Perform a test on you "air intake temperature sensor" a.k.a. "air charge temperature sensor". When those things go bad they can really screw your mileage up. Get a Hayne's manual for this vehicle. It'll tell you how to perform tests on the sensors.
I just changed the thermostat (the old one was stuck open) on my 96' Explorer. The temperature gauge will fluctuate now, getting pretty hot then dropping kinda cold. It will stabilize after you drive for a while. There is so much coolant that I think this is a way to get it all warmed up? I'm not sure, I used to have a Honda. I do know that the Exploder is running better, getting better mileage- so everything seems to be fine.
No, the thermostat controls the temperature of the engine coolant. As long as the coolant temperature is below the thermostat set-point, the thermostat remains closed. Once the temperature arrives at the set-point, the thermostat starts to open, sending heated coolant through the radiator. The radiator then cools the heated engine coolant and the water pump forces the coolant back through the engine. The heater control valve allows more or less of the engine coolant through the heater core. Since the coolant should be very near the set-point temperature of the thermostat, you should be getting hot water through the heater core to warm the inside of the vehicle. The engine coolant is there to keep the engine from melting down or from breaking metal parts and burnng off the oil. It just happens that the heated coolant is useful to warm the inside of the vehicle.
Overheating is due to, well, the coolant in the cooling system getting too hot. In a normally operating engine, this should never be a problem. First, check that the coolant level is correct. If it is correct, I would suspect a problem with the thermostat. When the engine is cold, the thermostat closes off coolant flow through the engine until the coolant reaches a pre-determined temperature. When that temperature is reached, the thermostat opens to allow the coolant to circulate at that exact temperature. Thermostats are known for failing and either not opening or not opening enough at that pre-determined temperature. This causes coolant to get trapped too long in the engine coolant chambers, heating it beyond limits, causing the engine temperature to increase and possibly overheat. If my Maxima was overheating, I would check the coolant levels and then possibly replace the thermostat. It usually is no more complicated than that.
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