Car have problems? Wondering what the problem might be?

We asked the Federal Trade Commission to give us some basic symptoms and diagnoses for common car problems.


We know: How to Diagnose a Car Problem

When the problem is fluid

  • Yellowish green, pastel blue or florescent orange colors indicate an overheated engine or an antifreeze leak caused by a bad hose, water pump or leaking radiator.
  • A dark brown or black oily fluid means the engine is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the leak.
  • A red oily spot indicates a transmission or power-steering fluid leak.
  • A puddle of clear water usually is no problem. It may be normal condensation from your vehicle's air conditioner.

When the problem stinks

  • The smell of rotten eggs - a continuous burning-sulfur smell - usually indicates a problem in the catalytic converter or other emission control devices. Don't delay diagnosis and repair.
  • The smell of burned toast - a light, sharp odor - often signals an electrical short and burning insulation. To be safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the problem is diagnosed.
  • A thick acrid odor usually means burning oil. Look for sign of a leak.
  • The smell of gasoline vapors after a failed start may mean you have flooded the engine. Wait a few minutes before trying again. If the odor persists, chances are there's a leak in the fuel system - a potentially dangerous problem that needs immediate attention.
  • Burning resin or an acrid chemical odor may signal overheated brakes or clutch. Check the parking brake. Stop. Allow the brakes to cool after repeated hard braking on mountain roads. Light smoke coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. The vehicle should be towed for repair.
  • A sweet, steamy odor indicates a coolant leak. If the temperature gauge or warning light does not indicate overheating, drive carefully to the nearest service station, keeping an eye on your gauges. If the odor is accompanied by a hot, metallic scent and steam from under the hood, your engine has overheated. Pull over immediately. Continued driving could cause severe engine damage. The vehicle should be towed for repair.

When the problem wont keep quiet

  1. A squeal or shrill sharp noise could mean a worn power steering, fan or air conditioning belt.
  2. A click or slight sharp noise related to speed could mean a loose wheel cover, bent fan blade, stuck valve lifter, or low engine oil.
  3. A high pitched screech or metallic sound that occurs when the car is in motion could be caused by brake wear indicators letting you know its time for maintenance.
  4. A low-pitched, rhythmic rumble could be a defective exhaust pipe, converter or muffler, as well as a universal joint or drive-line component.
  5. A ping metallic taping sound related to engine speed is usually caused by using gas with a lower octane than recommended. It could also be the engine ignition timing.
  6. A heavy knock and rhythmic pounding could be a worn crankshaft, connecting rod bearings, or loose transmission torque converter.
  7. A clunk or random thumbing could be a loose shock absorber, exhaust pipe, muffler or other suspension component.


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