Junk Car Medics / Junk Car / Maintenance / Common Car Problems


It's an understatement to say that cars can be a bit of a money pit. Outside of the basics that you need to legally operate a car (like a driver's license, insurance and registration), there's also gas and routine maintenance (i.e. oil changes, tire rotations, recommended manufacturer service, etc.). But cars can quickly go from convenience to nuisance when an unexpected repair is necessary, especially when you consider the average car repair bill is in the $500-$600 neighborhood. To help you better plan for the unexpected and help take your preventative vehicle maintenance to new levels of efficiency and affordability, we put together this handy guide detailing some of the most common vehicle issues Americans face and what you should and can do about them.

Common Car Problems & Issues:

Car Engine/Drivetrain Issues

1. Emissions Issues

Too rich of an air-fuel mixture, faulty spark plugs, a faulty gas cap, a dirty air filter, a busted catalytic converter. What do all the aforementioned have in common? They're common causes behind a failed vehicle emissions test. And if you fail an emissions test and don't seek the repair necessary, there's a good chance that the Department of Motor Vehicles won't renew your vehicle's registration when it comes due. It's why it's always best to have your car serviced quickly when that "check engine" light comes on or following a failed emissions test. Most repairs, if caught quickly enough, only cost a few hundred dollars. Sit on the repair, and it could cause upwards of $1,000 when it's all said and done.

Pro Tip

To pass the emission test, you can try to do the test on relatively cool days. Of course, you also need to make sure the engine is as hot as it can get. This can be done through driving the car around for about 20 minutes before doing the test.

- Tim Miller of Autozik

2. Transmission Problems

Outside of your engine, the transmission is the most important component that you'll find under the hood of any vehicle. In fact, in some vehicle drivetrains, replacing the transmission costs even more than replacing an engine. Some of the most common transmission problems are noticeable lapses in gear changes, grinding during gear changes, a burning smell and gears slipping. One key thing you need to do to take care of your transmission is regularly change the fluid at the manufacturer's suggested intervals. The fluid helps keep the transmission cool and helps serve as a lubricant between its various components to keep it running smoothly.

Pro Tip

You should check the smell, color, and level of your transmission fluid roughly each 1600 kilometres. Dependent on which comes first, you should change the fluid every other year or every time you hit 80000 kilometres.

- Tim Miller of Autozik

3. Transmission Fluid Leaks

Having your vehicle flushed can help prevent transmission fluid leaks.Just as radiator flushes are important for keeping the fluid fresh and preventing corrosion and deterioration, transmission fluid flushes are too. Most transmission fluid leaks are caused by a leak in the pan, which happen over time thanks to wear and tear. The good news is that transmission fluid is easy to spot, as it'll appear in a red-colored puddle on your driveway after your vehicle has been stationary for a period of time. If you notice red-colored puddles or smell a burning scent from the fluid, it's an indicator of a transmission issue that needs to be addressed. Having your vehicle's transmission flushed per the manufacturer's recommendation can often help detect transmission issues and prevent leakages before they happen. Most manufacturers recommend transmission flushes every 100,000 miles or so.

Pro Tip

To locate properly where your transmission is leaking, clean off completely all the fluid in your car's underbody. Then, add dye to the transmission system, fill fluid in again, and put on some miles for the car. Due to the dye, you will typically be able to pinpoint the places that are leaking after 30 to 40 miles.

If you do this, you can prevent wasting too much money on parts that don't need replacing yet.

- Tim Miller of Autozik

4. Thermostat Failure

It's small, it's inexpensive, but it plays a really important role in your vehicle's all-around makeup, especially its engine. For instance, when your thermostat fails, your engine won't work as well as it should. This is largely because these thermostats allow coolant to flow through the greater coolant system. A faulty thermostat could spell bigger engine issues down the road. Good news though: a new thermostat is inexpensive and can be installed fairly easily in less than an hour. How do you know whether or not your thermostat is bad? It's easy to test. Just start up your engine and put your hand on the radiator or its top hose. If it quickly warms up after a moment or two, it's working well. If it warms gradually from the start or doesn't warm up, you should look into thermostat replacement.

5. Engine Sputtering

The engine is the single-most important and often expensive component of a vehicle, so any issues that you experience with it are likely going to impact the all-around driving experience. Engine sputtering is a common issue, and it can stem from a variety of issues. The easiest one to diagnose is an engine that's running out of fuel to combust, and the solution to resolve sputtering is simply a matter of refilling the gas tank. However, if your gas gauge isn't nearing empty, there's likely a deeper issue causing your engine problems. Often times, engine sputtering is caused by a clogged fuel injector or some sort of combustion issue within the engine. To ensure your vehicle runs smoothly and maximizes its fuel economy, you want to get any engine sputtering issues resolved quickly.

6. Faulty Ignition Coil

Ignition coils work to transfer ignition voltage so that the spark plugs can fire and the engine can start. Some common signs and symptoms of faulty ignition coils include a hard starting car, a car that frequently misfires, and a car that experiences poor acceleration or loses power. Faulty ignition coils usually don't present an immediate safety issue, but it's important to have the problem resolved before further engine damage has a chance to occur.

Car Mechanical Issues

1. Too Much Oil Consumption

You don't want your car burning through oil. This will require you to refill it more often and may also be an indication of some serious engine issues. In most situations, burning through irregular amounts of oil is due to worn valve guides or piston rings. Valve seals may also be contributing to the issue. A car that burns through oil isn't difficult to diagnose. In fact, it's easy to see with your own eyes. If you pop the hood of your vehicle while the car is on and see a blue-colored smoke coming from the engine, it's usually a sign that you're going through excessive amounts of oil. And while you can just get into the habit of refilling the oil to normal levels every so often, it's not always the best habit to get into. That's because it'll likely lead to an engine that runs rougher due to irregular amounts of oil passing through the cylinders.

2. Poor Fuel Economy

Bad driving habits can also cause your car to have poor fuel economy.Poor fuel economy may mean your vehicle isn't going to pass an emissions test. It definitely means that you aren't maximizing its miles per gallon potential, which means you'll be spending more at the pump in the long run. There are so many reasons why your miles per gallon may be suffering that it can be difficult to pinpoint the underlying issue. That's why it's always best to make sure your car gets an inspection every year or two, to ensure that all of its moving parts are working well together. Some reasons for poor fuel economy include dirty air filters, off balance or poorly inflated tires, suspension issues, engine lagging, transmission problems or old oil. Another reason why a car's fuel economy may suffer is due to your driving habits. If you're a regular hard braker and a fast accelerator, your fuel economy won't be nearly as good compared to if you were to drive more conservatively (and safely).

3. Alternator Failure

The alternator essentially serves as the terminal that helps power your battery as you drive and distribute power to the various electrical systems of your vehicle as you're in gear. So, when an alternator goes bad, you're certain to know it. A dead battery, flickering or dimming headlights, or strange noises coming from your car can all indicate an issue with the alternator. If you suspect your alternator has gone bad, it's best to have the issue resolved immediately. That's because without an alternator, the vehicle will draw all of its energy from the battery, and this may cause the battery to drain and the vehicle to fail to start. Unfortunately, new alternators aren't cheap. The average cost for a new alternator and installation can range anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

4. Air Conditioner Not Blowing Cold Air

Is your air conditioner on the fritz?If you want to be comfortable during the hot summer months, know that a fix is going to cost you. For minor repairs, you're looking at anywhere from a $200 to $800 fix, and more major repairs could cost upwards of $4,000. Air conditioning repairs can also be somewhat difficult to diagnose. They typically consist of filling the system with refrigerant and then monitoring it to see where it's leaking. This will then often dictate the severity of the issue. Pumps, hoses, and condensers are common culprits behind busted AC systems.

5. Dead Battery

Whether it's repeated cold weather sucking the juice out of your car's battery or you're using it to power something else, dead batteries are one of the most common and easiest things to troubleshoot when it comes to car problems. If the battery's juice is just depleted, simply using some jumper cables to jump-start your vehicle should resolve the issue. If your battery isn't holding a charge anymore, new batteries cost around $150 and are fairly easy to install yourself. Most car batteries last about four years on average but can last for up to seven. Most mechanics, auto service centers and specialty automotive stores will check your battery free of charge to assess it upon request and help you determine if you need a new one. Otherwise, you may learn of a dead battery the hard way when your car won't turn over.

6. Faulty Water Pump

In order to prevent your engine from overheating, the water pump is a crucial component. It's located below the timing belt and it runs off of the engine's drive belt. But if it's not working correctly, then coolant isn't being properly distributed throughout the vehicle, which can lead to an overheating engine and eventually total engine failure. Water pumps typically cost several hundred dollars to repair.

7. Clogged Filters

If the air filter on your vehicle is clogged, it's not just going to impact the air quality inside your vehicle. It's also going to hurt your fuel economy by causing your engine to work harder, thereby putting more strain on your engine overall. Air filters are one of the easiest vehicle components to change out, especially when you consider the consequences of ignoring them and the impact it could have on fuel economy and vehicle life. Most car air filters need to be changed every 15,000 to 30,000 miles. Some signs that your air filter needs a change include reduced horsepower, strange engine noises or a misfiring engine.

8. Overheating Engine

Chances are you've been driving down the road before and spotted a vehicle pulled off on the shoulder with steam billowing out from underneath its hood. They've likely pulled over because their engine overheated, which occurs when the engine can't cool properly. So, what causes an overheated engine? There are many causes, like a leak in the cooling system. Or a leak in the radiator, hoses, gaskets or engine housing. If your car's engine is overheating, it's imperative to get to the bottom of things immediately so you can continue to drive your car as you need to without issue. So, if the temperature gauge is abnormally ticking up on your dashboard, take note and act promptly.

9. Catalytic Converter Issues

This crucial exhaust emissions device helps reduce the pollutants that are coming out of your tailpipe. But these components are prone to a couple of issues. One, they can become clogged, which often leads to engine overheating. And two, catalytic converter theft is common, as these components contain several valuable metals, such as copper, nickel, iron and manganese. Catalytic converter repair and replacement is costly and can range anywhere from$300 to $3,000 considering parts and labor.

10. Spark Plug Problems

Spark plugs are some of the simplest, yet most important, components of the engine. They work to ignite the fuel-air mixture in the engine cylinders to essentially ensure the vehicle's engine can turn over properly. Then, after the vehicle is started, the spark plugs still play a role in keeping the air-fuel mixture ignited. However, like all automotive components, spark plugs have a shelf life. Usually, they need to be changed out every 30,000 miles. How do you know if your spark plugs need to be changed? There are several signs to keep a lookout for, including hard starting, engine misfiring, poor fuel economy, poor acceleration, or vibrations when idling. The good news is that having your spark plugs replaced is largely a DIY task, and if you're not comfortable doing it yourself, it's usually a routine, affordable service at repair centers.

In more dire spark plug scenarios, you may need to replace the wiring. That's because the carbon fiber wires that they're made from break down over time and separate, so even with new spark plugs, performance may be a bit off. Wire replacement tends to run a few hundred dollars.

11. Steering Issues

It's not hard to realize whether there's a steering issue with your vehicle, as it's pretty obvious. Some common steering issues include vibrations while driving, difficulty turning the wheel, a loose steering wheel, strange noises while driving or the vehicle seemingly pulling to one side as you're driving. If you're experiencing any of these issues, be sure to have your vehicle serviced right away. Any issue that impacts steering poses a major risk to your safety and the safety of other drivers on the road. In some cases, steering issues may be nothing more than poorly inflated tires. In other situations, they could be caused by suspension problems.

12. Radiator Leaks

Is your coolant level low? Do you regularly spot a pool of liquid underneath your vehicle once it has been parked for a while? If so, then you likely have a radiator leak. Radiator leaks are most often caused by one thing: corrosion. This is largely because radiators, their hoses and the hose connections are apt to pick up sediment over time, which can cause the component to rust out and punch holes in the radiator. The best way to ensure the proper health of your radiator is to stick to the vehicle manufacturer's recommended radiator flush timelines. This will ensure fresh coolant is added when necessary and work to remove sediment that builds up in the system over time. Radiator flushes don't need to be performed very often. Most manufacturers recommend doing it once every five years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first.

13. Busted Starter Motor

Do you hear a grinding sound when you start your car?If so, it could be because the starter motor has worn out. If this is the case, it won't engage properly and could potentially cause damage to the engine flywheel. Slow or laborious cranking is another sign of a bad starter motor. Starters vary in how long they last. In some cars, they can last for up to 200,000 miles. In others, they may only last for 30,000 or so. The good news is that when it breaks down, it's a fairly reasonable fix.

14. Purge Control Valve Issues

The purge control valve is part of the EVAP system of a vehicle, which works to prevent vapors inside the fuel tank from escaping into the atmosphere. Instead of emitting these vapors into the atmosphere, they're pumped into the engine during certain driving conditions, where they're burned there. However, it's common for the purge valve not to fully close, which can cause problems, such as rough starting or problems running once the engine turns over.

Car Electrical Issues

1. Burned Out Bulbs

Headlight, tail light, fog light, and turn signal bulbs are designed to last, especially if your vehicle is equipped with LED bulbs, which have even greater long-lasting ability. But if you own a car for an extended period of time, there's a good chance that you'll have to change out more than a few bulbs. Most halogen bulbs can last anywhere between 500 and 1,000 hours, but when they burn out it can become a major safety hazard for nighttime driving. Burned out turn signal bulbs can pose a safety hazard at all times of the day, being that fellow motorists may be unaware of your driving intentions. The good news is that bulbs are fairly easy to replace, so there's no excuse for delaying replacement. Consult your user's manual for directions on how to change out bulbs, but most front-end bulbs can be accessed under the hood, and most back-end bulbs can be accessed via the trunk. If certain bulbs continue to burn out prematurely, you may need to have your vehicle serviced for an electrical issue.

2. Power Window Issues

You don't need us to tell you how frustrating it can be to roll your windows up only for it to stop an inch or two before it gets to the very top. You try rolling them down and back up again to no avail. You try holding the power window button down. No dice. If this happens, it could be because of the weather. Windows can stick in cold weather, so try to get the car into a garage or warmer area and then try again. If they still won't go all the way up, or if the windows won't activate at all when the button is pressed, it could mean there's a bigger issue on hand. Some common issues include a bad motor, a busted starter or a blown fuse.

3. Power Door Lock Issues

Just like power windows, your vehicle's power locks rely on a motor to lock and unlock your doors. And if you're pushing down the key fob to lock or unlock your doors from outside of the vehicle, or pushing down the button on the inside of the vehicle and nothing is happening, it's likely because there's an issue with the motor. If you're lucky, it might just be a bad actuator. If you're not, it could be a more extensive repair, and the cost could range up to $700. We suppose you could just settle for manually locking and unlocking your doors, but that might not be the convenience that you're looking for when it comes to accessing your vehicle.

4. Sensor Issues

Vehicles are loaded with electronics these days as a means of tipping drivers off at the first sign there may be a problem with their vehicle. There are speed sensors, throttle position sensors, oxygen sensors, camshaft sensors, etc. If a sensor is being set off irregularly, it's likely one of two things: an electrical issue or an underlying issue with the vehicle that's causing the problem. Often, sensors triggering aren't electrical issues, but the sign of an underlying vehicle issue. Malfunctioning sensors often also cause problems in safety features that rely on them, as in the case when bad wheel speed sensors lead to traction control issues. It's always important to have your vehicle serviced when sensors go off to ensure that it's running safely and efficiently.

One of the more problematic types of sensors are oxygen sensors, which are installed in the exhaust manifold. Essentially, these sensors measure oxygen levels in the exhaust to ensure a proper fuel mixture. A bad oxygen sensor isn't able to measure this mix, thereby causing it to run less efficiently and burn more fuel.

Mass air flow sensors are another important, yet problematic sensor. A faulty mass air flow sensor can lead to some serious issues, such as poor acceleration or even failure for the vehicle to start altogether. Usually when this sensor fails, the check engine light will illuminate. A simple diagnostic check can then help you identify the underlying issue. However, these sensors tend to be costly to replace, running about $300.

Car Exterior Issues

1. Paint Problems

Dents and scratches are covered elsewhere on this list, but other paint problems may persist over time with your vehicle as well. Some common paint issues including dulling, wrinkling, peeling, sagging, or spotting. Paint issues aren't always easy to repair yourself, and you may need to seek the help of a paint and body shop to restore it fully, but there are a few things that you might want to try out first. For instance, you can try cleaning or lightly sanding the area that's affected to see if there's any debris that's causing discoloration. You can also try to find an exact match of the paint and attempt to repair it yourself. Beware, however, as it's not easy to reverse a botched paint repair job.

2. Dents and Scratches

If you use your vehicle, it's going to endure some wear and tear. And when it comes to small dents and scratches, it's not so much a matter of if they're going to happen, but when they're going to happen. Yes, you could file a claim with your insurance company to have the body damage repaired, but that's usually a bad idea when you consider you'll have to come up with the deductible money before anything is covered. Then, of course, there's the risk you take of your insurance premium rates increasing. But the good news is that minor dents can be easily fixed by working to suction them out of the vehicle body. For scratches, you can purchase a scratch-repair product or even look to acquire a paint that's the exact match of your vehicle to fill in the affected area. If you want to have the dent or scratch professionally repaired, you can likely have it done at a service center for far less than what you'd pay for your insurance deductible.

3. Cracked or Loose Fuel Cap

Many newer vehicles don't even have fuel caps, but those that do tend to experience issues over time. It's largely due to the fuel cap's plastic makeup, which has a tendency to crack or wear after so many twists and turns at the gas pump. The good news is that you don't necessarily need to replace the fuel cap to safely drive your vehicle, just so long as you're certain water won't enter the fuel tank and you don't mind looking at the gas cap light on your dash. If you do want to replace the cap, it's an affordable fix, usually around $50.

4. Streaky Windshields

Is your windshield streaking when you activate the wipers in rainy or snowy weather? If so, it's something that you want to correct so your vision isn't impeded when driving your vehicle. The most common culprit of a streaky windshield is an easy one to resolve: windshield wipers. Wiper blades wear and tear over time, and any gap between the blade and your windshield has the potential to lead to streaks when the wipers are activated. Windshield wipers are affordable, ranging anywhere from $12 to $30 per blade, and can be purchased at any automotive retail store. They're also easy to replace, as most just snap into place. In addition to ensuring your windshield wipers are in good condition, it's also important to make sure your wiper fluid levels are always in good standing. (Or do you have streaky windshields on the inside? Here's how to clean your interior windshield properly.)

Car Tires and Braking

1. Uneven Tire Tread Wear

Uneven tire tread wear has the potential to be both a safety issue and an expense. For instance, tires that are too worn can lead to stopping issues and cause a greater risk of hydroplaning. It can even be a sign of bad wheel bearings. Then, there's the expense factor, as new tires may be necessary for those that are excessively worn beneath safe tread limits. To ensure your tires are wearing evenly, it's best to have them regularly rotated. Typically, the suggested rotation frequency is every other oil change. When your tires are rotated, mechanics will also be able to assess whether there are any other factors that may be causing uneven wear.

Pro Tip

The main reasons for uneven tread wear are: Incorrect vehicle alignment, lack of tire rotation, incorrect inflation of the tires, worn suspension and/or steering parts and incorrect application of tire for the typical driving of that vehicle.

To combat these potential issues, have your alignment checked at least once a year, rotate your tires every 5k-10k miles, and inflate tires to manufacturer PSI specifications.

- Jon Boyd of Boyd's Tire & Service (Columbus, OH)

2. Worn Brake Pads

Worn brake pads is a common, often dangerous, car issue.Brakes wear down over time - it's just a fact of driving. But worn-down brake pads have the tendency to be one of the more dangerous common car issues. That's because any sort of delay in braking, no matter how small, can pose a serious safety hazard. Hence, it's important to change your brake pads at the manufacturer's recommendation (usually around 50,000 miles) and take note of any signs and symptoms that may indicate unsafe levels of brake pad wear. These include slow stops, a squealing sound when applying the brakes, and vibration during braking.

Pro Tip

"Brake pads wear naturally because of use, so the key isn't to prevent wear, it is to minimize your cost of repair when they do wear.

You can prevent costly repairs to your brake system by making sure you don't wait until your brake pad is completely worn out; so as to prevent damage to the rest of your brake system including the brake rotors and brake calipers."

- Jon Boyd of Boyd's Tire & Service

3. Tire Pressure Irregularities

We've already covered uneven tire wear on this list, but there's another tire-related vehicle issue that's worth mentioning: tire pressure issues. Most vehicles today have incorporated tire pressure sensors, which will alert drivers when psi levels are too low. However, there aren't sensors to alert drivers to when tire pressure is too high. Either way, tire pressure irregularities can lead to uneven tread wear and even pose a safety issue. Tires that have low levels of psi will wear faster, while tires that have elevated psi levels risk blowing out and have a greater risk of hydroplaning. You can see why you want to ensure your tire pressure levels are as close to what the manufacturer recommends at all times. Pay special attention to your psi levels in periods of cold weather, as most tires can experience up to a 1 psi dip for every 10 degree drop in temperature. Conversely, when the weather gets warmer, psi has the tendency to increase. It's a good idea to get into the habit of checking your psi levels every few weeks.

Pro Tip

Depending on the time of year and the climate you live in, changes in tire pressure can be a major annoyance to deal with; however, VERY important to maintain.

Tire pressures can change one of two ways: by drop/rise in ambient temperature or by a leak in the tire/wheel package. 

Adjusting a tire back to correct pressure is simple if it is because of a change in climate but tracking down a leak in a tire can be more difficult to rectify. 

Use professional tire associates to track down your tire leak and don't use over the counter 'tire repair items' as a form of repair, as this will only damage the tire further in the long run."

- Jon Boyd of Boyd's Tire & Service

Wrapping it up

So, let's hear it: How many of these common car issues have you experienced? With the average car repair bill ranging from $500 to $600 a visit, and the range of things that can go wrong with your automobile for no reason other than driving it, we'd advise you start socking away those rainy-day funds now! After all, there are three certainties when it comes to owning a car: bumpy roads, insurance/registration fees, and repair costs!

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