You’re driving down the road when all of a sudden, you hear a rattling, grinding, or even a hiss. These noises can indicate all kinds of things are going on with your car, from the minor to the serious. “Any kind of a different noise your car starts making, it doesn’t mean there’s a problem, but it doesn’t mean it’s OK either,” says Tom Piippo, mechanical division director for the Automotive Service Association and owner of Tri-County Motors in Rudyard, Michigan. Here’s a guide to common sounds cars make and what they might mean:
Brakes wear out over time. The first sound you’re going to hear that indicates that is squeaking, then eventually a grinding sound. “Then that’s going to turn into a heavy rumble,” says John Burkhauser, an auto repair specialist and director of educational programs for Bolt On Technology. “That’s one of the things you don’t want to play with because brakes are safety.”
Ticking and tapping
More and more, suggested oil change intervals on cars are very far apart. And then sometimes people just forget to bring their car in when they’re supposed to. But not keeping an eye on your oil can cause major problems for your car. “A rambling sound out of the engine is usually one of the indicators that hey, I’m running out of oil,” Burkhauser says. “And of course, that’s the heart of the vehicle. The engine will go bad really fast without oil.” In addition to unusual sounds, mechanics also find plenty of strange things in cars.
Some people with front-wheel drive will find that their cars make a rattling noise when they make a hard turn or accelerate. Water can get into the joints that allow your tires to turn, causing them to rot. “It’s pretty obvious,” Burkhauser says. “I hear a lot of cars drive by me, and I immediately know what it is.” Another potential cause of the noise? Exhaust pipes are protected by heat shields that sometimes come loose and rattle, Piippo says. Rattling could also indicate problems with your muffler or your brakes.
If you start hearing a “boom boom boom” noise when you go over bumps, that’s usually a good indicator that something in your suspension—a strut or a shock—has gone bad. “Again, that’s something you want to get addressed because the struts and shocks help give you control while you’re driving the vehicle,” Burkhauser says. Meanwhile, a sudden loud boom could mean something has physically broken in your car that could cause you to lose control, such as a ball joint or the suspension.
If your automatic transmission makes notable noise, that’s generally a bad thing. “When you put it in gear, you shouldn’t get any clunks or a hard bang when it happens,” Burkhauser says. “And when you’re driving the vehicle, you shouldn’t hear any whining. Any of those things are signs that something is wrong with the transmission.” That’s good to check out, but there are ways, however, that you could be wasting money on your car.
Over time, people get used to the sounds their cars make, so they might not notice a noise that comes on gradually. For example, if you hear noises coming from your tires, it could indicate that there’s an issue with the alignment or suspension, Burkhauser says. It’s a good idea to occasionally take a passenger who doesn’t often travel in your car for a ride to see if they notice any unusual noises you may have become accustomed to.
A high-pitched squeak or a hissing noise can reveal that there’s a problem with the hoses around the engine, Burkhauser says. That could be either a hose off or a vacuum leak or an air leak, Piippo says, or it could be something with the belt system again. Leaks can affect how your dashboard works, your mileage, and your engine’s performance. That said, there are some things your mechanic might not tell you.
If you hear grinding, that means metal is rubbing up against metal somewhere. You’ll want to get that checked out immediately. If it’s under the hood, it could mean a problem with the water pump, an alternator, or the drive belt.
A squeal during acceleration could also indicate a problem with your belt. “These cars only have one belt, and if that belt breaks, you’re stranded,” Piippo says. Want to prevent yourself from spending a lot on getting your car fixed? Check out these car brands that cost the least to repair.
Knocking from the engine could mean that your engine is low on fluids. Or is could indicate a much more serious issue, such as a problem with the rod bearings. In which case, you might be looking at getting a new engine. That said, if you keep an ear out and catch problems early, you can save yourself a lot of money. “With regular maintenance, you’ll get the small problems before they get big,” Piippo says. Here are 74 tips for how you can extend the life of your car.