If something goes wrong with your car and you don't know much about car repair, then it's time to go to the shop and find out what's wrong. However, lots of people are understandably worried about getting ripped off—mechanics are pretty good at detecting when a customer doesn't know anything about cars. To avoid this, it's a good idea to narrow down the possibilities of what's going on inside your car. Your sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell are the only tools you'll need.
Look Around You
A few sight checks can help ensure that important parts of your car are working as they should be. Here's what to look for:
Warning lights: The warning lights on your dashboard are the most obvious starting point. Yet the most common, the Check Engine light, can be utterly confusing because it can cover problems ranging widely in severity. Others, like the engine temperature light, tire pressure light, or oil light are more straightforward to decipher. Regardless of what lights up, never ignore it. Delaying a diagnosis and repair could lead to even bigger problems down the road.
Tire check: Take a close look at your tires to make sure they're in good shape. Tires have a tread that increases grip and channels water away from the contact patch, reducing your chances of hydroplaning. Maintaining sufficient tread depth is important, and checking takes a matter of seconds.
Find a penny and stick it in the tread, with Abraham Lincoln's head pointing toward the center of the wheel. If you can see the top of his head above the tread, the tires are worn and need to be replaced. Also keep an eye out for cracks and bulges in the sidewall, which can form in hot weather or if you drive over debris in the road. Cracks and bulges are weak points which can fail unexpectedly, so it's smart to replace any tires with these defects.
Fluid puddles: If you ever spot fluid collecting underneath your car, it's cause for concern. Whatever type of fluid it is, it's vital to your car's reliability and performance. Whether it's brake fluid, steering fluid, coolant, or oil, leaks should be fixed as soon as possible. Whenever you pull out of a parking spot, keep an eye out for drips or puddles.
Keep your ears open for anything out of the ordinary, such as:
Clunking or creaking: Worn-out suspension components often make a clunking or creaking sound. If a suspension strut or shock is worn out, it can clunk when force is placed upon it, especially when driving over a bump. Ball joints and bushings require grease to stay lubricated and moving smoothly. If the grease dries out, it can creak like an old staircase.
Ticking or squealing: Hearing a rapid tick or prolonged squeal can indicate an issue with a belt under the hood. A loose timing belt can tick as it slips over the pulleys that connect it to the camshaft and crankshaft. Squealing, especially when turning the steering wheel, is often caused by a stretched out power steering belt or failing power steering pump.
However, a high-pitched squeal when you push the brakes probably means that the pads are worn out. Brake pads have a wear indicator that comes into contact with the rotor as the pad material wears away, letting you know it's time for a new set.
Popping or banging: Engine backfires occur when fuel ignites when it's not supposed to, producing a popping or banging noise. Multiple issues can cause backfires, from worn-out spark plugs, an imbalanced air/fuel mixture, out-of-sync ignition timing, or dirty air filters. Regardless of the cause, you should get a backfiring engine inspected right away.
Grinding: Grinding is often heard when there's an issue with gears meshing together, so unsurprisingly transmission problems cause this noise. Your transmission won't work well if it has worn out gears or if the fluid is low, so if you hear a grinding noise along with rough shifting, you have an idea where to look.
Bad brake rotors can also make a grinding noise, but if they're in good shape it could be that some debris is caught in between the pad and rotor.
Bubbling or gurgling: This noise usually means there's air mixing with fluid. It could be a leak in your cooling system, which allows air into the radiator and increases the chances of overheating. A blown head gasket can also allow exhaust to enter the cooling system, which can cause a bubbling or gurgling sound when the engine is running.