Weird car noises and what they mean
November 12, 2012
Diagnosing car problems is easier than you think.
By: Matt Hubert
The purr of an engine, the whoosh of the wind and the sound of a bass pulsating in time to your favorite song: No doubt about it—your car can serve up some pretty sweet sounds.
But there are plenty of sounds that aren’t so pleasant. From clunks and clicks to rumbles and rattles, your car usually speaks up when something needs to be fixed. But do you know what it’s trying to tell you?
To help you decipher, here are car experts’ insights into six of the most common car complaints.
The noise: Humming or groaning
What it means: “The tires are having wear problems, and that can be serious. It’s often caused by premature wear on the inside portion of the tire, which is not easy to see. That wear could expose the steel belts on the tire, putting it at risk of coming apart.”
-Alex Andreus, chief operating officer, Brickell Honda, Buick, GMC in Miami, Fla.
The noise: Growling
What it means: “The noise will change and may even go away as you make a turn or swerve the vehicle. It’s usually caused by a defective front wheel bearing, and the noise change is caused by shifting the load of the vehicle from one side to the other in a turn.”
-Patrick Butler, education manager, Universal Technical Institute, Phoenix campus
The noise: Whining or creaking
What it means: “If you hear this when backing up or turning, it may signify a ball joint or tie rod seizing up.”
-The Car Chick™, co-host of “America’s Garage” radio show and co-owner of Women’s Automotive Solutions
The noise: Squeaking
What it means: “This is usually a high-pitched, steady sound, like an out-of-tune violin. The brakes are letting you know it’s time to change the pads.”
-Blaine Decker, auto technician with more than 15 years of experience
The noise: Grinding
What it means: “If you hear metal grinding, it means two pieces of metal are touching where they shouldn't. This could be anything from your car's brakes, suspension, powertrain or something else. The bottom line is that all grinding noises indicate you need to get your car checked immediately.”
-Ivan Drury, senior analyst and manager of pricing and industry analysis, edmunds.com
The noise: Hissing
What it means: “You might hear a hissing sound from under your hood after turning off your ignition, and it may be followed by smoke or mist from the same area. This is a warning signal that something’s not right in your cooling system. It could be something as simple as a bad radiator cap to a bad radiator, clutch fan, electric fan, hose or something else.
-Howard J. Fleischmann, Sr., owner, Community Tire Pros & Auto Repair
Remember: Today’s annoying noise could morph into an expensive and dangerous situation tomorrow, so always schedule an appointment with a pro ASAP.
How to hire a (good, honest) mechanic
Car trouble is often inevitable—but bad mechanics don’t have to be. If you don’t have a trusty mechanic, here are some tips to help you track one down:
- First, try to get a recommendation. Word of mouth is often the best way to go, so make sure to ask friends and family for a referral.
- Check for proper certification. Make sure the shop and the particular mechanic you choose are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
- Consider a shop that knows your car. It’s often a good idea to go back to the dealership where you bought your new car—they have the parts and expertise to get the job done right.
- Investigate. Check out online reviews for testimonials from other customers. Good places to start include Google Maps and NPR’s Mechanics Files. Also see if there are any complaints against the shop by checking in with the Better Business Bureau.
- Do a pre-interview. If everything else checks out, a simple face-to-face conversation gives you a sense of the mechanic’s personality and whether he or she is a good fit.