How to Troubleshoot a Car That Won't Start

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When your car won't start, you can easily check quite a few things before calling a tow truck. Use this simple chart to diagnose what might be wrong and what you can do to get back on the road again.

Difficulty:
Easy

Instructions

  1. Engine won't crank

    • 1

      Generally caused by either a dead battery or a bad starter, although you should check steps 1 through 5 to make sure it's not an operator error.

    • 2

      If car is automatic, check that transmission is in park and your foot is on brake.

    • 3

      If car is stick shift, check that clutch pedal is fully depressed. Check neutral safety switch behind clutch pedal (small button that prevents engine from starting when transmission is in gear). If clutch pedal doesn't fully engage neutral safety switch, engine will not crank.

    • 4

      Check that driver's seat belt is fastened (some cars will not start with seat belt unlatched).

    • 5

      Make sure you've properly inserted key. Turn it to On position and give steering wheel quarter turn in either direction.

    • 6

      Make sure alarm system is not activated, preventing car from starting (see owner's manual for car alarm).

    • 7

      Check for dead battery. Test wipers, radio, headlights and heater fan. If all work normally, battery is probably charged and you may have bad starter. If they don't work, move on to next step.

    • 8

      Check connection at battery and at starter (see steps 8 and 9). If battery connections are good and all accessories work, consider jumpstarting car (see How to Start a Car With Jumper Cables).

    • 9

      Open hood and check battery connections at terminals. If either connector is loose enough to move, problem may be bad connection. Jiggle or tighten cable end. Corrosion at battery terminal will also prevent car from starting. Clean terminal with wire brush or water and rag and tighten battery cable connectors.

    • 10

      Check connection at starter. Follow battery cable from positive battery terminal to starter. Make sure connection isn't loose. Lightly tap outside of starter with hammer. Sometimes this will free stuck components inside so car can start.

    • 11

      Consider push-starting car (manual transmission only) if battery or starter is at fault (see How to Start a Stalled Car).

    • 12

      Call tow truck.

    Engine cranks slowly

    • 13

      Only one thing causes this condition: a battery that is not fully charged.

    • 14

      Open hood and check battery connections. If there is any movement at positive or negative battery terminal, car may not start. Jiggle or tighten cable connector. Corrosion at battery terminal will also prevent car from starting. Clean battery cable ends and battery terminal with wire brush or water and rag and tighten battery cable ends.

    • 15

      Check battery-acid level (only possible with some types of batteries). Use screwdriver to pop open small caps on top of battery. Add water until level reaches top of plastic split inside each battery cell (distilled recommended, but tap water will work).

    • 16

      Jump-start or push-start car.

    • 17

      Call tow truck.

    Engine cranks but car won't start

    • 18

      There are hundreds of possible reasons your car cranks but doesn't start. Here are a few quick items to check before calling a tow truck.

    • 19

      Turn key to On position and check gas gauge to make sure car's not out of gas.

    • 20

      Open hood and look for disconnected spark-plug wires or vacuum lines.

    • 21

      Check fuse box for blown fuses (see How to Fix a Faulty Car Fuse).

    • 22

      Call tow truck.

    Engine runs but car won't go

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