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Car can tell you when it needs help fast

Published July 23, 2010


Cars may be inanimate objects, but just like people, they display symptoms when they get sick. And as with humans, it’s important to know what is normal and shouldn’t cause concern, and what symptoms require a trip to the shop to keep your vehicle safe and working properly.

Keep in mind that this is only a partial list, and it’s never a dumb question if you don’t know the answer. If you suspect your vehicle isn’t acting normally, take it to a shop before a minor problem becomes a major one. It might be something you can ignore, but it could also be something that could jeopardize your safety if left untreated.

BRAKES: Lightly-rusted rotors are normal if the vehicle has been sitting. The rotors, also called brake discs, are the round metal discs visible through the spokes if you have alloy wheels (you probably can’t see them if your car has hubcaps).

Since the rotors depend on friction to work, they are bare metal, and so they can develop a light film of rust. This can happen as quickly as overnight if the weather is damp. Not to worry: it’ll rub off the first time you apply the brakes.

Be concerned if your brakes squeal or grind when applied, or if there’s a continuous squeaking noise that goes away when you press the pedal. Those indicate that your brake pads need replacement, and if you ignore them, you’ll eventually need to replace the rotors, too. Also see your shop if the car pulls to one side when braking, or if the brake pedal feels mushy or goes closer to the floor than it usually does.

WARNING LIGHTS: It’s normal for all of the warning lights in the instrument cluster to come on when you start the car; it’s part of the vehicle’s self-check.

Be concerned if one stays on, or comes on while you’re driving. The lights alert you to problems such as oil pressure or engine temperature. Your owner’s manual will tell you what each one means and what to do. In some cases, such as oil pressure, you need to turn the engine off quickly to avoid major damage.

EXHAUST SMOKE: It’s normal to see white exhaust coming out of the tailpipe when you first start the engine in cool weather. That’s condensation in the system being forced out.

Be concerned if you see white smoke when the engine has warmed up, which could indicate antifreeze leaking into the engine. Also watch for blue smoke, which means the engine is burning oil, or black smoke, if it’s getting too much gasoline.

POWER STEERING: It’s normal to hear a squealing noise when you turn and hold the steering wheel all the way to the left or right. However, you shouldn’t do this: it’s the system telling you that you’ve turned it too far.

It isn’t normal to hear squealing when you’re turning the wheel normally, or if it takes more effort to turn the wheel than it usually does. This can indicate that your power steering fluid is low, or there’s a problem with the pump.

TEMPERATURE GAUGE: If your car has a gauge, instead of just a warning light, it’s normal for the needle to rise slightly when you’re in stop-and-go traffic, especially on a hot day. It may also rise slightly if you’re pulling a trailer.

It isn’t normal for the gauge to go into the red warning zone at any time, or for the temperature warning light to come on. This can indicate an abnormally high engine temperature, usually caused by lack of coolant, which can damage your engine if you don’t turn it off as soon as possible.

PUDDLES: When you’re using the air conditioning, it’s normal to see a puddle of water, or water dripping under the car, usually on the passenger side close to the front door. That’s just condensation forming on the air conditioning condenser.

It’s not normal to see fluids dripping anywhere else. The colour can indicate the type of fluid: black or brown for oil, green or pink for coolant, or red for transmission fluid. If you have a black asphalt driveway, it can sometimes be difficult to see the exact colour. If so, try parking over a piece of cardboard, and then take the stained cardboard to the repair shop, which will help the technician identify the fluid and where it’s leaking.

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