10 signs to look for when your car isn’t running properly

Automobiles are an inseparable part of most people’s day-to-day life. And the majority of the populous isn’t petrolheads like us at CarIndigo. Most people view their cars as a means of transport and that’s all. This major cohort of the population often does not pick up on signs that their car isn’t running properly until when it is too late and then they have to contact the dealership and get the car towed. Plus, modern automobiles are complex with numerous electrical systems and plenty of technology that can and does go wrong at some point in time.

10 signs to look for when your car isn't running properly 4

Even the most basic consumer cars like the Toyota Corolla and the ever-popular 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe come with a whole host of diagnostic systems that monitor the health of the vehicle. Still, many drivers often ignore the common warning signs that indicate something is wrong. Here is a comprehensive guide to understanding and be prepared for the various warning signs that your car isn’t running properly.

Sign 1: Messages and Warning Lights in your dashboard.

The various diagnostic systems present in almost all the cars on the road today are quite sophisticated and people no longer need to rely on their senses to determine if something is wrong. When the tiny computer in your Toyota Corolla or Chevy Tahoe or any car for that matter realizes something isn`t functioning like the way it should be, it will display a symbol on the dashboard or in the infotainment system.

Whether it`s just a “check engine” light or a “low coolant” sign, you should make it a priority and check what`s causing the system to trigger these warning signs. The most common warning signs that should never be ignored are as follows:

  • Low Engine Oil Pressure
  • Engine Coolant Temperature Warning
  • Charging System Warning
  • Check Engine Light (Flashing) – solid light is typically due to emissions and not indicate immediate trouble
  • Tire Pressure (TPMS) Warning

If any of these lights pop up, you should pull over and determine what must be up. It is best if you avoid any longer trips if any of these signs are visible on your dash. Cars are also like humans, if you diagnose the disease early on there is a chance that it might be fixed quickly and the medical bill will also be relatively low.

Sign 2: Look out for sounds when braking

This is one of the most common and the most easily noticeable warning signs. The brakes on your car are not designed to last an eternity. Friction does its job and wears the brake pads out. Firstly, you need to know how much is the functional life of your brake pads. Usually, it’s a few thousand kilometers, depending on the car. Like, for the 2021 Toyota Camry the brake pads usually last from 30,000 to 70,000 miles.

So, even if your car isn’t making any grinding or squeaking sound when braking, it is your responsibility to get the brake pads replaced after the functional life has expired. If you`re driving and you hear a squeaking sound after pressing the brake pedal, it is a sign that the brake pads are wearing out. If you continue driving with the squeaking sound, that sound might evolve into a grinding sound, and this means that the brake pads have completely worn out.

This is particularly dangerous and could easily result in a complete brake failure. Moreover, if you got your brakes fixed at the first instance of the `squeaking` sound chances are that only the brake pads need replacement. If the pads have worn out, your Brake rotors might get damaged, and now you`re looking at a hefty cost for replacing the entire brake assembly.

Even if there is no sound, any unusual feeling when pressing the brake should not be ignored. Brakes can sometimes feel spongy and might not respond well. This could be an issue with the air in the brake lines or low brake fluid. If you cant spot the difference between regular brake performance and spongy feeling brakes, try to notice any difference in stopping time and distance of your car. If your car takes longer to stop than usual, it’s a clear sign of underperforming brakes.

Sign 3: Sounds coming from under the hood

We all can agree that the engine is the most vital component of any car. And when any sound or strange noises pop up from under the hood, it is a telltale sign that something is wrong. Engine sounds can be attributed to many different causes and it is often out of the reach of your DIY toolkit. If you hear any strange noise, clicking, tapping, or knocking sound coming out of your engine, you should pull up to a garage or a dealership immediately. Ignoring this sign often leads to costly repairs later.

Sign 4: Inconsistent steering feel/trouble steering / jerky wheel

The first signs to notice here are the slight variations or vibrations that might creep up into your steering wheel. The most common of these signs is when you have to put in the effort to keep the car going straight. In this case, the steering wheel might lean into one side, either left or right, on its own thus requiring you to counter steer to keep the car going straight. Ignoring steering-related signs can be fatal as losing the ability to steer usually ends up in a crash.

The steering wheel can also feel loose sometimes, and this might be an issue with the tie rods and tie rod ends that connect the wheels to the steering wheel assembly. In this case, the steering wheel will feel disconnected and lighter than usual.

Sign 5: Oil issues

Oil in your vehicle is vital for the proper functioning of the powertrain. Regular top-ups of oil are essential for ensuring optimal engine life. Oil-related issues are usually caused by low levels of oil in your engine. The most common signs to notice are a dip in performance, slow acceleration than usual, and the oil check light turning on in the dashboard.

Driving your vehicle with low levels of oil is dangerous and might turn out very expensive if your engine gets damaged. Another issue related to oil might be a clogged filter, this occurs if you wait too long to change the oil. However, modern cars like the Toyota Corolla and Chevy Tahoe have bypassed this filter system.

Sign 6: Tire Wear Signs

Tire wear is inevitable, you might not face any engine issues, but what you will face is tire wearing out. While it is normal for the tires to wear out, you should be alert for anything excessive.

Watch out for any of these signs

  • Sawtooth appearance on the edges – requires a toe-in or toe-out alignment
  • Rapid wear on the outer edges – signifies the tire is underinflated
  • Rapid wear on the front or rear tires with a front-wheel-drive car – requires rotation
  • Excessive wear on just one side – signifies toe-in or camber misalignment
  • Dips or cups in the tread – indicates worn suspension or misalignment
  • Vibration – might be a suspension issue

Sign 7: Radiator Leaks

For anyone who does not know, a radiator is a device that dissipates heat from your engine and keeps it from overheating. Check for any possible leaks in your parking spot or parking garage. Corrosion leads to radiator leaks that stem from poor maintenance or contaminated fluid. It is pretty easy to fix early on, but keep ignoring it and you could look at expensive repairs. There even have been cases of engine fires and permanent damage due to a leaky radiator, so watch out.

Sign 8: Transmission Fluid Leaks

Just like the radiator leaks, the transmission fluid is essential to keep all the gears and components lubricated and cool. Over time, small holes and crevices might form due to which the fluid can leak out. Ignoring this leak could easily result in transmission failure due to pressure loss and overheating.

Sign 9: Battery issues

Another most common type of issue is with the car battery. Most car batteries need to be replaced every three to six years. It is quite easy to leave a light on for a day and draining out your battery completely. While, not a reason to panic, if you find that the battery is dying continually, you might have a larger problem.

Sign 10: Smoke and Smells

Smoke is an immediate red flag for any vehicle. Smoke is the prelude to a possible fire and needs to be checked out immediately. The most common reason for smoke could be the oil that can be leaking into your engine’s combustion chamber. Smoke from burning oil is usually thick black or blue colored.

An unusual smell in your car can also indicate a variety of problems, which won’t be solved by putting up an air freshener. A burning smell can easily creep up inside the cabin before there is any visible smoke. If your car smells of sulfur, there could be a possible battery or catalytic converter issue. Coolant leaks also have a uniquely sweet smell. Watch out for any kinds of smells, and most importantly, trust your nose.  

The bottom line, it takes quite a bit of experience and knowledge about cars to fix many of these issues. But everyday folks can easily diagnose and recognize what could possibly be wrong with their vehicle. This will help you not only save money by avoiding costly repairs, but you might also retain good value on your car by keeping it tip-top.