Can You Solve These Auto Problems?

Maria Trimarchi

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About This Quiz

You can credit Bertha Benz, the wife of inventor Karl Benz, as the first to take a "horseless carriage" on a road trip at the end of the 19th century -- but it was in 1903 when H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker, accompanied by a pit bull named Bud, took the first cross country road trip in a Winton Touring Car dubbed, "Vermont." And in true form, they were also the first to perform road repairs.

So when your Dodge Charger or Ford Fiesta -- two cars voted most likely to be unreliable by Consumer Reports -- breaks down in rural Pennsylvania during a blizzard, it helps to have a little understanding of how your vehicle works -- and maybe why it's currently not. Or maybe you just like to do your own oil changes or do your own brake job to save big bucks.

Either way, whether it's a new fender and some door repairs or a problem under the hood, diagnosing and fixing the problem yourself can save you repair costs -- paying back your friend to wire you money to get home not included. See how well you can solve these car trouble spots.

What's your car trying to tell you when one of its turn signal indicators blinks fast?

Have you ever noticed the indicator in your dashboard blink faster than normal? It's trying to tell you that it's time to change a light bulb.

It's finally hot enough to turn on your car's AC, but it smells moldy -- and it's not even cold. What's going on?

The AC accumulator filters moisture from the AC system, so when it's falling down on the job there may be -- stinky -- mold and mildew buildup. When diagnosing a bad AC accumulator, you may also find coolant leaks underneath the car or that there's a rattling sound when the system is turned on.

In addition to possibly burning transmission fluid, what's another reason your car might have white smoke coming from its exhaust?

When everything is running properly, you'll see a light or a thin white exhaust vapor emitting from your vehicle. But if your car's exhaust is a different color, it may be time for a checkup. White or light gray exhaust smoke in particular may mean that the engine is burning transmission fluid -- and it will smell like burning oil. Alternatively, a leaky head gasket or a crack in the cylinder head can cause coolant to burn in the engine's combustion chamber, causing thick white exhaust smoke that smells slightly sweet.

These are all common causes of a dead or dying battery, except which one?

Batteries typically last about three years. You can tell if yours is drained or dead by looking for corrosion around the posts, a bloated battery case caused by excessive heat, or faulty electrical components or wiring. Don't fret: You can jump start a vehicle if the battery dies. But if it continues to die it means there is a larger problem -- at that point, you'll need to figure out what's draining it so quickly, or you may need to replace the battery.

Why is it a bad idea to keep driving on a flat tire?

In addition to being hard to control behind the wheel, driving on a flat tire can cause damage to the tire, and it may also cause damage to the wheel and even to your vehicle, depending on the conditions. Always choose to put on your spare tire and leave the tire patching to the professionals.

Your car is shaking and the Check Engine Light (CEL) is blinking. What is the onboard diagnostics system trying to warn you about?

The CEL is part of your car's onboard diagnostics system, the computer that monitors your car's performance including everything from regulating its engine speed to emissions monitoring. When the CEL is blinking, it usually indicates that your car's engine is misfiring, allowing unburned fuel to go straight into the exhaust system -- and that's a catalytic converter-damaging condition. This is one fix for the mechanic.

What damage happens when you put a lower-octane fuel in a car that requires high-octane fuel?

While a knock sensor is going to help minimize the damage in the short-term, long-term damage -- from poor fuel economy to severe engine damage -- can happen if you make a habit out of using the regular rather than premium octane fuel. Putting higher-octane fuel in a car that only requires regular, however, is just a waste of money.

All of these are signs of transmission trouble, except which one?

Gears slipping or grinding during shifting as well as a delay can both spell transmission trouble -- as can a car that shakes at any speed you drive it. In addition, you may also hear clunking or whistling sounds in neutral or smell a burnt odor from under the vehicle's hood.

What's happening when your car's engine continues to run, sputters, then gradually stops after you've already turned the engine off?

"Running-on" or "dieseling" is when an engine keeps running for a short period after being turned off. The problem happens in spark-plug-ignited, gasoline-powered internal combustion engines (not diesel engines), when fuel ignites without a spark in the combustion chamber. While it's rarely a problem in fuel-injected engines, it can be a common problem if your car has a carburetor.

What type of leak is happening if you find red fluid underneath your car?

Automatic transmission fluid is oil, but you can tell it's not engine oil or gear oil because it's a different viscosity -- and it's tinted red. Finding this reddish-brown fluid under your car is a sign of a possible transmission fluid leak.

Which is a common cause of high-pitched, squealing noises when you brake?

Squealing and squeaking brakes isn't just loud and maybe slightly embarrassing, it could also be putting you and your passengers at risk. It's common, though, because of wear and tear, and usually caused by the aging of some of the components of your car's braking system: worn pads, "glazed" pads and rotors, broken anti-rattle clips, lack of pad insulation or insulation shims, or an incorrect rotor surface cut.

What might cause a thick, black exhaust smoke that smells like it's burning?

Black exhaust smoke suggests that the engine is being flooded with gasoline, and that black smoke is a result of unburnt fuel being forced out of the exhaust. It could be caused by a clogged air filter, a clogged fuel return line, a malfunctioning fuel injection system or a blocked manifold, among a few other potential issues.

Flickering or dim headlights are typically a strong indicator that what part is failing?

The alternator is what keeps your car's battery charged while it's running. It allows the car's battery to supply power to all the electrical components -- such as the headlights -- seemingly endlessly. In addition to dim headlights, there may be other electrical issues, such as with power windows and seats.

What's the primary culprit if your car is hard to start and idles rough?

A car that is hard to start and idles rough may need new spark plugs. Symptoms may also include a misfiring or surging engine, high fuel consumption and a general lack of acceleration.

You've discovered a coolant leak under your car -- where should you look for the source?

Finding green or orange fluid (it depends on the type you use) underneath your car is a good indication you've got an engine coolant leak on your hands -- and narrowing it down can be tedious since it could occur anywhere in the cooling system. Common culprits of an external leak? Besides overfilling the tank, coolant leaks often are a result of bad radiator hoses or clamps, a faulty intake manifold gasket or a faulty radiator itself.

All of these are common signs that your car's tires are out of balance, except for which one?

The most common symptoms of unbalanced or out-of-balance tires are uneven -- and quicker -- tread wear and poor fuel economy. But the one you'll probably notice first is the vibration, which can be in the steering wheel, the floorboard or even the seats -- it'll worsen the faster you drive.

What's the No. 1 sign of a burnt clutch?

Diagnosing a burnt clutch can be difficult without being able to smell it. Other problems that could cause clutch slippage include a bad flywheel, a misaligned clutch bearing, a blocked cylinder port -- or trouble with the associated cables and pistons that connect the pedal to the clutch itself.

What could be causing your car to shake when you reach speeds of about 50 mph?

Although the most common reason for a car to shake is related to its tires, it's not the only thing that can cause vibration between 50 and 60 mph. Brake problems, including "out of round" or off balance brake rotors or a brake caliper that's stuck on.

What's your best defense against damage after accidentally putting diesel fuel in a gasoline-powered car?

Topped off with diesel instead of gasoline? Your car can only run on the fuel it's intended to use. Gasoline engines, for instance, use spark plugs to ignite fuel rather than the air compression of diesel engines. Because gasoline engines cannot combust diesel fuel, your car won't run on diesel fuel. It usually takes more than just siphoning it out of the tank. It's time to get the fuel system flushed, including the tank, fuel lines, injectors, rail and fuel pump.

What color exhaust smoke can you expect to see if your car's engine is burning oil?

The usual suspects when it comes to blue exhaust smoke are worn valves or valve guide seals, damage or wear to piston rings, or worn or damaged cylinders -- and that can allow oil to leak into the engine's combustion chamber where it mixes with fuel. In addition, you may notice the car's engine doesn't have the same power as it used to.

Your car's coolant level normally rises and falls, but which reason could cause a quick drop?

A quick drop in the coolant reservoir level is a good indication that your car has a radiator leak. Check your radiator and its hoses for leaks, swelling, or holes, or if there are any collapsed, cracked or soft hoses.

What's the first thing you should check if your car is backfiring, idling rough or losing power while you're driving?

There are three main problems that could cause stalling while your car's engine is running -- it's a loss of either air, fuel or electricity. Stalling while you're driving -- in particular when you're accelerating, is often due to faulty ignition components such as a bad ignition coil.

Which odor indicates there may be oil leaking onto the engine block or exhaust manifold?

First things first when you're dealing with engine oil -- check the dipstick to see if you're running low on fluid. If that's not the case, engine oil may be leaking into the engine block or into the exhaust manifold, causing that acrid burning oil odor.

What does it mean if your steering wheel has 'excessive play'?

"Excessive play" in your car's steering system means your steering wheel rotates excessively -- more than 1 1/ 2" -- without causing the front wheels to move. What to look for when diagnosing the problem? Ball joints that wiggle in their sockets, loose or worn tie rods, or even a steering rack that's loose on its frame can all cause the problem.

Can you identify the dark, slippery fluid on the ground under the front of your car?

A dark brown and slippery fluid with a bit of a burned smell about it is almost certainly engine oil. You can easily check if the oil pan plug is properly in place and that the oil filter is secured, but the problem may be due to a cracked oil pan or faulty engine valves.

The most common sign your car is low on gas is an illuminated fuel indicator light. But what's a symptom that you're running low?

The dashboard fuel indicator light will let you know when your car is running on gas reserves -- but that could take you as far as 25 miles depending on your car and how you drive. When gas levels are very low, look for problems like your car not starting, or stalling a lot if it does run.

What kind of noise indicates you may have a timing belt problem?

Often it's too late; your timing belt is broken. But if you listen closely, you can identify the problem before that happens. For instance, what may begin with a high-pitched squeal as the belt shows some wear and tear will end with ticking noises coming from inside the engine -- and a car that won't start, if not addressed.

Is it safe to drive if the airbag light comes on?

From a worn-out airbag clock spring to a corroded control module -- or even a low car battery, there are a lot of different reasons a car's airbag light may illuminate. It could be no big deal, but it may also mean your airbags won't deploy if you have an accident -- get it checked out.

What does it mean if your engine is 'running lean'?

A car that's running "lean" is running on less fuel than it should be, primarily because fuel in the ignition chamber is being ignited with either too little fuel or too much air in the mixture. The culprits? It could be a sign of a dirty mass air flow sensor, a damaged fuel injector or a damaged oxygen sensor.

Your car has symptoms of water in the fuel tank. What's the best solution?

From reduced fuel economy to a rusted fuel system, water in the fuel tank can be costly. The best thing you can do when water has gotten into your car's gas tank is to siphon out the "bad gas" currently in the tank. Depending on just how much water was in the tank, allow the tank to dry out before refilling it with fuel to prevent rusting.

What dashboard symbol might illuminate if your gas cap is loose?

Whether the illuminated CEL blinks or remains constantly lit up, it can tell you a lot about the problem your car is having. While a steady, not blinking, light means you may or may not notice some deterioration in performance, it indicates there's a problem but probably not an emergency -- in fact, it could be anything from tightening your gas cap to avoid setting off a fuel vapor leak sensor to timing or transmission issues.

When you're on the side of the road with steam pouring out from under your car's hood, what could be causing your car's engine to overheat?

There are lots of things that can cause an engine to overheat. Everything from leaky hoses to worn belts to a bad water pump or thermostat -- or even an electrical problem -- could be at fault. Typically, you'll need to wait about 30 minutes for your car's engine to cool down enough for safe handling.

What coin denomination can you use to check your tire's tread depth?

The penny test is a way of evaluating tread depth on your car's tires. It works like this: Place a penny with Lincoln’s head upside down into the groove between the tread. If you can't see the top of Lincoln's head, then you're in the clear -- that tread is at least 2/32-inch deep (at least at that location on the tire). You can also use a quarter to do this test, or look at the treadwear indicator bar on each tire.

What's one of the first things to do when you've been in a minor fender bender?

As many as 30 percent of all car accidents in the U.S. are rear impact fender benders. If you have one, you'll want to exchange, at the minimum, your full name, address, and phone number, along with your car insurance information -- and that should include your insurance company’s name, phone number and your policy number. Record license plate numbers and the makes and models of the cars involved. Also take down the names and badge numbers of any responding law enforcement, as well as the names of anyone who may have witnessed the accident.

Which could be a cause of your car's recent decrease in gas mileage?

Aside from your own bad driving habits, there are several reasons you may find your car isn't as fuel efficient as it used to be, or should be. Look at three simple causes first, including tire pressure, air filters and oxygen sensors -- all of which can cause a drop.

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