11 Things Your Car Is Trying to Tell You
On any given day, your car might decide to speak to you. Here’s how to interpret what it’s saying.
High-school language classes, online courses, and foreign immersion programs might teach you how to say, “pass the trousers,” in Italian, but none of them can teach you one crucial language: Car.
On any given day, your car might decide to speak to you, and not in the manner of those old Chrysler New Yorkers from the 80s. Your car might whistle or screech, thump or groan, or decide to engage you in a game of charades with a performative shimmy.
Here’s how to interpret what it’s saying, and act accordingly.
No. 1: A Slapping Noise that Increases Tempo with Vehicle Speed
This is the sound of a dying tire. Its tread is separating from the carcass of the tire. As the tread leaves the tires, it may turn into a giant steel-reinforced Weed Eater. It can cause massive damage to the vehicle’s bodywork as it leaves the tire. So if you hear it, don’t keep driving.
No. 2: The Smell of Pancake Syrup
A sweet scent coming from the engine bay probably means the vehicle’s cooling system is having problems. The smell and (we’re told) sweet taste of most automotive antifreeze/coolant comes from its ethelyne glycol. The source of the leak could be anything from an old, cracked, or ruptured radiator hose to a water pump on its last legs.
Ignore this smell and you could wind up stranded miles from help with an overheated engine. If you find an green, orange, or yellow puddle under the car, the issue is beyond looking the other way.
No. 3: Puddles in Your Parking Space
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A puddle under your car can mean anything from “it’s really humid today” to “you cross-threaded the oil-drain plug and I’m bleeding to death.” When you see fluid under your car, take note of its color and location under the car. Rub a bit between your fingers and smell it. Most often it’ll be water coming from the air-conditioning condenser.
If it’s clear and oily, it’s probably power steering fluid, check for leaks around the pump or power steering rack. If it’s darker, slippery, and you’ve recently had your oil changed, it could be a puddle of clean oil resulting from the fact that the mechanic damaged the oil drain plug or improperly installed the oil filter.
No. 4: Other Kinds of Puddles
Reddish-brown fluid and a lightly oily feel is your automatic transmission telling you that a line running to the trans cooler could have been punctured or the transmission has a seal going bad. If the ATF fluid also has a burnt smell, that transmission probably needs an overhaul. If you find an oily fluid on the inside sidewall of a tire, that’s probably leaking brake fluid. Lost brake fluid means a likelihood of air in the brake lines and almost zero braking power, so get it checked out ASAP. If there’s a very dark, heavy, sticky oil under your truck’s rear axle, the seals in your differential could be letting go.
No. 5: Squealing Like a Pig
A high-pitched whining or squealing that comes from the engine bay and matches engine speed is often an accessory belt in its death throes. Back in the day, we could limp to a service station with a broken water-pump belt or the separate alternator belt. Today’s belts turn myriad devices including power steering, water pump, air conditioning compressor, and alternator. A broken belt will likely leave the car DRT (dead right there).
If you’re greeted with a high-pitch squeal when you tap the brake lightly while at speed, what you’ve got is brake pads or shoes at the end of their life. The squeal comes from a tab of metal built into the pad that becomes exposed as material wears away. If the noise changes or goes away, head to the mechanic.
No. 6: Grinding Noise #1
If you’ve continued ignoring the squealing brakes and they go silent, the next noise you’ll hear from them is a powerful grinding. The last of the pad has ground away and the metal backing plate is now clamping directly onto the brake disc. Braking effectiveness is greatly reduced and the car is now dangerous. Not only that, but your repair bill is going up, too, since the discs will have to be replaced.
No. 7: Grinding Noise #2
If you hear a grinding, clicking, or rumbling noise during a tight turn in the parking lot, it’s likely a failing constant-velocity joint on a front-wheel-drive car. A CV joint allows the front wheels to both receive power and turn. Ignore this long enough and you’ll have a one-wheel-drive car at best, and likely a paperweight car unless it’s fitted with a limited slip differential.
Other grinding noises could also be anything from a pebble lodged between the brake pad and the rotor to a failing alternator to bearings going dead. Grinding noises are always bad—ignore them at the expense of your pocketbook.
No. 8: Chuffing Noise From Beneath the Car
If your car sounds like it’s quietly laughing at its fate as you go down the road, that rhythmic chuffing could be an exhaust leak. Sometimes pipes separate a bit or a rust hole develops, leading to exhaust gasses escaping ahead of the muffler. A leak like that might make your car sound like a NASCAR stocker, but it’s definitely something to address if you prefer to keep the carbon monoxide behind your car rather than boiling up underneath your seat.
No. 9: Crunching Noise When Shifting A Manual
If your manual transmission makes a crunching noise between gears, that’s your synchronizers. The synchros get the gear speeds inside your transmission all sympatico before the meshing goes down, allowing you to shift from first to second without thinking about what’s going on down there. When they wear out, the first place you notice it is usually on the 1-2 shift—if you have to be careful and take your time finding the next gear, that’s a sign that your synchros are on the way out.
The good news, we suppose, is that if you take time shifting, you can live with bad synchros—in fact, all gearboxes used to be unsynchronized, requiring drivers to blip the throttle and match revs between gears—which is still something worth learning how to do. In fact, you don’t even necessarily need a clutch, but that’s a discussion to bore the guests at your next cocktail party.
No. 10: Engine Revving… When It Shouldn’t Be
You’re cruising down the highway and you come to a hill. You car’s engine revs up but your speed stays the same. Oh oh? Maybe. If you just bought a Nissan Murano or another car with a continuously variable transmission, not to worry—the dealer said they all do that and this time he’s actually not lying.
A CVT lets revs go all willy nilly because there are no fixed gear ratios, which why CVTs are as fun as a tax audit during a root canal. But if your car does that same thing and it’s got a manual, it’s telling you that your clutch is fried and there’s barely any friction material left on the plates. Time for a new clutch, and soon. If your automatic does the same thing, it’s a similar root cause but, sorry, harder to deal with: You probably need a transmission rebuild.
No. 11: Wandering Like a Beagle With His Nose Down
When your car loses its sense of straight-ahead, you might rightly be concerned there’s a hardware problem afoot in the front end—like your ball joints or steering box. And that could turn out to be the case, but before you start throwing money at expensive parts, go get an alignment.
When was the last time you had that done? If you have no idea, you’re probably due. And you might find that your car drives a lot better when the tires are pointing down the road rather than at each other. As an added bonus, keeping your car properly aligned will help you get the most mileage out of a set of tires, too.