There are several things humans are super good at doing on time: getting more potato chips before the old bag runs out, being in an easy chair when the Super Bowl starts, immediately depositing lottery winnings and responding to cuties on Tinder. But proactively investigating that check engine light or the operatic screech emanating from under the hood? Literally, only Stephen R. Covey and your Life Skills teacher from high school do that.
Unfortunately, car issues are a lot like unruly children — little problems grow up to be big, expensive monsters. So do yourself a favor and dust off your day planner, fire up a Youtube motivation meditation and save yourself some automo-bills. Our list below is here to help.
1. Check engine light comes on
You’re no car doctor, but you think that yellow light on your dashboard is trying to tell you something. And it is. It’s saying, “Hey dude, I’m the in-car computer and I have determined that there is something wrong with the hundreds of interlocking systems that help keep your car running. But my lips are sealed about which part, so get thee to a mechanic!” Fun huh?
The good news? If it’s not blinking, it’s not a disaster — yet. A solid yellow light is like a friendly nudge, telling you to get your car checked sooner rather than later. But a blinking yellow light? Let’s just say you have five seconds before your car goes full Benedict Arnold and burns it all to the ground. Just kidding. But do pull over immediately, or at least head straight to the nearest auto shop, because, as the kids say, there’s something wrong with your catalytic converter, man.*
Want to get fluent in car-speak? Check out our recent article about how to read a dashboard like a pro. Bonus points if you start dreaming in car.
* No kid has ever said this.
2. Leaks under the car
Just like toddlers after a juice box, your car can sometimes spring a leak. Watch for fluids on the driveway under your car. If there’s reddish-brown stuff toward the front of the car, you are leaking brake fluids, engine oil, or transmission oil. If there’s bright green fluid up front, you’re either leaking coolant or witnessing the birth of a new generation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which will require huge pizza investments. Fluid on your wheel rims could mean your brake lines are leaking or you have a cunning, murderous enemy who cut them. (Either one is bad.)
A dirty, oily stain on your power steering tank means a leak there, too. For all of the above, sprinkle sand or kitty litter on the stain and dash off to a trusted mechanic. (If there’s water under the front passenger seat, don’t sweat it — that’s just air conditioning condensation. Phew!)
From under the hood:
First things first: The hood of your car is also called a bonnet, which will make any steam coming out of it seem super cute. But don’t buy it for a minute. While steam is not as concerning as smoke, it does mean your radiator, pipes, or gasket is leaking. Check the temperature gauge on your dashboard and pull over till it cools down. If you’re seeing bluish smoke, you’re burning oil and should pull over and call a tow truck immediately. If you don’t, you might need a whole new engine, which is one of the least fun new things you will ever buy. So put on your own bonnet, put your shoulder to the (steering) wheel, and push your patience along while you wait for help to arrive.
In your exhaust:
You’re no dum-dum. You know smoke pouring out of your exhaust is bad. But what kind of bad? The color of the smoke is here to tell you (think of it as a mood ring with a rainbow of industrial colors). White smoke means water or antifreeze is having a party in your engine. Blue means burning oil, grey smoke means burning oil or coolant, and black smoke means your engine is running too rich — which, unlike you running too rich, is a bad thing. Stop the proverbial Hexxus from wrecking your life by visiting a mechanic ASAP.
4. Noises while driving
No one likes a car that screeches and whimpers at them, but if you take a minute to really listen, you’ll realize your car is just trying to tell you something in a mature way, using “I feel” statements. Whining under the bonnet? Your engine is saying, “I feel like I have a loose belt.” Whining in the backseat? Throw some fruit snacks back there. Car squeals when you pump the brake? It’s saying, “I feel worn out — my brake pads, specifically.” You squeal when you pump the brake? You’re having that dream you’re a NASCAR racer again.
Car makes a crunching noise? It’s saying, “My gearbox is likely worn and I need a spa day at the mechanic.” Hear metal-on-metal? Either your car is scraping on another part or you’re listening to Slayer cover Sabbath on your stereo. And finally, if the engine sounds uneven, get to a mechanic yesterday. It could be something small, like spark plugs, but your car could also be saying, “I’m sorry to be so rude, but I feel like I’m in serious trouble.”
5. Odd faults
Your spouse says you have lots of them, but you’re not alone because your car does too. This is the catch-all category for car glitches and misbehavior — a random drop in fuel economy, trouble starting up, the horn blares when you turn left, strange noises that only happen in windstorms on Midwestern plains, etc.
For random car faults, take notes and bring them to your mechanic on your next visit. For your own flaws, go to therapy. And/Or try turning off the hall light, taking the dog out without being asked and buying someone flowers every once in a while for no reason at all.
What are you waiting for? Put down the potato chips, ease out of the easy chair, withdraw some of your lottery funds and ask your e-crush on a date to your local body shop. She’ll be impressed by your commitment to solving problems early and efficiently, and when she breaks up with you later over odd faults you’ll already have a relationship of trust building with your mechanic.
Ready for responsibility but don’t know who to trust? Check out our listings of reputable repair shops here.