Using Your Senses to Spot Car Trouble

How do you know when there’s something wrong with your car?

If you’ve had your vehicle for a long time, it’s usually pretty easy to tell when something “feels off,” but a new-to-you car can be trickier because you’re not necessarily going to be very familiar with it. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to spot car trouble regardless of how long you’ve been driving your vehicle-use your senses!

Many common vehicle problems can be identified by simply relying on your sense of sight, smell, hearing, and touch. From strange sounds to unpleasant odors, here are some examples of how paying attention to your senses as you drive can be invaluable in determining when your car needs service or repairs.

Visual Signs of Trouble

Visual cues are often the first indication of a problem. Keep an eye out for:

  • Steam coming from under the hood
  • Excessive or strangely-colored exhaust smoke
  • Dashboard warning lights
  • Fluid leaks underneath your vehicle

If you spot a fluid leak, make a note of how much fluid is there. Small drips or stains aren’t necessarily an emergency, but large puddles should be addressed immediately. It’s also very helpful to pay attention to the color and consistency of the fluid, as that can help us identify which type of fluid is leaking. For example:

  • Oil: amber, dark brown, or black oily fluid
  • Antifreeze: yellowish green, pastel blue, or fluorescent orange fluid
  • Transmission or power steering: red, oily fluid
  • Clear water: usually not a problem; often caused by normal condensation from your air conditioner

You can also look for uneven tire wear and damage (like cracks or bulges), and in some vehicles, check the thickness of your brake pads.

Unusual Odors

Some car issues are literally right under your nose! Here are some common issues that you can detect using your sense of smell:

  • Moldy odors: an old cabin air filter or the air conditioner needs servicing.
  • Burnt toast: electrical system issues or burning insulation
  • A strong, acrid odor: burning oil or overheated brakes or clutch
  • A sulfur or rotten egg-like smell: issues with the emission control device or the catalytic converter; old transmission fluid
  • The smell of gas after difficulty starting your car: a flooded engine or a fuel system leak
  • A sulfur or rotten egg smell: a faulty catalytic converter or emission control device, battery issues, or old transmission fluid
  • A sweet, pleasant odor: coolant leak
  • A metallic scent and steam coming from under the hood: overheated engine
  • A smoky or burning smell: fluid leaks near the engine, overheated brakes, or a bad clutch

Odd Sounds

Although strange or unusual sounds can be unnerving, they often provide valuable clues about what’s going on with your car:

  • Squealing: a worn fan, loose air conditioning belts, a loose or worn timing belt, or issues with the power steering system
  • Clicking: Low engine oil, bent or loose fan blades, or the valve lifters are stuck
  • A high-pitched screech: worn brake pads
  • Rumbling: worn universal joint or drive line components; faulty exhaust pipe, muffler, or catalytic converter
  • Creaking or clunking: worn suspension or exhaust components
  • Banging: backfires due to a bad spark plug or imbalanced air-fuel mixture
  • Engine pinging: using lower octane gas than recommended
  • Bubbling or gurgling: cooling system leaks, blown head gasket

Your Car Feels Strange

There are a variety of issues that can cause your vehicle to feel strange, including:

  • Pulling or wandering on the road: brake issues, a misaligned front end, under-inflated tires, worn steering components
  • Shaking or vibrating: wheel alignment issues, worn engine or transmission mounts, worn or warped rotors, failing suspension components, engine timing issues
  • Difficult handling: under-inflated or over-inflated tires, worn suspension components, unbalanced tires, power steering issues
  • Loose or spongey brake pedal: low or old brake fluid, air in the brake lines
  • Rough idling: clogged air filter, bad spark plugs, exhaust system issues, dirty fuel injectors

Keep in mind that this is by no means a complete list. If something doesn’t look, smell, sound, or feel right with your vehicle, trust your instincts and schedule an appointment to have the issue checked out.

If you’ve noticed any of these issues, it’s also important to pay attention to when they happen. For example, if you notice odd engine noises, do they only happen when you’re accelerating? Was your engine cold, or were you driving for a while? Any additional information you can provide will help us diagnose and repair your vehicle faster.

Whether you need an inspection, maintenance, or repairs, you can rely on the team at RPM Automotive Services. Family-owned and operated for over 36 years, our team is dedicated to helping you keep your vehicle in top condition. With a wide range of services, including oil changes, wheel alignments, brake repairs, and engine repairs, we offer everything your vehicle needs. In addition, we offer a complimentary shuttle service and loaner cars to keep your life moving while your vehicle is at the shop.

Contact us today at (707) 800-4586 or schedule an appointment online!

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