How To Do An Engine Compression Test (1989-1997 1.6L Toyota Corolla)

If you've been wondering what's involved in testing and interpreting an engine compression test on your 1.6L Toyota Corolla (1.6L Geo Prizm)... well, this is the tutorial you need.

Testing the engine compression on your 4 cylinder Corolla (Prizm) is a pretty easy affair due to the fact that the spark plugs are easily accessible (since they have to be removed for the test).

In this tutorial, I'll show you how to troubleshoot a low engine compression problem causing a rough idle or a no start condition.

Contents of this tutorial at a quick glance:

  1. Important Tips and Suggestions.
  2. TEST 1: Dry Compression Test.
  3. TEST 2: Wet Compression Test.
  4. Which Compression Tester Should I Buy?

Important Tips and Suggestions

TIP 1: If the engine in your 1.6L equipped Corolla (Prizm) starts and runs you should test the cylinders' compression with a slightly warmed up engine. I want to stress the words: slightly warmed up because the engine SHOULD NOT be hot.

Testing the cylinders' compression with a slightly warmed up engine will ensure the accuracy of your engine compression test results.

TIP 2: You'll be working around a cranking engine as you perform the engine compression test so take all necessary safety precautions. Your safety is your responsibility... so use common sense and think safety all of the time.

TIP 3: All of the spark plugs need to be removed from the engine for the compression test and this must never be done with a hot engine.

Why? The spark plug threads in the cylinder head can easily get damaged (as in getting stripped) and this is a nightmare you do not want to experience.

TEST 1: Dry Compression Test

How To Do An Engine Compression Test (1989-1997 1.6L Toyota Corolla)

The compression tests, in this tutorial, are divided into two parts. One is a ‘dry’ compression test and the other is a ‘wet’ compression test. The difference being that the ‘wet’ compression test is done after finding one (or more/all) cylinders with no or low engine compression.

NOTE: Before you remove the spark plugs, mark each spark plug wire's location. This will make it easier to put them back in their proper places a whole lot faster.

OK, to get started this is what you'll need to do:

  1. 1

    Remove the spark plugs from a slightly warmed up engine (if it starts and runs). Remember, the engine can not be hot.

    When removing the spark plugs, be careful not to drop any of them on the floor, or you run the risk of having the spark plugs porcelain insulator crack and then you'll have a misfire on your hands.

    If the engine does not start... don't worry about it being warmed up.

  2. 2

    Disable the fuel system by removing the fuel pump fuse. Disabling the fuel system will prevent fuel from being injected into each cylinder when the Test is performed.

  3. 3

    Thread the engine compression gauge into the spark plug hole for the number 1 engine cylinder. Hand tighten the compression gauge only! Do not use any type of tool to get it tight.

  4. 4

    Have your helper crank the engine till the needle on the compression gauge stops climbing.

    Now, record on paper the value at which the needle stopped and the number of the engine cylinder on a piece of paper. Release the pressure on the gauge and repeat this step one more time.

    Repeat this test step on the remaining 3 cylinders.

Let's take a look at what your test results mean:

CASE 1: If Your Car Does Not Start and the results of the engine compression test are 0 PSI on all 4 cylinders then you have one of the following conditions:

  1. Timing belt problem.
  2. Blown head gasket.
  3. Blown engine.

Any compression value below 100 PSI (even if it does not 0 PSI) means internal mechanical engine trouble.

CASE 2: If Your Car Does Start, the very first thing you'll notice is that the compression values you wrote down for each cylinder are slightly different from one another. This is normal.

What is NOT normal is if the values vary too much. The cool thing is that we can find out if the variations in the values, you wrote down, indicate a problem (with that cylinder) or not.

The rule of thumb is that they can not vary more than 15% from each other and if they do... you're gonna' have a genuine misfire condition on your hands or possibly a No Start Condition (if more than one cylinder is affected).

How do you figure this out?... This is how you do it:

  1. Grab a calculator and multiply the highest compression reading that you recorded by .15. So, let's say that cylinder #4 gave you the highest reading of 170 PSI. Well 170 X .15 gives you 26 (25.5 rounded off).
  2. Now, the next step is to subtract 26 from 170... which gives us 144 PSI.
  3. So then, 144 PSI is the lowest possible compression reading that any one of the rest of the engine cylinders can have. Any compression reading below this.. and that engine cylinder will misfire.

To make better sense of the above calculation... let's say that my 1.6L Toyota Corolla (1.6L Geo Prizm) produced the following compression test results:

  1. Cylinder #1 175 PSI.
  2. Cylinder #2 170 PSI.
  3. Cylinder #3 165 PSI .
  4. Cylinder #4 130 PSI .

The next step is to do the math: 175 x .15= 26, 175-26= 149. So, now I know that cylinder #4 is the one causing the misfire!!