Car won’t start — Diagnose by sound
Step by step guide to figure out why your car won’t start
Car won’t start and there are NO sounds when you turn the key
You turn the key and hear nothing, not even a click.
A car battery can easily put out enough power to light up your dash lights but still not have enough power to activate the starter. In other words, the fact that the dash lights come on is NOT an indication of battery charge. Test the battery condition with a multimeter; it should have at least 12.2 volts.
Battery cable connection
Sometimes battery corrosion is easy to spot. But other times your battery cables can look perfectly fine but still not have good contact. If you try to start the engine and have no noise, a single click or rapid clicking, start by cleaning the battery terminals and battery posts.
Bad Ignition Switch
Some makes and models are known for ignition switch problems. For example; 90’s Hondas and late 90’s and early 2000 GM vehicles had bad ignition switches. Just because they turn on the dash lights doesn’t mean they’re switching power the starter. To diagnose a bad ignition switch, you’ll need a wiring diagram and a multimeter.
Car won’t start but you hear Rapid Clicking when you turn the key
A rapid clicking, sounding almost like a machine gun, is a sign of a weak battery or bad battery cable connections. The battery is providing just enough power to pull the starter drive towards the teeth in the flywheel, but not enough power to hold it in place and turn the starter. To learn more about why this happens, see this post. This can be the sign of a weak battery or corroded battery terminals that are reducing the power to the starter motor. Clean the battery terminals. In an emergency situation, try tapping the battery terminals with the heel of your shoe. That may move them just enough to reestablish good contact. If the engine starts, make sure you get it to a shop to have the battery inspected and the battery terminals cleaned.
Rapid clicking sounds like this:
At least this tells us the ignition switch is sending power to the starter relay and starter motor.
Car won’t start and you only hear a Single Click but no cranking
Dead battery, bad battery connections OR dead starter motor
Turn on the dome light and try again. If the dome light dims to almost nothing when you turn the key to START, that can be a sign of a dead battery, corroded battery cable connections or a shorted starter motor. A good battery should easily keep the dome light lit strongly while trying to crank the engine. Test the battery condition with a multimeter; it should have at least 12.2 volts. If it does, then try cleaning the battery terminals.
If you’re stuck away from home and don’t have the tools to clean the battery terminals, continue to turn the key to START 6 or 7 more times. Then let it sit for about 5 minutes. If the problem is the battery, the repeated starting can cause the battery to heat up enough to get you enough power to turn the starter motor.
However, if you detect a burning smell, stop immediately. That means the starter is dead and you’re cooking the starter motor coil windings. (Not that you care that much, because you’re going to have to replace it anyway. But continuing to turn the key can start the motor windings on fire.
Car won’t start but the starter makes a high pitched Whirring Spinning sound
That’s the sign of a failed starter motor drive gear. The starter must be replaced. But many times you can get it to start by turning the key to START 5 or 6 more times. That heats up the grease inside the starter motor drive, allowing it to engage. That may buy you one more start. But that trick won’t work forever, so drive it right to the shop and have them replace the starter motor.
Car won’t start but the engine does Crank— it just won’t fire up
If the engine cranks as fast as it normally does but won’t fire up, that can be a sign of a bad sensor, an ignition system problem, low or no fuel pressure, a problem with your anti-theft system (SECURITY light blinking), the engine is flooded or a mechanical issue is present.
If you own a Ford vehicle, turn the key to the RUN position and wait for the Check Engine light to come on. Then crank the engine. The light should go out while cranking. If it does, that means the computer is getting a good signal from the crankshaft position sensor. If the light stays lit, start your diagnosis with that sensor.
Next, check the inertia fuel cutoff switch. This is fairly exclusive to Ford products. It’s designed to turn off power to the fuel pump if the vehicle is ever involved in a crash. But the sensor can also activate if someone bumps your car in a parking lot. It’s in a different place for each Ford model. So get out your owner’s manual. Find the location and press the reset button.
Next, try starting the vehicle by holding the gas pedal down part-way. If that helps at all, chances are you have a failing engine coolant temperature sensor. Those sensors can fail partially—not enough to set a check engine light, but enough to throw off the computer. The failed sensor makes the computer think the engine is warmer than it really is. So it provides a very lean mixture to a cold engine. By pressing the gas pedal, you override the computer’s commands and force it to provide more gas. If that works, test or replace the sensor.
If the engine isn’t getting fuel, you’ll have to perform a fuel pressure and fuel volume test and that requires special tools. Not a job for a DIYer.
Car starts and dies
This can be caused by a dirty or failed idle air control valve or a vacuum leak or a myriad of other problems. The idle air control valve regulates how much air comes into the engine when you’re at idle. If it’s not working properly or the passages are dirty, the engine will either have too much air or will be starved for air. A vacuum leak can also cause an engine to die after starting because the leak dilutes the rich mixture the computer is providing.
© 2012 Rick Muscoplat