Repair and maintenance

Car & Auto

Auto repair: heading off problems

The more you know about your vehicle, the more likely it is you can head off problems. You can detect many common vehicle problems by using your senses. You may learn a lot by inspecting the area around your vehicle, listening for strange noises, sensing a difference in the way your vehicle handles, or even noting unusual odors. 

Feels like trouble

Difficult handling, a rough ride, vibration, and poor performance are some symptoms you can feel. When the driving experience doesn't feel quite right, look for:


  • Wandering, or difficulty steering in a straight line, can be caused by misaligned front wheels or worn steering components, such as the idler arm or ball joints. 
  • Pulling, the vehicle's tendency to steer to the left or right, can be caused by something as simple as under-inflated tires, or as serious as a damaged or misaligned front end.

Ride and handling 

  • 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 your springs. 
  • Tires should always be balanced properly. An unbalanced or improperly balanced tire will cause the vehicle to vibrate and may prematurely wear steering and suspension components. 


The following symptoms indicate problems with your brakes. If you notice any of the following, schedule diagnosis and repair. 

  • The vehicle pulls to the left or right when you apply the brakes. 
  • The brake pedal sinks to the floor when you maintain braking pressure. 
  • You hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking. 
  • The "brake" light on the instrument panel lights up. 


All of the following symptoms indicate problems with your engine. You will need diagnosis and repair. 

  • difficulty starting the engine
  • rough idling or stalling
  • poor acceleration
  • poor fuel economy
  • excessive oil use (more than one quart between changes) 
  • the "check engine" light on the instrument panel is lit


Poor transmission performance may come from actual component failure or a simple disconnected hose or plugged filter. Make sure your technician checks the simple items first; transmission repairs are normally 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.

Looks like trouble

Identifying the cause of a puddle of fluid under your vehicle can save you serious trouble down the road. Small stains or an occasional drop may be of little concern. But pay attention to wet spots. Have bigger puddles checked immediately at the nearest service station. 

You can identify fluids by their color and consistency: 

  • If you see fluid that is yellowish green, pastel blue, or fluorescent orange, you may have an overheated engine or an antifreeze leak caused by a bad hose, water pump, or leaking radiator. 
  • Dark-brown or black oily fluid means the engine is leaking oil. The leak could be caused by a bad seal or gasket. 
  • A red oily spot indicates a leak of transmission or power-steering fluid. 
  • A puddle of clear water is usually no problem. It may be normal condensation from your vehicle's air conditioner. 

Smells like trouble

You can detect some problems simply by following your nose. Consider these causes if you smell something unusual about your vehicle: 

  • The smell of burned toast or a light, sharp odor often signals an electrical short and burning insulation. To be safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the problem is diagnosed. 
  • An odor like rotten eggs or a continuous burning-sulfur smell usually indicates a problem in the catalytic converter or other emission-control devices. Do not delay diagnosis and repair. 
  • A thick, acrid odor usually means burning oil. Look for signs of a leak. 
  • If you smell gasoline vapors after a failed start, you may have flooded the engine. Wait a few minutes before trying again. If you constantly smell gas, you probably have a leak in the fuel system. This is a potentially dangerous problem that should be repaired immediately. 
  • Burning resin or an acrid chemical odor may signal overheated brakes or clutch. Check the parking brake. Stop and allow the brakes to cool after repeatedly braking hard on hilly roads. Light smoke coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. Have the vehicle towed for repair. 
  • A sweet, steamy odor indicates 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 gauge. If the odor 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. Have the vehicle towed for repair. 

Sounds like trouble

Squeaks, squeals, rattles, rumbles, and other sounds can provide valuable clues about problems and maintenance needs. Here are a number of the more common noises and what they may mean:

Squeal — a shrill, sharp noise, usually related to engine speed. This can be caused by a loose or worn power-steering, fan, or air-conditioning belt.

Click — a slight, sharp noise, related to either engine speed or vehicle speed. This may be due to:

  • loose wheel cover
  • loose or bent fan blade 
  • stuck valve lifter or low engine oil

Screech — a high-pitched, piercing, metallic sound, usually while the vehicle is in motion. This is usually caused by brake-wear indicators to alert the driver that brake maintenance is needed

Rumble — a low-pitched, rhythmic sound. You may hear this because your vehicle has:

  • defective exhaust pipe, converter, or muffler
  • worn universal joint or other drive-line component. 

Ping -— a high-pitched, metallic tapping sound, related to engine speed. This is usually caused by fuel with a lower octane rating than recommended. Check your owner's manual for the proper octane rating. You may want to switch to a different gas octane or gas station. If the problem persists, you may find that engine-ignition timing is the culprit.

Heavy knock — a rhythmic pounding sound. This can be due to one of the following: 

  • worn crankshaft or connecting-rod bearings
  • loose transmission torque converter

Clunk — a random thumping sound. This can indicate:

  • loose shock absorber or other suspension component 
  • loose exhaust pipe or muffler


Sometimes problems may require a simple repair, not a major overhaul. Here are a few common repair tips: 

  • Alternator - Loose wiring can make your alternator appear defective. Make sure the technician checks for loose connections and performs an output test before replacing it. 
  • Battery - Corroded or loose battery terminals can make the battery appear dead or defective. Make sure the technician cleans the terminals and tests battery function before replacing it. 
  • Starter - What appears to be a defective starter may actually be a dead battery or poor connection. Ask your technician to check all connections and test the battery before repairing the starter. 
  • Muffler - A loud rumbling noise under your vehicle indicates the need for a new muffler or exhaust pipe. Quality replacement parts obviously cost more. Low-priced parts are seldom a good buy unless you keep the vehicle less than a year. Make sure you understand exactly what the warranty covers, because many exhaust system warranties have serious exceptions and limitations. 
  • Tune-up - The old-fashioned "tune-up" may not apply to your vehicle. Fewer parts need to be replaced on newer vehicles other than belts, spark plugs, hoses and filters. Follow recommendations in your owner's manual. 

For more information, contact:

Office of the New York State Attorney General 
The Capitol 
Albany NY 12224 

Federal Trade Commission 
Correspondence Branch 
6th and Pennsylvania Ave. NW 
Washington D.C. 20580 

You can also contact the main office of your local AAA Motor Club for assistance and information.