How to Diagnose Car Problems Based on the Symptoms

by David Montoya

Car problems are dreaded by drivers not only because of the possible inconvenience of having a broken-down car, but also because most drivers are not auto mechanics. Not understanding what that strange clicking sound is or why your car is shaking can conjure up images of major repairs, when these symptoms can actually be an indication of an easily remedied problem. An open ear and a watchful eye can recognize several common car problems and their symptoms.

Car Does Not Start

Turn the ignition on the car and listen for a clicking sound. A clicking sound is one of the major indicators of a dead battery.

If your car starts and stays on momentarily but then cuts off, turn on your windshield wipers. If the wipers do not work during the time the car stays on, a dead battery is the most likely culprit. Wipers work entirely off of a car's battery.

Listen for a grinding sound from the engine when turning the ignition. A grinding sound can point to a problem with the alternator (the sound is generated by the failure of ball bearings in the alternator). The alternator generates power for the car's battery. A broken generator will mean the battery is not charged and will prevent your car from starting. Other problems that can prevent your car from starting and also create a grinding sound are a broken starter drive (the starter drive helps the engine power itself) or a worn ring gear (another "starting" component of the engine).

Brake Problems

Step on the brake and feel for a brake pedal that depresses too easily. If lightly tapping the brake pedal causes it to press down much more than usual for your car, this is a sign of a brake fluid leak.

Look in your rear-view mirror to see if your car brake lights are turned on without pressing the brake pedal. This is an indication of low brake fluid. The fluid will engage the brake light sensor in your car if it is too low.

Check for shaking when you press the brake pedal. There are a couple problems associated with a car that shakes while braking. The first problem is a possible warped rear drum. The second problem is wearing of the bearings in the rear wheels. Regardless of the cause, the source of the problem is most likely originating in the rear of the car.


  • close Cars with brake problems should be taken to a trusted mechanic immediately.

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About the Author

David Montoya is an attorney who graduated from the UCLA School of Law. He also holds a Master of Arts in American Indian studies. Montoya's writings often cover legal topics such as contract law, estate law, family law and business.

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  • photo_camera driver in broken car image by Dmitry Goygel-Sokol from