Second of two parts
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 are around your vehicle, listening for strange noises, sensing a difference in the way your vehicle handles, or even noticing unusual odors.
Small stains or an occasional drop of fluid under your vehicle may not mean much. However, wet spots deserve attention. Check puddles immediately.
You can identify fluids by their color and consistency:
Yellowish green, pastel blue or flourescent 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. If may be normal condensation from your vehicle’s air conditioner.
Some problems are under your nose. You can identify them by their odor:
A smell of burning 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 smell of rotten eggs, a continuous burning sulfer smell, usually indicates a problem in the catalytic converter or other emission control devices. Don’t delay diagnosis and repair.
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 for 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 smoking coming from a wheel indicates a struck brake. The vehicle should be towed for repairs.
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.
Here are some common noises and what they mean:
Squeal — A shrill, sharp noise, usually related to engine speed could mean a loose or worn power steering, fan or air conditioning belt.
Click — A slight, sharp noise, related either to engine or vehicle speed could mean a loose wheel cover, a loose or bent fan blade, a stuck valve lifter or low engine oil.
Screech — A high-pitched, piercing metallic sound, usually occurring while vehicle is in motion could be caused by brake wear indicators to let you know it’s time for maintenance.
Rumble — A low-pitched rhythmic sound could mean a defective exhaust pipe, converter or muffler, or a worn universal joint or other drive-line component.
Ping — A high-pitched metallic tapping sound, related to engine speed is usually 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 could mean a worn crankshaft or connecting rod bearings, or a loose transmission torque converter.
Clunk — A random thumping sound could mean a loose shock absorber or other suspension component, or a loose exhaust pipe or muffler.
Difficult handling, a rough ride, vibration and poor performance are symptoms you can feel. They almost always indicate a problem:
Steering problems could occur when the front wheels have been misaligned, or the steering components (idler or ball joints) are worn. Pulling, the vehicle’s tendency to steer to the left or right, can be caused by something as routine as under-inflated tires, or by something as serious as a damaged or misaligned front end.
Ride and handling problems, such as poor cornering, could occur when shock absorbers or other suspension components are worn, or tires aren’t inflated properly. While 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. Springs 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. Balance tires carefully. An unbalanced or improperly balanced tire causes a vehicle to vibrate and may wear steering and suspension components prematurely.
Brake problems have several symptoms. Scheduled diagnosis and repair if: the vehicle pulls to one side when applying brakes; the brake pedal sinks to the floor when pressure is maintained; you hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking; or the “brake” light on the instrument panel is lit.
Engine trouble require diagnosis and repair if: you have difficulty starting the engine; the “check engine” light on the instrument panel is lit; rought idling or stalling; poor acceleration; poor fuel economy; excessive oil use (more than one quart between changes); or the engine 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 abrupt or hard shifts between gears, delayed or no response when shifting from neutral to drive or reverse, failure to shift during normal acceleration, slippage during acceleration (the engine speeds up, but the vehicle does not respond).
Car trouble doesn’t always mean major repairs. Here are some common causes of trouble and techniques to help you and your technician find and fix problems:
Alternator — Loose wiring can make your alternator appear defective. Your technician should check for loose connections and perform an output test replacing the alternator.
Battery — Corroded or loose battery terminals can make the battery appear dead or defective. Your technician should clean the terminals and test the battery function before replacing the battery.
Starter — What appears to be a defective starter actually may be a dead battery or poor connection. Ask your technician to check all connections and test the battery before repairing the starter.
Muffler — A loud, rumbling noise under your vehicle indicates a need for a new muffler or exhaust pipe.
Tune-up — The old-fashioned “tune-up” may not be relevant to your vehicle. Fewer parts, other than belts, spark plugs, hoses and filters, need to be replaced on newer vehicles. Follow the recommendations in your owner’s manual.
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