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Engine Problems? No Problem! The Top 5 Most Common Issues

engine problems

Have you ever felt like everything that could go wrong – has gone wrong? It’s usually at this moment that engine problems strike.  Maybe you’ve just left the house for work, and before getting into your car, you notice a puddle of oil under it.  Or perhaps you’re halfway towards dropping the kids off at daycare, when the engine stalls, leaving you stranded on the side of the road.  Regardless of how they manifest, finding out your car has issues – sucks.

Auto Repairs Are EXPENSIVE


Some of the most common engine problems include oil leaks, overheating, stalling, smoking, or trouble turning over.  Each of these occurs for a reason, and each has its own solution.  Thankfully, in this article, we’ll review these in detail. As well as what they stem from, and how to handle them.

But first, let’s review the basics behind how an engine works.


How a Car Engine Works – The Basics

For most people, the exact process going on under the hood of a car is a complete mystery. Our fear of the unknown is what makes engine problems so terrifying. For this reason, let’s shine a little light on the subject. Here’s a quick rundown of what goes on after you put your key in the ignition and turn it.


By turning the key to the ON position, it tells the ignition system that you’re wanting to start the engine. Power is needed to do this, which is provided by the battery and sent to the spark plugs. Their purpose is to take that power and use it to create a spark, which ignites the air/fuel mixture in each combustion chamber.


A combustion chamber is a nearly airtight tubular space inside the engine block. In each of these chambers sits a piston, which, in short, is a disc that moves up and down each time the air/fuel mixture ignites. This, in turn, generates the necessary power that keeps the engine running. Where does the fuel come from? It’s handled by the fuel system, which is in charge of storing and delivering the proper amount to each chamber.


All of this movement requires lubrication, which is where engine oil comes into play. Its primary purpose is to reduce friction, which in turn ensures that wear is kept to a minimum. The other role of oil is to transfer heat away from the different engine components.


As it circulates (thanks to the oil pump), it picks up contaminants such as dust, dirt, rust, and metal particles. Thankfully, these are removed by the oil filter before they can cause any harm.  After the engine has been running for a while, the oil becomes heated, at which point the intake system comes into play to cool it down.


The intake system is in charge of bringing in new, clean, outside air.  Just like there’s an oil filter, there’s also an air filter, which ensures the air is free from things like dust, dirt, pollen, and any other contaminants. You can think of the intake system as basically the lungs of your vehicle. Just like your body needs air, so too does your engine.


The first use is to supply each chamber with a certain amount of oxygen for ignition (done so by the mass-flow sensor and throttle-body). The other purpose is to deliver cold air to the coolant lines using the radiator. A radiator is a type of heat exchanger that transfers heat away from the coolant and sends it back outside.


So, there you have it, a basic rundown of how your engine starts, how it creates power, and what it needs to keep doing so. Obviously, there are many additional elements at play behind the scenes.  But for the purposes of this article, a general overview should be enough to understand each problem and determine the best response.


Engine Problem #1 – Oil Is Leaking Under the Car

If you notice a puddle of dark brown or yellow liquid under your car, it’s likely oil.  If you read through our previous section, then you know that motor oil is essential for an engine to run correctly.  Without enough of it, several catastrophic engine problems can result, such as a cracked engine block or a blown head gasket.


  • Cause

There are several reasons a car might develop an oil leak, the first being a bad oil filter. Remember, the purpose of an oil filter is to remove harmful contaminants before they make their way into the engine.  They last for about 3-months (or 3,000 miles), at which point you should swap it out for a new one.


Another common cause of an oil leak (especially for high-mileage vehicles) is a degraded seal or gasket.  These connect the different metal components of your engine while allowing fluids to pass between.  Thankfully, there are specialty motor oils you can buy that help condition and restore gaskets and seals to ensure they last as long as possible.


The worst-case scenario? A blown head gasket, which carries an average repair cost of between $3,000 to $4,000.


Additional possibilities include:

  • Loose or broken oil filler cap
  • Damaged oil pan
  • Loose or broken drain plug


  • Solution

The best solution to any problem is to prevent it in the first place.  The first way to do this is to change your oil regularly according to what the manufacturer suggests.  Most newer models can last as long as 10,000 miles per oil change, but you should keep an eye on its condition after about 5,000 miles.


If you notice it’s especially dark and dirty, you might consider bringing it in early.  If you drive a 2000 model year vehicle or older, increase the frequency to every 3,000 or 5,000 miles. You might also consider using a leak stop additive, which softens and conditions the seals, causing them to swell.


When is a leak a problem? When it’s more of a puddle. If there’s a significant amount of oil under your car, you might have a cracked engine block. For more information on what to do if you have an oil leak, check out our previous article here.


Engine Problem #2 – The Motor Overheated

If your temperature gauge suddenly spikes into the red zone, your engine is overheating. The first thing you should do is pull over (when it’s safe) and turn the engine off, which will help ensure things don’t become worse than they already are.


  • Cause

There are several reasons an engine might become too hot.  One of these is low engine coolant, which often stems from a leak.  Another possibility is a radiator blockage, which means that antifreeze isn’t flowing as it should.  When this happens, the hot air remains in the block rather than dispersing.


There also might be an issue with your water pump, which pushes coolant from the radiator into the engine block.  If it is malfunctioning, it can’t successfully lower the temperature inside the block.


At the top of the list of things that might cause an engine to overheat is a cracked engine block.  This usually happens due to drastic changes in temperature. The engine block is a solid piece of metal, and due to thermal expansion, the heat causes it to weaken and crack. This reduces pressure inside the block and creates the possibility of a leak.


Additional possibilities include:

  • Broken or damaged thermostat
  • Faulty cooling fan
  • Faulty radiator cap


  • Solution

The first thing to do after safely pulling over and turning your car off is to let it cool down.  Do not open the hood until the temperature gauge has returned to normal or below.  Next, check the coolant (antifreeze) levels to make sure you haven’t run out.  You should also make sure the radiator hose hasn’t become disconnected, damaged, or blocked.


If it has become detached, you can reconnect it, restart the vehicle, and carefully monitor the temperature gauge. If the same problem occurs again, you’ll need to tow it to a shop to diagnose the issue.


Engine Problem #3 – The Motor Stalled

A stalled engine stems from three primary causes: not enough air, a lack of fuel, or not receiving enough power. You’ll likely first notice your power steering go out, meaning it the wheel becomes difficult to turn. The engine will also stop turning, and the brakes will become hard to press. The moment you notice you’re in this situation, pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so.


  • Cause

The first (as well as the most obvious culprit) might be that you’ve run out of gas. Count yourself lucky if this is the reason (even if you do feel a little embarrassed).  Another common cause is that your air filter is clogged, which means your engine isn’t receiving enough air.  Thankfully, this is a simple fix that shouldn’t cost more than $50.


Earlier, we mentioned how turning the ignition key sends power from the battery to the spark plugs.  Well, once the car starts, what’s known as an alternator keeps it running. The alternator provides the various components of your supplied with power. If it goes out, your car will likely stall.


Additional possibilities include:

  • Disproportionate air/fuel mixture
  • Dead battery
  • Faulty fuel pump


  • Solution

Again, when a car stalls, it loses power steering, power breaks, and the ability to accelerate. This makes it an immediate hazard if you happen to be on the highway. Pull-over when it’s safe, cut the engine off, and turn on the hazard lights.


First, check that you haven’t run out of fuel. Afterward, inspect the air filter for signs that it might be clogged (apparent by visible debris, dirt, and gunk).  If neither of those appears to be the problem, it’s time to tow your car to a shop.


Check out our previous article here for more information on why cars stall and how to handle it.


Engine Problem #4 – The Motor Won’t Start

There’s not much worse than leaving your house in the morning to find that your car won’t start. If you remember, there’s a process behind a vehicle starting as it should. When something involved in that process isn’t functioning, you’ll find yourself out of luck.


  • Cause

The first, and most common reason a car won’t start, is a dead battery.  Be sure to listen for a clicking sound, which confirms you’re out of power.  Another possible issue is the starter, which is what initially gets the engine moving.


There’s also the possibility that your fuel filter is clogged.  Earlier, we mentioned several filters. Well, there’s also one for your fuel, and if it’s obstructed, or if there’s an issue with your fuel pump, the combustion process won’t initiate.


Additional possibilities include:

  • Catalytic converter failure
  • Faulty ignition switch
  • Corroded battery cables


  • Solution

If you notice an audible “clicking” sound while attempting to start your car, it likely means the battery is dead.  Sometimes batteries will drain, often after sitting for several days in cold weather, or if you have a security system and don’t start it for a few days. If you have a pair of jumper cables, you can try jump-starting your car.


If it’s not the battery, your options for getting it started are somewhat limited at home. For this reason, you’ll likely have to tow it to a shop.


Engine Problem #5 – A “Service Engine Soon Light” Came On

A “Check Engine” light or “Service Engine Soon” light usually illuminates in response to an error detected by your ECM (Electronic Control Module).  This is in charge of making sure your engine is running as it should.  It gets this data from different sensors, such as the mass air flow sensor, the engine speed sensor, the oxygen sensor, or the voltage sensor (to name just a few).


  • Cause

Many things can cause a service light to appear, including a loose or faulty gas cap, low fluid levels, or a sensor failure.  A solid light does not mean there’s an immediate problem, it’s just alerting you that something is off.  However, if it’s blinking, there’s a serious issue, be sure to pull over right away if this happens.


Additional possibilities include:

  • Faulty catalytic converter
  • New spark plugs needed
  • Scheduled service is due


  • Solution

First, check your gas cap to make sure it’s screwed on correctly.  Your fuel system is pressurized, and if it isn’t sealed, it prompts the ECM to signal an issue.  Next, check your fluid levels (oil, coolant, transmission fluid, etc.), as well as maintenance items (oil filter, air filter, etc.). If these all appear to be in order, it is likely time for a trip to the shop.


You also can purchase an OBD II scanner to diagnose the issue yourself. These can usually be found for between $20 to $200 at an auto parts store. They connect to the OBD port under the driver side dash and read the code put out by the ECM.  Be sure to check out our previous article here for more information about service engine lights. As well as how to use an OBD II scanner.


Engine Problems? No Problem!

problem solution

If you find out you have an engine problem, the most important thing is that you handle it before it becomes worse.  Whatever the cause may be, there is always a solution.  Thankfully, should any of these common engine problems happen to you, you should now have everything you need to proceed without worry.

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