Advice to Keep your Car Going!

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Heading Off Problems

The more you know about your vehicle, the more likely you'll be able to head off repair problems. You can detect many common vehicle problems by using your senses: eyeballing the area around your vehicle, listening for strange noises, sensing a difference in the way your vehicle handles, or even noticing unusual odors.

Looks Like Trouble
Small stains or an occasional drop of fluid under your vehicle may not mean much. But wet spots deserve attention; check puddles immediately.

You can identify fluids by their color and consistency:

bulletYellowish 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.
bulletA dark brown or black oily fluid means the engine is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the leak.
bulletA red oily spot indicates a transmission or power-steering fluid leak.
bulletA puddle of clear water usually is no problem. It may be normal condensation from your vehicle's air conditioner.

Smells Like Trouble
Some problems are under your nose. You can detect them by their odor:

bulletThe 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.
bulletThe smell of rotten eggs - a continuous burning-sulphur smell - usually indicates a problem in the catalytic converter or other emission control devices. Don't delay diagnosis and repair.
bulletA thick acrid odor usually means burning oil. Look for sign of a leak.
bulletThe 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.
bulletBurning 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.
bulletA 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.

Sounds Like Trouble
Squeaks, squeals, rattles, rumbles, and other sounds provide valuable clues about problems and maintenance needs. Here are some common noises and what they mean:

Squeal - A shrill, sharp noise, usually related to engine speed:

bulletLoose or worn power steering, fan or air conditioning belt.

Click - A slight sharp noise, related to either engine speed or vehicle speed:

bulletLoose wheel cover.
bulletLoose or bent fan blade.
bulletStuck valve lifter or low engine oil.

Screech - A high-pitched, piercing metallic sound; usually occurs while the vehicle is in motion:

bulletCaused by brake wear indicators to let you know it's time for maintenance.

Rumble - a low-pitched rhythmic sound.

bulletDefective exhaust pipe, converter or muffler.
bulletWorn universal joint or other drive-line component.

Ping - A high-pitched metallic tapping sound, related to engine speed:

bulletUsually caused by using gas with a lower octane rating than recommended. Check your owner's manual for the proper octane rating. If the problem persists, engine ignition timing could be at fault.

Heavy Knock - A rhythmic pounding sound:

bulletWorn crankshaft or connecting rod bearings.
bulletLoose transmission torque converter.

Clunk - A random thumping sound:

bulletLoose shock absorber or other suspension component.
bulletLoose exhaust pipe or muffler.

Feels Like Trouble
Difficult handling, a rough ride, vibration and poor performance are symptoms you can feel. They almost always indicate a problem.


bulletMisaligned front wheels and/or worn steering components, such as the idler or ball joint, can cause wandering or difficulty steering in a straight line.
bulletPulling - the vehicle's tendency to steer to the left or right - can be caused by something as routine as under-inflated tires, or as serious as a damaged or misaligned front end.

Ride and Handling

bulletWorn shock absorbers or other suspension components - or improper tire inflation - can contribute to poor cornering.
bulletWhile there is no hard and fast rule about when to replace shock absorbers or struts, try this test: bounce the vehicle up and down hard at each wheel and then let go. See how many times the vehicle bounces. Weak shocks will allow the vehicle to bounce twice or more.
bulletSprings do not normally wear out and do not need replacement unless one corner of the vehicle is lower than the others. Overloading your vehicle can damage the springs.
bulletBalance tires properly. An unbalanced or improperly balanced tire causes a vehicle to vibrate and may wear steering and suspension components prematurely.

Brake problems have several symptoms. Schedule diagnosis and repair if:

bulletThe vehicle pulls to one side when the brakes are applied.
bulletThe brake pedal sinks to the floor when pressure is maintained.
bulletYou hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking.
bulletThe "brake" light on the instrument panel is lit.

The following symptoms indicate engine trouble. Get a diagnosis and schedule the repair.

bulletDifficulty starting the engine.
bulletThe "check engine" light on the instrument panel is lit.
bulletRough idling or stalling.
bulletPoor acceleration.
bulletPoor fuel economy.
bulletExcessive oil use (more than one quart between changes).
bulletEngine continues running after the key is removed.

Poor transmission performance may come from actual component failure or a simple disconnected hose or plugged filter. Make sure the technician checks the simple items first; transmission repairs normally are expensive. Some of the most common symptoms of transmission problems are:

bulletAbrupt or hard shifts between gears.
bulletDelayed or no response when shifting from neutral to drive or reverse.
bulletFailure to shift during normal acceleration.

Slippage during acceleration. The engine speeds up, but the vehicle does not respond.

Presented by the Federal Trade Commission,
the National Association of Attorneys General
and the American Automobile Association


Total Automotive
5416 Quesada Rd.
Riverdale Park, MD 20737

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