1) With the radiator cap off, start the engine and place the palm of your hand where the radiator cap was. If within a minute you feel pressure building you have combustion gases getting into the cooling system causing the problem. (Head gasket, cracked head and/or block).
2) Radiator cap can cause coolant to excape, pressure test the cap to see if it is releasing at the desired setting or just replace it if you cannot have it tested.
3) Check your thermostat, this can be done by placing the thermostat in a pot of water on the stove with a thermometer. when the water reaches the temperature written on the thermostat it should open, If not replace it.
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it could very well be a bad gauge. when it shows the engine to be overheated or at the least very hot, check the actual temp at the water outlet where the upper radiator hose attaches to the engine. use a non contact thermometer to check the temp so as not to get burned in the process. if the thermometer reads way different than the gauge, the gauge is bad.
you need to replace thermostat and radiator cap.look under hood around engine compartment.look for a radiator cap near radiator,add 50/50 antifreeze and water to coolant system to bring up boiling point.pure water will cause engine run hotter because water evaporate away,remove radiator pour coolant in the radiator until coolant stop dropping in the radiator now some vechicle pour coolant in the coolant overflow jug,pour coolant until coolant level stop dropping and the coolant level stay at cold full mark.start engie let idle few minutes, watch coolant level in radiator if coolant start dropping add more coolant, when coolant level stop dropping put radiator cap back on let engine idle until both top radaitor hose and bottom coolant hose get warm turn off engine wait until it get cool then take a large rag slightly open radiator just a litle at a time to keep from getting scaled.once radiator remove add more coolant if low,put radiator cap back on start the engine let it idle watch the temp gauge if temperature gauge going hot zone stop engine wait until cool then add more coolant,keep doing this until engine stop overheating going into hot zone and coolant level stop dropping,make the coolant overflow jug coolant level stay at full cold mark, dont let jug run empty if so air will get in the coolant system causing engine to overheat.
Your thermostat which closes when cold to let the engine warm up and opens when the water gets hot and lets it circulate through the radiator. If they stick closed your engine overheats in short order. When they stick open it takes forever and a day for the heater to warm sufficiently. This also makes the engine use more fuel. If your thermostat is indeed stuck open it is easy to tell. With the engine cold, take the radiator cap off and start the engine. If it is stuck open water will immediately circulate as seen at the radiator cap opening. If the thermostat were operating normally you would not see water moving for 5 or more minutes of idling. You should always drain the coolant, flush and refill every 2 years. Never ever grab that garden hose and put tap water in your radiator. They come from the factory with distilled water (about $1 a gallon at any grocery store) which has no minerals in it. The minerals in tap water promotes rust and scale build-up in the cooling system reducing it's efficiency. Don't use tap water unless you WANT to have problems.
What you are describing sounds like there is air in the cooling system-Start the engine when it is cold with the cap off of the overflow and turn the heater up to full blast-make sure there is coolant in the reservoir, and keep an eye on the gauge, At the point where the thermostat opens, the level in the overflow should drop-top off the overflow filling to the 'full hot' mark on the side of the tank. Put the cap back on and drive it, watching the gauge. If you still have issues, you may have a problem with a malfunctioning thermostat. If it is alright after doing this, make it a point to check the level when it is cold again later to be sure the coolant tank is up to the 'fill cold' line.
i do not know exactly but that size vehicle usually holds almost two gallons, fill it up, put the cap on the radiator, run the vehicle until the temp guage is at normal operating temp, then turn the vehicle off. after about a 15 min wait, use a rag and take the radiator cap off slowly and make sure there isn't any pressure behind it. after removing, top off the radiator again and fill the overflow tank to the max level. this should get all the air out and get you on the road again. check again everytime you get gas for a couple times making sure that the level is good.
Heater not working sounds like a blower motor or heating core. Make sure that your antifreeze is green and mix 50/50 with water, now check and sqeeze your hoses running from and to the Radiator and if its VERY hard and has a crunch sound, it's blocked up, use radiator flush and follow directions, If not than look into the Thermostat b/c if it needs repaired than it will stick and let enough fluid into the engine so that it does not overheat yet with the pressure will back up into the resevoir. My new thermostat is a 140 degree and i've never soon my temp meter get to half way after that.