Automotive maintenance and the troubleshooting of even basic problems can be extremely complex. As cars become increasingly more advanced, new computer-controlled elements and increasingly complex drivetrains are introduced into vehicles, and the level of difficulty in diagnosing and repairing a problem only goes up.

For the regular motorist, particularly those who are not mechanically inclined, sorting out car problems can be a daunting process. Luckily, there is a basic level of intuitive diagnosing that anyone can do with nothing more than their senses. This because most cars will consistently have certain symptoms that correspond to certain problems. At the very least, being able to identify the area in which the problem is located is a huge step in sorting out automotive issues.

In this article, we will show you how by using your natural senses, you can detect some issues before they become a bigger problem.


1. Smells Like Trouble

Check your car for unusual smells. Different smells on the inside or outside of your car can indicate issues with your car.

Unlike with noise or vibration, unusual smells are far easier to detect because they are usually more noticeable. There will always be background noise and normal vibrations in a car, but the smell is usually more or less neutral.

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

- The smell of burned toast — a light, sharp odour — often signals an electrical short and burning insulation. To be safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the problem is diagnosed.

- The smell of rotten eggs coming from your car — a continuous burning-sulphur smell — usually indicates a problem in the exhaust, such as the catalytic converter. Do not delay diagnosis and repair.

- A thick acrid odour usually means burning oil. This can cause your engine to catch fire.

- The smell of fuel vapours after a failed start may mean you have flooded the engine if you have an older car. Most cars built in recent years will not have this issue. If you have a newer car, this most likely means you do not have an ignition and will need to tow your car to a shop.

- Burning resin or a chemical odour may signal overheated brakes or clutch. Check that you are not driving with the parking brake engaged. 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 odour could indicate 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 odour 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.


 2. Sounds Like Trouble

Use your sense of hearing. When you first start driving, always pay close attention to how your car sounds when the engine is turned on, while driving, and while it is in park.

Become familiar with the sounds in your car when everything is operating properly so that you will know when things start to sound abnormal


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

- Loose or worn power steering, fan, drive belt, or air conditioning belt.


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

- Loose wheel cover.

- Loose or bent fan blade.

- Stuck valve lifter or low engine oil.


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

- Caused by brake wear indicators to let you know it is time for maintenance.


Rumble — a low-pitched rhythmic sound.

- Defective exhaust pipe, converter, or muffler.

- Worn universal joint or another drive-line component.


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

- 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:

- Worn crankshaft or connecting rod bearings.

- Loose transmission torque converter.


Clunk — A random thumping sound:

- Loose shock absorber or another suspension component.

- Loose exhaust pipe or muffler.


 3. Looks Like Trouble

Keep an eye out for issues. For the most part when you are driving, your eyes should be on the road ahead. When this is the case, the only way to really diagnose a mechanical issue visually is to see smoke coming from under the hood. But, before you get into the car, or perhaps once you get out of the car, take a few moments to perform a visual inspection in your engine bay and under your car. Remember how they made us do that on our K53 test?


One thing that you should definitely keep an eye on is the dashboard. There are several warning lights on the dashboard that can tell you when there is a problem. The main light to keep an eye out for is the Check Engine light. If you find that this light has illuminated on your dashboard, have it professionally diagnosed by a qualified mechanic.

Have a look under your vehicle, or at the area where your vehicle has been parked. 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 colour and consistency:

- Yellowish green, pastel blue or florescent orange colours could indicate an antifreeze leak caused by a bad hose, water pump or leaking radiator. This can cause the engine to overheat, do not ignore this.

- A dark brown or black oily fluid could mean the engine is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the leak.

- A red oily spot can indicate a transmission or power-steering fluid leak.

- A puddle of clear water under the car is not usually a problem. It may be normal condensation from your vehicle’s air conditioner.


 4. Feels Like Trouble

Your hands and feet are equally useful for diagnosing mechanical issues. To diagnose car issues using your sense of touch, you do not need to go around and physically touch every component of your vehicle. Instead, use it to sense unusual vibrations and other indicators that something is amiss.

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



- Misaligned front wheels and/or worn steering components, like the tie rod or ball joint, can cause wandering or difficulty steering in a straight line.

- Pulling — 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

- Worn struts or shock absorbers or other suspension components— or improper tire inflation — can contribute to poor cornering.

- 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 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:

- The vehicle pulls to one side when the brakes are applied.

- The brake pedal sinks to the floor when pressure is maintained.

- You hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking.

- The “brake” or “ABS” light on the instrument panel is lit.



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

- Difficulty starting the engine.

- The “check engine” light on the instrument panel is lit.

- Rough idling or stalling.

- Poor acceleration.

- Poor fuel economy.

- Excessive oil use (more than one quart between changes).

- 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.


 5. Tastes like trouble?

Start My Car does not recommend ingesting or tasting ANY part of your vehicle.