What to Do If Your Car Won't Start


February 07, 2019

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By Ellise Pierce

Illustrations by Curt Merl

It's a sinking feeling: the key is in the ignition, it's turned, and . . . nothing happens. If this happens, listen closely. The sound the car makes—or doesn't make—is a clue to what's going on under the hood and whether a call should be made for a tow or if you should try to fix it.

Here are some of the most common issues, according to Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com, and what should be done about them.

No Sound, No Lights

It might be: A battery connection problem.

What to do: Check the cable connections at the battery. They may look fine, but see if they can be twisted or turned by hand; if so, the connection's loose. Remove them, clean them with a paper towel or rag, reconnect—a wrench will likely be needed to tighten down the clamps—and try again.

It might be: A dead battery.

What to do: Try a jump start. You'll need cables and someone with a car to connect your battery to theirs. Here's how to jump start a car.

No Sound but Dashboard Lights Go on

It might be: The car isn't in park or neutral, or the switch on the side of the transmission has gone bad in the park position.

What to do: Move the gear to neutral, and see if the car will start. Also, try pushing the brake pedal—or clutch in a car with a manual transmission.

It might be: A faulty starter motor, or the ignition switch, or cables from the ignition to the starter aren't working properly.

What to do: Call for a tow, and get to a repair shop right away.

It might be: A problem with the key fob—like a bad transponder or a dead battery.

What to do: There should be an option to start the car even if the fob's battery is dead. Check the owner's manual.

Engine Makes a Clicking Sound

It might be: A weak battery.

What to do: Turn on the headlights. If they come on brightly, the battery is good, and the clicking means there's either a bad connection or a bad starter. If the lights come on dimly, the problem is a weak battery, and a jump start should be attempted.

Normal Cranking but Engine Won't Fire

It might be: The car is out of gas or running low.

What to do: Call a service to bring fuel.

It might be: A flooded engine—if it's  an older car with a carbureted engine. This happens when there's too much fuel in the engine, and the spark plugs are wet and won't spark.

What to do: Hold the gas pedal all the way down and crank the engine; this will clear the fuel out of the combustion chamber.

It might be: A blown fuse for the fuel pump or ignition circuit.

What to do: When a fuse fails, it's easy to spot—the metal strip will be broken and have a bit of black around it. Check the owner's manual for the fuse box location, and replace the fuse. Most car makers provide spare fuses in extra spaces in the fuse box.

A Slow, Dying Crank

It might be: A weak battery.

What to do: Try a jump. Then get to a mechanic as quickly as possible because it's only going to happen again.

A Crank with a Grinding Noise

It might be: The starter is not engaging the flywheel.

What to do: Cycle the key on and off three or four times; it should catch the flywheel and start. However, this means there are broken teeth on the flywheel, so get the car to the shop right away.

Super-Fast Cranking with a Spinning Noise

It might be: A broken timing belt. The connection between the upper half and the lower half of the engine is broken. The pistons have no resistance, and they're moving up and down faster than usual because some valves remain open.

What to do: Stop cranking immediately and call for a tow; this is a serious problem. To help prevent this problem, replace the timing belt as part of the regular maintenance.

This article was originally published on GEICO.

In business for over 75 years, GEICO gives you the benefit of great rates on high-quality car insurance. You could be eligible for a special WITI membership discount on GEICO auto insurance. In addition to your special membership discount, you'll also receive 24-hour service online or by phone, as well as efficient and fair claim handling. Visit www.geico.clm/disc/witi or call 800-368-2734.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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