Fortunately, drivers get a few pointers from their vehicles when things are not well. Except for a flat tire, which could happen with just about any vehicle, most breakdowns are preventable. It will cost you money to prevent a fault, but it will be cheaper to do precautionary work on your car than to fix what’s broken.
In today’s world, you do not have to count on word of mouth to find out what are the common faults of a particular vehicle model. If it has been manufactured in sufficient numbers, there will be owners that will complain on the Internet about the faults they encounter. Eventually, each model and its derivatives will have an informal list of things that are most likely to break down.
In the case of some automakers, there are also common faults among their products. This happens because vehicles are built on the same production lines, and are designed with the same components or technologies.
Some carmakers tend to suffer from electrical issues, while others make cars which are prone to rust over time. There are also model-specific problems, like odometer failures, gauge issues, or worse - engine trouble that cannot be avoided.
Luckily, you can find out what are the common faults of your desired or current vehicle on the Internet if you browse owner’s forums. Most of the issues can be remedied while they are not disturbing or expensive to fix, while others will require the owner to save up money for the repair when the time comes.
In this guide, we focus on general faults, which could happen to just about any production car with an internal-combustion engine. The issues at hand are problems which evolve over time, and can be fixed before they get worse if you keep your eyes and ears open. Your nose and common sense should also be used. Be sure to have your car checked out by a professional mechanic if you observe any of the symptoms presented below.
There are four types of smoke that can puff out of your exhaust: white, gray, blue, and black. Each of them signifies a different issue, but you can remedy them for a lower cost than an engine overhaul if you tackle the matter as soon as you observe it. Be careful not to confuse steam and condensation (only in a cold environment) with white smoke.
White smoke means that your engine is sending water through its exhaust. This problem is caused by a faulty cylinder head gasket. In diesel-engined vehicles, there might also be a problem with the fuel pump injection timing. However, excessive white smoke (think clouds out of the exhaust) refer to the head gasket. If the matter is ignored, it will lead to a cylinder head failure.
Blue smoke is easy to diagnose - it means your engine “sips” oil. If you see it when accelerating or after start-up, it means that your piston rings will require replacement. It is a costly repair, but things will not get better over time. A specific smell can be perceived behind the car.
Black smoke, meanwhile, means that your engine is running “rich.” In the case of gasoline engines, a tune-up is required. For diesels, black smoke could be soot from the combustion process, so modern diesels need to be checked out if they smoke.
Grey smoke could hide several issues, from a broken PCV valve (Positive Crankcase Ventilation), to a failed cylinder head. It appears when an engine is burning oil and possibly leaking coolant into the combustion chamber. Check your coolant tank (when the engine is cold) for signs of oil. If there is oil, you need a cylinder head rebuild.
If you are unsure whether your car smokes, ask a friend to drive behind you and keep an eye on your exhaust. You can also use your mirrors to check. However, if you spot smoke in the mirrors, see a mechanic, it might be too late. If you are rolling coal, see a therapist.
Learn how to check your fluid levels, and perform regular checks. A difference in level will signal a leak. Oil, coolant, fuel, brake fluid, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, and shock absorber leaks can be spotted by just looking at a regular parking spot.
Check your rims from time to time - if you see a weird fluid on them without driving through a puddle or wet environment, it could mean your brake lines or calipers are leaking. Ignoring a leak like this will leave your car without any brakes.
You can spot a brake problem if the pedal feels softer than usual when pressing it. If it repeats during a drive, pull over and inspect the brake fluid container. Do not drive further if it is at the minimal level.
Oil leaks can also be observed on the engine, by just looking at the seams between the cylinder head and the cylinder block.
Do not ignore the smallest leak, as it will get worse. Coolant leaks can be observed easily, but beware that most happen with the engine running and while it is at operating temperature. Power steering fluid leaks can be spotted by watching the pump and its tank, just look for dirt residue on them and a corresponding oily stain.
Suspension leaks are harder to spot, as you must look at your shock absorbers, but we will detail it below. Go to your mechanic as soon as possible if you spot a leak. If your vehicle leaks fuel, put cat litter or sand under it while you wait to have it towed to a workshop. Do not forget to mention the fuel leak - there’s a massive fire hazard.
Squeaks and rattles
If it makes noises over serious bumps, it might be alright, but proceed with caution. Check the vehicle's underside after hearing loud bangs. The most you can do is use a flashlight to look at your shock absorbers - check for leaks, cracks, and broken components.
Rattles and pronounced squeaks are more complicated than minor noises. These have multiple potential causes, but most will mean you can safely drive to a mechanic without too many worries. If the noise intensifies, pull over and call a tow truck. If you hear a sound when your steering wheel is at full lock, you will be all right, but the car’s power steering system will need attention in the future. Squeaks which disappear while driving, but are heard at idle, are caused by old belts, usually auxiliary ones. Replace them as soon as possible.
Knocking noises are the worst. They signal a future engine fault, and it is going to be expensive. If you hear an engine knocking sound consistently, you might want to check your oil level. There are also “lighter beats,” caused by tappets, which can be adjusted. Have your engine checked out if you hear strange noises from the engine.
If your engine is becoming harder to start in certain circumstances, write it down. If the behavior is repeated, notify your mechanic and go for a check. Otherwise, just ask them about it at your next scheduled maintenance interval. Be sure to keep an eye on your coolant temperature gauge (if you have one).
If your car has been modified, make sure to fit an oil pressure and oil temperature gauge and monitor them, you will spot a potential problem before it happens.
Be aware of any unusual thing your car does, and write it down so you remember what to tell the mechanic. This tip is helpful if you have a problem which only appears on longer drives, or only in certain atmospherical conditions - extreme heat or cold, after massive rain, when low on fuel, and so on.
The fuse box is the first place to check if something electrical does not function anymore. After that fails, you must seek the help of an electrician. It will be expensive to hire a professional, but it will be worth it in the long run. Do not allow anyone to improvise anything on your vehicle - a “quick fix” can lead to an electrical fire.
From time to time, turn off the music in your car and listen for squeaks, rattles, and other noises. Write them down, and include the circumstances in which they happened. Were the wheels turned? Was the engine cold or at operating temperature? Has it ever overheated? Is the noise heard when you go left instead of right?
Being attentive with your vehicle could save your life in an emergency, and it will undoubtedly save you money in the long run. Be considerate and drive safe at all times.