer if the MIL was flashing. Then, after reading the DTCs you will have
valuable freeze-frame information to reference, that captures the engine
operating conditions whenever the MIL is illuminated. (Each time the ECM
reports a misfire, the current engine operating conditions are recorded in the
failure records buffer.) Because this is emissions-related information, we are
able see and use this information working with a common generic OBD II scan
There are only a few Parameter IDs (PIDs) in the OBD II
list, but the most important to duplicate in this failure are engine speed,
engine temperature, engine load and vehicle speed. The vehicle speed tells us
if we can duplicate the problem at the shop. An engine load higher than 40%
makes us think the secondary ignition is weak, and the engine temp tells us if
we have to warm up the engine or let it cool down.
The car we are using is a 2001 Mercedes-Benz E320 sedan
(210.065) with a 3.2L V6 engine (112.941), and it did not have any problem. We
induced a misfire in order to produce the screen shots for this article. Let’s
see what the scan tool suggests we do with a DTC P0301 misfire.
The troubleshooter function on the scan tool says to check the
power at terminal 2 on the ignition coil and ground at terminal 1. With the
key-on, it should have normal battery voltage. If the voltage is too low, it
could indicate a problem with too much resistance in the wiring.
Then, the troubleshooter says to check the ignition coil
primary resistance between terminals 1 and 3, and compare it to factory
At this point, I
assume that the troubleshooter wants the technician to make sure that he’s not
losing power or ground at the ignition coil connector, then check the
resistance at the ignition coil primary winding. These are good diagnostic
checks, but, in some cars, the ignition coils are not easy to access and it
takes time to get to them. For some V8 engines, removal of the upper intake
plenum is required to check the ignition coil primary resistance. It’s
possible to check the resistance values at the ignition coil output terminal
relay of the wiring harness, from the relay (Pin 87) that feeds the coils or
just from the fuse, if the fuse is located after the relay.
There is a dedicated fuse to power the ignition coils in
this vehicle. In other cars, the ignition module is on top of the ignition
coil(s) (not in the PCM), so we are unable to check this value because the
transistor that grounds the ignition coil is on top of the same coil.
One of the best ways to check primary resistance is to check the ignition coil current using a
digital storage oscilloscope with an amp probe. See Diagram 1.
Channel 1 (red), shows that I clamped the current amp probe
at 5 amps per division, reading the current around the power through the fuse
(6) dedicated for the ignition coils, from the passenger’s-side fuse and relay
module box located at the rear side of the engine compartment.
In Channel 2 (blue), I took the primary signal to the same
ignition coil at the PCM connector. The pattern starts at the left of the
screen and moves to the right, and the amperage builds up as the coil
saturates. At this moment, the coil is being charged.
When the coil saturates, the internal module releases the
ground. Here is when the primary signal fires, that, in turn, causes the
secondary signal to fire. Channel 2 (blue) shows us a clear ignition burn time
that lasts almost three divisions considering a good length, and, after that,
we have a good oscillation before the ignition coil enters in the cool-down
The advantages of using this method are:
No unplugging of ignition coils;
No removal of any upper plenum to get access to the coil;
Connectors were not disturbed; and
The test was performed with the engine hot and under the
conditions described by the driver and the freeze-frame data.
Then, if we slow the time per division in the oscilloscope
until we see two pulses in Channel 2 (blue), we are reading two crankshaft
revolutions in the complete screen. Keep in mind this is a coil-on-plug system,
so the ignition system fires only on the compression stroke (one spark every
two crank revolutions). The information in Diagram 2 is what you’ll see when
you leave the amp probe clamped around the fuse.
It’s possible to compare the waveforms for all of the
ignition coils, which should be the same in every coil. Remember, they share
the power from the relay, but the ground is applied by the PCM. Once again, by
moving the wires close to the ignition coil connector, pulling or pushing the
harness, moving the PCM connector or just gently tapping the PCM, it’s possible
to see changes in the waveform, pointing to an internal electrical failure.
Knowing the firing order will help determine which cylinder
is producing the problem. For example, if you see less current at the second
coil in the screen (always reading the lab scope from left to right), you have
to go to the second coil in the firing order (1-4-3-6-2-5). In this case, I focused
the diagnostics in all ignition system parts related to the current ramp for
cylinder 2 (for example, coil, wires and the PCM).
In Channel 2 (blue), you can see that the voltage drops
slightly when the ignition coil, other than the one we’re using for
synchronization (cylinder 1 in this case), works. This is a normal occurrence
when a coil pulls current that’s needed to be energized.
We can have a similar scenario with the fuel injectors, and
it’s good to know how to check the current on them while they’re working. This
is because when a misfire type A is present, the PCM will cut the injector
pulse out in the same cylinder that misfires.
In order to see this, I decided to clamp the current amp
probe in the red/blue wire, Pin 3 at Connector A1 in Channel 1 (red), then in
Channel 2 (blue) for synchronization, and then I took pulses from the
injector/cylinder 1. I adjusted the speed until there were two injector pulses
in the screen, so there were two crankshaft revolutions. The injector spraying
order follows the same ignition firing order, so when we have cylinder 1
misfiring as a type A misfire, we have to lose at least one injector pulse
from the waveform. See Diagram 3.
If we lose the fourth injector amp ramp in the screen and
the firing order is 1-4-3-6-2-5, we can be sure that something will happen in
cylinder 6. Every time we cycle the ignition key, the misfire count resets
itself. So we are supposed to have injector pulses again in cylinder 6 during
the first few seconds until the PCM takes the action.
In that case, we can add a third channel in the injector
pulse signal wire of cylinder 6, which is always next to the PCM connector, and
watch for the voltage when the PCM kills the injector. If we have battery
voltage, the harness and injector 6 coil are fine. If the voltage goes to 0
volts, we can assume something is open in the harness or in the injector coil
Be careful with the use of noid lights at this moment. When
the engine starts, the PCM feeds the noid light, but the injector is off
(mechanically). Therefore, that cylinder is misfiring so the PCM will
immediately turn off the noid light. Don’t assume the PCM, transistor or
drivers at the PCM are bad. It’s good to use the noid light when the engine
cranks and will not start, but as soon as the engine runs the injector must be
Now back to working with the current amp probe. As shown in
Diagram 4, I clamped both power wires (the injector power and the ignition coil
power wire). Remember the advantage of taking this type of measurement is when
you are checking the current in a circuit. It doesn’t matter if you are
clamping the positive or the negative side; the current is the same along the
whole circuit. The only difference is the direction of the current, so when you
see the waveform in the lab scope upside down, just flip the current amp probe
over to avoid misunderstood readings.
Once again, Channel 2 (blue) is for synchronization and in
Channel 1 (red) both positive wires are clamped with an amp probe. I numbered
the ignition coil signal (on top) and the injector pulses in the lower part of
the screen. As there is a big difference (with internal resistance) between the
ignition coils (1 ohm) and the injectors (16 ohms), the amp/div in Channel 1
was adjusted to 2 amps/div, to be able to fit both signals in the screen.
The first tall wave in Channel 1 is the ignition coil
cylinder 1 signal, then the first short wave is from the fuel injector/cylinder
6 signal (as cylinders 1 and 6 are companion cylinders). This cylinder is in
intake stroke, while cylinder 1 is still in power stroke.
The next tall wave (according to the firing order) is the
ignition coil cylinder 4 signal, and the next short wave is from the fuel
injector cylinder 2 signal, and so on.
As you can see, we are able to check the current in all the
ignition coils and all the fuel injectors at the same time. We are also able to
move, push or pull the wiring harness during the test. We can identify a wrong
ignition or injector coil without removing any part.
The oscilloscope is a powerful tool with which we have to be
patient and dedicate hours and hours to understand it, but it gives us
resourceful information to avoid guesswork during diagnostics, saving valuable
time in the shop and allowing us to convert that valuable time into money.
O2 SENSOR TECH TIP
Age, contamination and extreme heat can affect the oxygen
sensor’s response characteristics. Degradation of the signal can be in the form
of an extended response time or a shift in the sensor voltage curve. Both
conditions reduce the oxygen performance, thereby reducing the catalyst’s
capacity for exhaust gas conversion.
Zirconia Sensor Misfire
One of the most obvious failures to show up on the oxygen
sensor signal is a misfire in the engine. However, few technicians realize just
how clearly a misfire will appear on the oxygen sensor signal. The graphic
shows what a misfire will look like on the oxygen sensor signal a high
frequency variation, bouncing high and low, much faster than a normal oxygen
The misfire forces a pulse of air past the oxygen sensor,
which is detected by the oxygen sensor. The rapid change from high oxygen to
low oxygen, and back again, causes the sensor to read a rapid change in the
exhaust oxygen, and the sensor develops a high-frequency signal, such as the
Therefore, the oxygen sensor can be useful for finding an
engine misfire. By connecting an oscilloscope and road-testing the vehicle, you
can instantly determine whether the vibration you are feeling is a misfire or a
different problem, such as clutch chatter or an imbalance in the drivetrain.
Even the slightest misfire will show up on the oxygen sensor signal.
Of course, this depends on the rest of the system being in
proper control of the air/fuel mixture. A misfire may not show up at all on a
system with the oxygen sensor signal fixed rich or lean. However, if the sensor
is switching properly, a misfire will show up on the oxygen sensor signal.
Now, to find out which cylinder is misfiring, you will still
have to do more investigation. The oxygen sensor will not help you pinpoint the
misfiring cylinder; it’s just a great way to see that the engine has a misfire.
Courtesy Delphi Product & Service Solutions.
About the Author
Sergio Fernandez has more than 20 years of automotive experience and specializes in automotive electronic diagnostics, including J2534 Flash reprogramming, OBD II, TPMS, advanced lab scope, voltage and current testing, and hybrid repair. Sergio is an ASE-certified L1 and L2 Master Technician. Since 2002, he has been a mobile technical consultant for more than 100 shops located in South Florida and the West Coast.
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