Nissan 3.3 VG33E Engine Problems & Reliability

The 4 Most Common Nissan VG33E 3.3 V6 Engine Problems

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The Nissan 3.3 VG33E engine was produced from 1996 to 2004. It’s a very old school SOHC V6 engine that uses a strong cast iron engine block and steel rods. Unfortunately, the Nissan VG33E engine is underpowered – by modern standards – with 170 to 180 horsepower. It is, however, a strong engine that offers good reliability and longevity. That doesn’t mean the engine is bulletproof, though. The Nissan VG33E still suffers from a few common issues including the timing belt, water pump, fuel sending unit, and oil leaks.

Nissan VG33E Engine Problems & Reliability

Most Common VG33E Engine Problems

  • Timing belt
  • Water pump
  • Fuel sending unit
  • Oil leaks

I break down each of the above issues in-depth in the rest of this article. Though, it’s important I add a few quick notes before moving along. These are among the most common VG33E engine problems. That’s not to say the problems are truly common. Rather, when issues occur these are a few of the common areas.

That said, the Nissan 3.3 offers solid overall reliability. Age and mileage are big considerations, though. Most of the VG33E engines on the road are nearing or beyond two decades old. That kind of wear and tear can have negative impacts on reliability.

1) Timing Belt Problems

We find ourselves discussing timing belts on older engines quite often. As is often the case, there isn’t a design flaw with the VG33E that causes common premature failures. Timing belts are standard maintenance that should be done every ~100,000 miles on the VG engine.

However, the Nissan 3.3 V6 is an interference engine. This means there is some overlap in the area where the valves and pistons travel. Should a belt snap or slip too far it may allow the pistons and valves to contact each other. In this case chances are the VG33E will bend a couple valves and potentially damage the pistons.

It’s not very common to see early timing belt failures, and most occur at 110k+ miles on the belt. If you stay on top of belt repairs it’s unlikely you’ll run into this issue. Regardless, timing belt issues are worth the mention due to the risk of severe engine damage.

Timing Belt Symptoms

  • Weird engine sounds (ticking/slapping)
  • Loose/worn belt
  • Power loss
  • Poor performance

The first two symptoms – odd engine sounds and a loose belt – are typically the only signs before the belt fails. As it wears and develops slack you may notice odd sounds similar to ticking or slapping. Visual inspections may indicate wear and tear or point to a loose belt. It’s not always evident before the Nissan VG33E timing belt fails, though.

Once the belt fails you’ll notice a ton of symptoms depending on the degree of failure. The Nissan 3.3 V6 belt may simply slip a couple teeth and you’ll notice power loss and poor overall engine operation. If the belt snaps or jumps more than a couple teeth the engine likely will not run at all until the belt is replaced.

2) Water Pump Failures

Alright – we’ll be quick on this section. It’s a little repetitive with the above timing belt discussion. Water pumps don’t often fail on the Nissan 3.3 V6 engine. However, that’s because they’re often changed alongside the timing belt around 100,000 miles. If you skip the water pump then problems become a lot more common.

It’s possible for the water pump to fail between timing belt changes, but they’re rare cases. Any overheating or visible coolant leaks may point to problems with the Nissan 3.3 VG33E water pump. Ultimately, don’t skip this repair during timing belt changes.

Most of the labor is overlap with the timing belt. Once you’re in there the water pump is a quick repair, and it’s also a cheap part. Again, timing belt kits usually include the water pump and t-stat and the all in price in less than $300.

3) Fuel Sending Unit

Fuel sending unit (FSU) issues might be the only actual design flaw with the 3.3 V6 we’re discussing in this article. The fuel sending unit attaches to the fuel pump and sends fuel readings to the gas gauge. Nissan issued an extended warranty for this part a long time ago, which indicates they were aware it’s a common issue.

In the grand scheme VG33E fuel sending unit problems are a pretty minor issue. It’s a cheap part and easy fix, but it can cause annoying issues. An incorrect gas gauge usually points to a problem with the FSU. In some cases it may be an issue with the fuel pump itself, but the sending unit is typically the best starting point.

Fuel Sending Unit Symptoms

  • Faulty fuel gauge readings
  • Bouncing fuel gauge

The symptoms are pretty simple here. Fuel sending units simply send the fuel level reading for the gas gauge to display. When the unit goes bad you may notice incorrect fuel gauge readings. In some cases the VG33E gas gauge may bounce around a little bit.

4) Oil Leak Problems

Oil leaks on the VG33E V6 engine are more an age related issue rather than a design flaw. All engines use a number of gaskets and seals that take a lot of abuse over the years. These rubber-like gaskets wear down, develop cracks, and begin leaking oil with time. Our main focus with Nissan 3.3 oil leaks is problems with the valve cover gaskets.

These gaskets seal the gap between the head and valve cover. They’re subject to lots of heat and those heat cycles take a toll on the valve cover gaskets. It’s one of the most common oil leaks on the VG33E as these engines continue aging.

Other areas for oil leaks include the front main seal, rear main seal, and oil pan gasket. These problems are also increasingly more common as the Nissan 3.3 engines age.

Oil Leak Symptoms

  • Visible leak
  • Burning oil smells
  • Light smoke from engine bay

Of course, symptoms for oil leaks are pretty straight-forward. They’re not always very noticeable on the 3.3L V6, though. Visible oil spots on the ground is a dead give-away that oil is leaking from somewhere. With the valve cover gaskets, however, visible leaks on the ground don’t always occur.

Since the VCG sits up high oil often drips onto hot components and burns off. This may cause a burning oil smell and/or light smoke from the engine bay. If you’re noticing these symptoms it’s usually the VG33E valve cover gasket(s).

Nissan VG33E Reliability

Is the Nissan 3.3L VG33E engine reliable? Yes, we believe this engine offers solid reliability. There aren’t really any major design flaws or problems with the engine. However, age is a huge factor when looking to purchase one of these Nissan engines today.

All engines use wear and tear items that don’t always last as many miles as the engine internals. Age can be just as hard on an engine as mileage is when it comes to things like gaskets and seals. Point is – the Nissan VG33E was typically a very reliable engine when it was a bit newer. They can still be reliable, but older cars require a bit more attention.

Nonetheless, maintenance is a big key to ensuring the engine remains reliable. Look for a car and engine that have been well maintained. Quality oils, changing fluids on time, and repairing problems in a timely manner go a long way. Plenty of Nissan VG33E engines last beyond 200,000 miles without many significant issues along the way.

Nissan 3.3 VG33E Engine Problems Summary

VG33E engines were first released in 1996 and remained through 2006. With 170-180hp they’re certainly not going to deliver amazing performance. However, it’s plenty of power for most daily driving, on-road needs. Couple that with good reliability and longevity and the Nissan 3.3 V6 is still an appealing engine.

There really aren’t many truly common engine problems or flaws to discuss with the Nissan 3.3 VG33E. Fuel sending units are one design issue, but it’s a pretty small problem. Otherwise, most of the issues with the engine simply come down to age and mileage.

With proper maintenance it’s not uncommon for the VG33E to hold up well beyond 200,000 miles without major failures. If you’re in the market for one today just keep in mind the older engine might require some extra TLC.

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20 Comments

  1. Considering buying a 3.3 v6 nissan elgrand that’s done 74000 miles still not sure if it’s a good idea or not 🤷‍♀️

    1. As long as it has books( maintenance history) it should be fine , as your aware that motor is no power house, but long lived with proper maintenance

  2. Currently have a 2004 3.3 pathfinder with 180,000 kilometres, the motor with a oil and filter change twice a year I suggest will do 400, 000 kilometres,I see one here (Australia) with 510,000 Kay’s for sale apparently going ok. Had no issues with mine , just did the usual upkeep and preventative maintenance .
    To those who want one, get one with books ( maintenance history)

  3. I was able to buy from a friend a 2002 nissan frontier xe 3.3L v6 2wd 205000 miles, it had a problem starting, you had to turn the ignition key a couple of times and it ran good. And then the engine light came on. I used a coder scanner and it showed a knock sensor and multiple misfirings. First I figured I would reset the Timing and adjust the distributor to see if it was lined up with top dead center and distributor marks. Well it was off a notch and it now starts like new, and it does have a few oil drops. When I can do the work myself it’s fun keeping theses machines going.

  4. I own a Niisan hard body double cab. It now has 180 000km on the clock. Although it is a gas guzzler, it is very reliable when well maintained. More than enough power.

    1. I have a 98 Elgrand vg33e done 72000 miles I overhauled the tranny,new radiator,head gaskets,collant sensor.knock sensor stays with me this one.excellent van

  5. i have 1999 Nissan it has 200 thousand + on it it just stop running when i stopped at a stop light just curious what it could be it started and ran in the drive way once i got it home the it just died and i cant get it started bag up it try to but wont change fuel filter and it getting gas don’t know when timing belt was changed iam just trying to get it back on the road love that truck

    1. I read a forum thread of a guy who replaced a bunch of parts and took apart the dash addressing a problem you described. After YEARS, figured out it was the MAF sensor. The sensor tested okay, but was somehow faulty. Worth a check.

  6. My 2000 Frontier engine had an intermediate starting problem,replaced the distributor and that fixed it. The temp gauge is fooling you also. Harbor freight hose clamps on coolant hoses and the lower rad hose came loose and leaked out the coolant and my temp said all was well as I began to over heat. I have 179K on it but my 4.3ltr Chevy vortec is a superior engine with 194K on it. Very little work on it at all except regular maintenance. That’s the key to longevity,timing belt,h2O pump and regular oil/with filter changes. And the VG33E with that cast iron block,keep an eye out for rust in the coolant.

  7. I have a Nissan Frontier with the vg33e engine in it. The vehicle has over 200k and runs like a charm. I will say though that I will never buy another Nissan. The engine is designed in a way that you nearly have to always disassemble parts of the engine to swap parts. The engine wasn’t designed with the intent of the avg Joe working on it. You have to be a regular contortionist to swap out that #6 spark plug way down with no visibility and inches from the firewall. OMG horror
    Can be like driving a traveling soda fountain if you don’t keep up with the leaks. Other than the items I mentioned it’s never left me stranded. Good Luck

  8. I need help I have a 2000 Nissan frontier 3.3l I changed the timing belt and also tried to adjust the heads. I’m a Chevy guy need I say more. I know nothing about Nissans when I crank my 3.3 after the timing belt and the lifter adjustment there this slapping
    Clanging noise like a rod is thrown and maybe every 3 minutes it will stop and start back like it’s a rod but I know it’s not it’s the lifters or my reassembly job. Dim not used to the rail lifter style does anyone know the torque sequence for the lifter rail the motor doesn’t smoke there’s just this slapping noise loud slapping noise please help

    1. For the slapping it sounds (pun intended) to me the timing belt is slapping. Check the tensioner, making sure it is properly working. As for the other items, I would call Nissan, they will provide the torque and sequence. maybe it would be better taking it to the dealer. Yes, I know it will cost money, however the money you spend will be less expensive than replacing valves, pistons, and their ilk. Good luck.
      My Xterra 2004, 48,000 miles.

  9. Have a 2002 Frontier SE. 148.5K mileage. Replaced tranny fluid at 70K, timing belt kit at 100K.
    The nissan parts guy told me to change the distributor at 150K. Had nissan do a valve cover gasket redo about 115K. It needs another one. Recently had a double whammy and had it towed to nissan dealer for repair because it would not start. My code reader found a mass flow sensor failure but dealership found a failed distributor, I should have changed that one myself. The failure was sudden. The put on a nissan rebuilt distributor and a new mass flow sensor. Total cost was just under $1,000. The knock sensor failed may at about 120K and have not changed it. Real expensive to change because intake manifold must be removed. There is a knock sensor replacement fix to pass inspections but I live in a State where that is not required. My engine does not knock as far and I can tell.
    here is a small leak from the rear engine seal but not bad enough to change.

    Overall considering the price of newer trucks, I will keep running the ’02 Frontier as long as possible.
    I can do much of the simple repairs myself such as brakes, power steering hoses, shocks, radiator, etc.
    I may be doing the valve cover gaskets, and timing belt change myself now.
    I have another ride, 2006 Camry LE with 240,000 on engine. I works great! So I still have a ride if it take a while to repair the Frontier.
    Bottom line, ALWAYS change engine oil and tranny fluid!
    This is a cheep way to extend the life of a vehicle.

  10. 2003 Nissan frontier 3.3Lv6 4wheel drive change thermostat, radiator, hoses, mass flow sensor. When temp goes up truck dies and takes a few hours to start back up? Any suggestions?

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