Diagnosing your car problems using your senses

By: Kris LeSueur   |   27 Feb 2023
Image from It Still Runs

The ability to diagnose whatever is wrong with your car is an extremely helpful skill. However, it can also be an overwhelming and difficult task. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a trained mechanic to locate common issues your car might be having–you can use your senses to identify car problems.

It takes time and getting used to it, but if you drive your car daily, you can easily tell when something is off and not working how it should. The following are some of the ways you can do this.


Sound is one of the most common signifiers of a car’s health. You can tell that something is wrong with a car component that sounds different or if there is a presence of noise where there should not be.

For instance, a high-pitched screech while using the brakes may signal worn brake pads, while a grinding sound when changing gears may indicate a gearbox problem. An engine cooling system issue or a coolant leak could be indicated by a hissing noise coming from beneath the hood. Any new or strange sounds should be noted, and their source should be determined.


Your nose is capable of smelling little dangers. It’s the way the body is designed and how most things work. Like with food! You can tell if something is still okay to eat by the way they smell. The same goes for your car. Any foul or different smell should tell you enough about potential damage or issue.

A coolant leak, for instance, can be indicated by a sweet, syrupy scent, while a burning smell might be indicative of a clutch, brake, or gearbox problem. A musty smell coming from the vents of the air conditioner can be a sign of mold growth, while a rotten egg smell might be a sign of a catalytic converter issue.


Of course, visual cues are the easiest way of telling you something is wrong with your car. Do you see oil spots in the parking space you just pulled out of? Something must be leaking from the engine or the transmission.  And the classic–steam or smoke coming from under the hood of your car means that the engine could be overheating. A quick visual scan of your car should also be your common practice. This could save you from pulling out of the parking space with a flat tire.


Finally, when determining the source of a car problem, your sense of touch might be helpful. For instance, if you experience shaking or vibration when driving, it may indicate a problem with the tires or suspension system. If the steering wheel pulls to one side, there can be a problem with alignment. The braking system may be having issues if the brakes seem mushy or sluggish.

It pays a lot to be mindful of what you see, hear, feel, and smell when driving. It could save you from dealing with big troubles that stem from ignorance and neglect.

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