Morgan Pritchett
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10 Common Vehicle Sounds and What They Mean

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mechanic looking under a lifted vehicle in garage
What’s that mysterious ticking noise?

You can tell a lot about your car from the noises it makes. On a racetrack, the rev of an engine and the squeal of the tires can tell you when you should shift or when you’re approaching the grip limit. During regular driving, though, being able to identify common vehicle sounds is a little different. Knowing what your car is saying can be a useful diagnostic tool when something is wrong.

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1. Squealing when braking

This could mean there is dirt on the brake rotors, pads, or shoes. It could also mean that the pads or shoes are badly worn and need to be replaced.

2. Grinding when braking

Yikes! Hearing a hard grinding sound might mean that the brake pads are so worn down that bare metal is scraping against another piece of bare metal. Get your car to the mechanic ASAP before you make things worse!

3. Clunking when braking

Clunk…clunk…clunk… A brake caliper is likely not mounted properly or the brake hardware is out of place.

4. Whining when turning the steering wheel

You hear that squeal every time you turn onto your street, but what does it mean? The power steering fluid needs to be replaced or the linkage is damaged.

5. Squealing when accelerating  

Unless you’re participating in a [legal] street race, you shouldn’t hear any squealing when you accelerate at a normal speed. If you do, one or more belts might be loose and slipping.

drag racing street racing burnout wheelie
I don’t think your car should be doing this…
Photo: Life-Of-Pix via CC

6. Grinding when shifting with a manual transmission

This could mean one of two things: You’re not fully engaging the clutch when shifting or the clutch is worn or requires adjusting.

7. Hissing or sizzling under the hood after shutting off the engine

You may encounter this in hotter times of the year and it could mean the engine is overheating. But a more prevalent reason is that a fluid is leaking under the hood.

8. Popping under the hood

That popping doesn’t mean your drive-in movie snack is ready; it means the engine is misfiring. You could also experience a loss in power and it can be caused by ignition problems, a clogged fuel filter, worn or dirty spark plugs, damaged spark plug wires, or a damaged catalytic converter.

9. The engine gets abnormally loud when accelerating

Today’s cars are pretty quiet, so hearing loud noises when you accelerate might mean the exhaust system is damaged or that the car isn’t advancing to the next gear when it should.

10. Tapping or clicking under the hood

If the car starts and you hear a tapping or clicking sound, it could mean the engine is low on oil. If the oil level is okay, it may indicate blockage in the system or a valve train issue.

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While you may not be equipped to fix the issue(s) on your vehicle, at least you have a better understanding as to why your car sounds the way it does. If you’re not the DIY type, it’s probably best to take it to a professional for an expert opinion on how to get your vehicle running smoothly again.