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usually when a vehicle backfires, it is caused by the timing or a bad crank sensor. symtoms of a bad coolant sensor are--poor cold idle, stalling, ( rich mixture,retarded timing) slow idle speed, cold hesitation or stumble, and poor fuel milage. check coolant sensor first. good-luck!!
symtoms of a bad coolant sensor: poor car idle, rich mixture, retarded timing, slow idle speed, cold hesitation or stumble, poor fuel milage, check and make sure air filter is clean. and check plugs and wires if need be,
It sounds like you may have a broken exhaust valve spring, although, like you have found out problems like this can be very hard to diagnose, but anyone with a compression tester and couple other tools could find out if this is the case. Hope this gives you another idea where to look.