Cars can make a variety of weird noises. Some you should be concerned about, others you should not. But how do you know what creaks, squeaks and jiggles require rushing to your local mechanic and which ones are considered normal? Check out these issues that can be found on even the best and worst used cars.
Brakes that squeak, squeal or generally make a racket are one of the most common car issues that, often, are not issues at all. Every vehicle has their own characteristics, and most will have a slight squeak from time-to-time.
Often those noises are heard in the morning, when the humidity is high and there’s plenty of dew. This can also occur after a rainstorm. When moisture collects on the brake rotors, a thin layer of rust forms on the surface. When you drive the car, the pads scrape the rust off, but that rust gets caught on the edge of the brake pad which causes an annoying squeak. Generally, the squeaking will stop after a short while.
A consistent squeak or scraping sound, even occurring when you aren’t touching the brake, could indicate that the pads are at the end of their life. This noise is by design, helping alert you of your pad’s wear.
High-end performance cars, boasting expensive brakes and fancy rotors, are not immune to brake squeaks either. The brake pads are generally made of a harder compound, so squeaky brakes should be expected. However, if the brake pedal pulsates or the steering wheel shakes—especially when traveling over 50 mph (this is for all brakes on all types of cars, btw)—this is not normal. You may need your rotors resurfaced.
Sometimes, however, the squeaking will not go away. If you notice a consistent squeak, or a grinding noise, you should visit a auto repair shop for a diagnosis. If you don’t have one already, Angie’s List and Yelp are a good place to start looking for a reputable mechanic.
Interior wind noise is common, and certain manufacturers—due to sloppier build quality—will possess more wind noise than others. Sometimes it could be due to a bad panel gap, or faulty weather seals, stripping or insulation that has been removed, but mostly, wind noise, especially at speed, is a common car issue that’s not really an issue at all.
Wind noise is one of the biggest complaints auto manufactures have, and according to a JD Power study, the # 1 complaint of car issues after 3 years of ownership. Unfortunately, some wind noise is normal. Your vehicle, although aerodynamically designed, is still displacing air at a freeway speeds, so noise is, naturally, expected. But if it feels like wind is actually entering the vehicle, or you can barely hear the radio, then it’s time to have a professional listen.
How many of us stop on the driveway and see that terrifying puddle dripping from under our car? Fear not: Most of the time, that puddle is actually condensation from the A/C unit—nothing to worry about. Even minor oil leaks are not always signs of a problem.
Almost every vehicle on the road has some sort of oil leak. They can range from very minor seeps and sweats to major oil leaks. Knowing the difference will help you save major cash. A seep or sweat is normal, as the engine repeatedly heats and cools (expands and contracts), and gaskets do wear as they age. A little oil may seep past the gasket but it’s not causing harm to the engine and its reliability. As those seals continue to age, however, the deterioration will cause the leak to get worse. Once oil is leaking to the point that it’s dripping on the ground, then it’s time to call a professional.
An engine noise does not necessarily mean your car is about to explode. It’s normal for engine valves and fuel injectors to be a little noisy—often producing a ticking sound—and the A/C compressor can make a slight “clacking” noise when it’s turning on and off. When the engine settles after it’s ceased running, a ticking or crackling sound may be present, and the engine’s cooling fans make a noise akin to a house fan.
Loud rotational noises, however, may not be normal—often stemming from pulleys, belts, the crank and camshafts—and excessive ticking, slapping or loud knocking (pistons, rings, valves), or extreme exhaust popping or backfiring should be checked out by a pro.
Every engine has a lot of noises; you have pistons going up and down, valves opening and closing, camshafts rotating, injectors spraying. All of these create their own tone in the symphony that is your engine. Determining what noises are normal and what are abnormal takes a trained ear. Just as a conductor can tell if a musician is playing flat or sharp, a certified technician can also determine if that noise is normal or if something is out of tune. Any noise that gets louder with engine rpms and vehicle speed, or louder the longer it’s driven, needs to be diagnosed by a trusted repair facility.
Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) Light
That light could indicate a completely flat tire, but perhaps it’s just that your tires are fractionally under-inflated. It doesn’t necessarily mean disaster.
TPMS sensors are a great way of letting you know there is an issue with your tire before having a flat on the side of the road. Any time this light comes on, pull into the nearest gas station and ask them to turn on the air pump. Make sure all of your tires are properly inflated. If the light doesn’t go off after driving for a few minutes or hitting the reset button, then have a professional check to see if a new TPMS battery or sensor is needed.
During colder seasons, it’s common to see a drop of 5-10 psi with your tires compared to when the weather is warmer. So keep on top of them. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep your tires at the recommended pressure—both from a safety perspective and even to maintain proper fuel efficiency.
Check engine light
Your engine light illuminates for 3-5 seconds every time you turn on your car. If the light goes off, all is good. If it doesn’t, you’ll want to get it checked out. If the check engine light starts flashing, however, that could indicate a major emissions failure and you’ll want to turn the engine off immediately.
An engine light that stays on isn’t always an expensive disaster: If you notice your check engine light is on, try to remember the last time you filled up with gas. Then check the gas cap to see that it’s properly sealed and tightened. If left loose, the light will turn on. If it is secured correctly, then it’s time to visit your friendly mechanic for a diagnosis.
Just because your vehicle drifts when you take your hands off the wheel doesn’t mean you have an alignment issue. Roads are crowned, helping them drain water. So drifting is perfectly normal.
What’s not normal, however, is when your car pulls on a perfectly flat surface, or if the steering wheel is not centered when going straight or the vehicle pulls when braking. In these cases, you may have a bent or damaged wheel, worn or damaged tires, or perhaps bent suspension components, among other things.
Most people think that their car will drive straight forever, and in a perfect world it would. But we have to contend with potholes, speed bumps, rough highways. All of these things contribute to your vehicle’s driving characteristics. Be sure to have an alignment test performed every two years, or whenever you replace your tires.
Where To Start
This small list only shows the tip of the iceberg of issues that a Car Saints Inspector can run into during an inspection. Understanding what is normal and what is an issue is part of a complete and thorough inspection. When you are ready to place an order on your next car inspection, we’re here to help!