If you’re lucky, the squealing (or squeaking) noise that your brakes make when you first drive your car in the morning, particularly after rain or snow, is just surface rust being scraped off the rotors by the pads the first few times you apply the brake pedal, or the result of moisture and dirt that collects on the rotors, including from condensation caused by high humidity. If it goes away after a few brake applications, no worries.
If the noise persists most times or every time you apply the brakes or stays on continuously while you’re driving, the cause is more serious — and the fix will be more expensive.
A continuous high-pitched squeal while you’re driving is usually the sound of a built-in wear indicator telling you that it’s time for new pads. As the pads wear down and get thinner, a small metal tab contacts the rotor like a needle on a vinyl record to warn you it’s time for new pads. (Some wear indicators may work differently and engage only when you apply the brakes.)
Other squeals and squeaks will require a brake inspection to diagnose, and may require cleaning, lubrication or adjustment, and possibly new parts. Most brake noise is caused by worn or loose parts.
For example, an unevenly worn rotor (often referred to as “warped”) won’t let the brake pads press flat against the rotor when you apply the brakes, and that can create vibrations that generate noise. Likewise, an unevenly worn pad won’t press tightly against the rotor and may chirp. Another possibility is that the pads are loosely mounted, or the shims that hold them in place have corroded or become loose.
And then there are the pads themselves. Some mechanics warn that bargain-bin pads are more likely to be noisier than higher-quality, more-expensive pads. In addition, loose or sticking calipers can contribute noise.
Because there are several possibilities, and because brakes are a crucial safety feature, it is best to have a pro diagnose noise.
Manual transmissions are usually cheaper to maintain and repair than automatics because the latter are far more complex and have more parts and functions that can fail, but it may depend on your driving style.
An automatic has hundreds of mechanical, hydraulic and electronic helpers that have to work in harmony to shift gears smoothly for you. In contrast, a manual transmission is mostly mechanical gears that rely on the driver to engage the clutch and shift when needed.
The cost of replacing automatic transmission fluid generally ranges from about $100 to $200, depending on the vehicle and who is doing the work. Manual transmissions also require periodic fluid changes, but the cost tends to be about half of that.
Transmission repair costs vary widely based on the vehicle and what it needs. Repairing a leak might cost a few hundred dollars or less, but tearing apart a transmission to find the cause of problems can be much more expensive. That is why many repair shops recommend replacing a transmission instead of trying to fix internal problems — especially in the case of newer continuously variable and dual-clutch automatics, because parts are more difficult to come by and there’s less repair know-how when compared with conventional automatics.
Transmission replacement costs also vary widely, but manual transmissions typically are cheaper, falling into a rough range of $1,500 to $3,000 for non-luxury vehicles. Automatics are more expensive, with a range of roughly $2,000 to $4,000 for a remanufactured transmission for most vehicles from mainstream brands. CVTs lean toward the higher side of the estimate: One shop estimated that replacing a CVT on a Nissan Sentra would cost $4,000 versus $2,500 for replacing a six-speed automatic on a Chevrolet Cruze. For a luxury vehicle, a new transmission can cost closer to $10,000.
Here’s something else to keep in mind on cost: Some automatic and manual transmission parts are covered by the manufacturer’s powertrain warranty, which on many vehicles lasts for 60,000 miles and on some as long as 100,000. The clutch for a manual transmission, though, is considered a “wear” item and is generally covered for only 12,000 miles. Clutches and related parts also usually are excluded from extra-cost service contracts (or extended warranties).
If you burn through clutches rapidly because of your driving style, you could shell out more for repairs than you would with an automatic. Likewise, if your foot-hand coordination isn’t great, you frequently could grind gears or chip gear teeth with a manual transmission, and over time that will take a toll.
Yes, though how often this service should be performed varies by manufacturer and vehicle, and it’s open to debate.
The manufacturer’s maintenance schedule for many automatic transmissions doesn’t call for fresh fluid until 100,000 miles or, with some Ford transmissions, even 150,000 miles. A lot of mechanics say that is too long and it should be done at least every 50,000 miles. Manual transmissions may be on a different schedule, so it’s best to consult the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual.
Like other vital automotive fluids, transmission fluid deteriorates over time. Hard use — such as frequent stop-and-go city driving, hauling heavy loads, trailer towing — will accelerate the deterioration. That kind of driving raises the operating temperature of the transmission, and heat puts more strain on the transmission and the fluid, which helps facilitate gear shifts, cools the transmission and lubricates moving parts.
If you do a lot of driving under high-stress conditions, you should check the transmission level more often and have a repair shop check the condition of the fluid. Transmission fluid often is red but can come in other colors, and as it deteriorates it tends to turn darker. It may also acquire a burned odor that could indicate it needs to be changed or that the transmission is developing mechanical problems. Another indication it needs changing is dirt or other debris in the fluid. When you take your vehicle in for an oil change or other routine service, the repair facility may urge you to pay for a transmission-fluid change or flush. Even if they can show you that the fluid is darker than original, that might not mean you need fresh fluid right now. Step back, check the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual and see what the manufacturer recommends before you decide. This also will give you time to price shop.
Many repair shops use flush systems that force out the old fluid and pump in new fluid. Though that sounds good, some manufacturers say you shouldn’t do that (Honda is one; there are others), so you need to know this before you agree to a flush. Look in your owner’s manual. Some manufacturers, such as Honda, also call for their own type of transmission fluid and warn that using other types could cause damage. Moreover, some automatic transmissions have filters that should be cleaned or replaced when the fluid is changed. Make sure the repair facility is using the correct fluid and procedures for your vehicle.
All vehicles have an accessory belt that drives features such as the alternator and air-conditioning compressor, and perhaps the power steering and water pump. This belt is usually mounted externally so you can see it on the front end of the engine (the engine is mounted transversely on most front-wheel-drive vehicles), and it usually is a serpentine belt that slithers around various pulleys. It needs to be replaced when it shows wear, such as cracks, fraying or stretching.
Some engines also have a timing belt that is hidden from view but connects the crankshaft on the bottom of the engine to the cylinder head on the top; it controls when valves open and close. Many engines have a timing chain instead of a belt. A key difference is a timing chain is usually considered a lifetime part that doesn’t require periodic replacement. A timing belt does require replacement, though the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule may not call for that until as much as 150,000 miles, as on some current Ford engines.
If either belt breaks, a vehicle is going to soon come to a halt. Once a timing belt breaks, the engine shuts off and you won’t be able to restart it. With many vehicles, you might be able to restart the engine after an accessory drive belt breaks, but you won’t get far if it drives the alternator. Without the alternator, you will be relying on electrical power from the battery, and once that’s gone you will be out of luck.
Though accessory belts can last more than 100,000 miles, they should be inspected by a mechanic periodically (if you know what to look for you can do this yourself). Consult your owner’s manual or service schedule to find out how frequently it should be inspected; this varies by manufacturer. Hyundai says on some current four-cylinders this should be done after six years or 60,000 miles and then every two years or 15,000 miles. Volkswagen calls for it every 40,000 miles, but on some Ford engines it isn’t until 100,000 miles.
Replacement costs also vary, and we’ve seen estimates from less than $75 to more than $150. The best approach is to have it inspected before the recommended interval, and if you decide to have it replaced you will have time to shop around. You may hear warning signals that an accessory belt is on its last legs such as squealing noises when you start the engine or accelerate, or rattling noises from a pulley or tensioner.
Replacing a timing belt is a more involved and costly procedure, typically running from at least $500 to more than $1,000, depending on vehicle. Even worse, on some engines if the timing belt breaks, the pistons may continue to move up and down, and in the process bend valves that have lost their timing mechanism. That can add up to big bucks, possibly $3,000 or more.
This is a great question, but we must examine what “acting funny” means when referring to one’s drivetrain before recommending a course of action. Do any of the following seem familiar to you?
When an automatic transmission seems to slip in and out of gear, or the engine revs up but the vehicle goes much slower than the engine seems to be running, it’s known as slipping. Sometimes the gears reengage harshly.
This is where the whole vehicle shudders and shakes while driving, as if it’s having a convulsion. It feels like you’re driving over rumble strips even if you’re on a smooth highway.
A condition that feels similar to slipping, neutral drop-out is where the transmission drops into Neutral when the vehicle comes to a stop or while driving, typically at slower speeds. Sometimes when driving, the trans drops out of gear resulting in the engine racing up, and then either sliding — or banging — back into gear, or you step on the gas and the engine revs but the vehicle goes nowhere as if it’s in Neutral.
Heavy Drivetrain Vibration
This heavy vibration is felt throughout the vehicle under acceleration, especially when the drivetrain is under load, such as driving up a hill or pulling a trailer. Though many things can make a car vibrate, this type of drivetrain vibration will subside when coasting or idling.
What’s Causing This?
The potential causes behind these behaviors are many. The most common include leaking internal or external transmission seals; mechanical damage to the transmission and/or transfer case’s vital internal hard parts such as gears, drums, etc.; old, worn-out transmission fluid; improper fluid; electrical software and hardware glitches; worn drivetrain components; bad transmission and engine mounts.
What Can You Do?
Most of the causes listed above require a mechanic, certainly, but you can start by inspecting the color, consistency and smell of the vehicle’s transmission fluid. Low fluid level can cause the slipping described above.
Even if the vehicle is not doing any of the stuff above, if the fluid is brown or lightly dark, then it’s probably time for transmission service, essentially a transmission oil change. Like the engine, the transmission has a filter and oil (called fluid because it does more than lubricate) that needs to be changed at regular intervals outlined in your owner’s manual. If there’s no reference in your manual, then check with your mechanic.
If one or more of the symptoms described earlier are present and the fluid smells burned and feels rough or gritty between your fingers, then have a professional look at it, because more than simple service is required.
For the conditions above, we recommend transmission repair specialists who have access to diagnostic repair info that could lead directly to the cause of the problem, rather than muddling around in hit-and-miss fashion. They can run pressure tests, dye-leak tests and an electronic diagnostic scan of the drivetrain control module.
If it’s cosmetic or superficial damage, such as from scraping a curb, the wheel is probably still round and has no bent sections or chunks of metal missing. On the other hand, if the wheel is bent, cracked or structurally weakened from hitting a massive pothole, running over a steep curb or some other mishap, it may need to be replaced, though it could possibly be repaired.
A dented wheel may not be able to maintain a seal with the tire bead, resulting in consistent slow leaks or blowouts, and will be difficult if not impossible to balance so that it doesn’t vibrate at speed. A wheel with structural damage could eventually break apart. When in doubt about the severity of damage, a mechanic experienced in assessing wheel damage should inspect the entire wheel with the tire removed.
Whether to repair or replace a damaged wheel is often a judgment call, but because it involves safety issues as well as cosmetic concerns, the best course is to err on the side of safety.
Repair services that promise to restore badly damaged wheels to like-new condition might be able to remove dents and bends and make a rim look great again. However, there are no federal safety standards that apply to refurbished wheels, so you’ll be taking your chances as to whether they’ll still have their original strength and integrity.
Repairing more than superficial damage will not be an easy do-it-yourself project. Heat and specialized machines are used to straighten bends, and a complete refurbishment involves removing all paint and protective coatings, repairing corrosion and physical damage, then applying new coatings.
The cost of repairing a wheel will vary by size, type and amount of damage, and it might approach the price of a new or used replacement. Many original-equipment alloy wheels can cost hundreds of dollars (even thousands in the case of luxury and sports cars) to replace, so buying a used one can save money. However, it might be hard to determine if a used wheel had prior damage and is refurbished.
When the temperature gauge on your dashboard reads high or a temperature warning light comes on, you have a cooling system problem that may be caused by a leak — be it in the radiator itself or some other component.
First, make sure it’s coolant that’s leaking, not another fluid. (Coolant is often referred to as antifreeze, but technically coolant is a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water.) You can easily check the coolant level in your see-through overflow tank. If it’s empty or low, the next step should be to check the coolant level in the radiator, but that should be done only when the engine is cool.
Once you know you’re losing coolant, the radiator is a good place to start. Some radiator leaks will be easy to spot — such as a puddle underneath the radiator — but others not so much. It’s best to check the radiator from every angle, not just from above, and pay particular attention to seams and the bottom. Corrosion inside the radiator or holes from road debris also can cause leaks.
Antifreeze comes in different colors — green, yellow and pinkish-red, for example — feels like slimy water and usually has a sweet smell. If you can’t see coolant dripping or seeping, look for rust, tracks or stains on the radiator. Those are telltale signs of where it has leaked.
If the radiator appears to be OK, the cooling system offers several possibilities for leaks, including the hoses from the radiator to the engine, the radiator cap, water pump, engine block, thermostat, overflow tank, heat exchanger (a small radiator that circulates hot coolant into the dashboard for cabin heating) and others. A blown gasket between the cylinder head and engine block is another possibility, allowing coolant inside the combustion chambers — a problem that must be addressed immediately by a mechanic.
If you can’t find a leak, have it checked by a professional. Coolant has a way of escaping only under pressure when the car is running — possibly in the form of steam, which may not leave a trace.
Your shift interlock feature, which requires you to step on the brake pedal to prevent unintentionally shifting out of Park, could be malfunctioning. Alternatively, the shift cable or linkage connected to the shift lever could be gummed up with grease or corroded so that it can’t operate freely.
If the interlock switch is worn and not fully releasing, or the brake lights don’t receive a signal from the brake light switch to illuminate, you won’t be able to shift out of Park.
Grease, dirt and moisture can collect in or on the interlock and brake light switches, and on the shift cable and related parts, hampering their operation. When that happens, you’re most likely to have problems shifting out of Park when the engine and transmission are cold, such as after the car has sat for hours. After the engine gets warm — and other parts get warmer, as well — the goo might become softer and make it easier to shift out of Park.
Most cars have a means of overriding the shift lock so you can drive the car to a mechanic rather than have it towed: A small door the size of a fingernail is often found on the console next to or close to the shifter itself. After prying this cover off, one can insert a screwdriver or key and press down to release the lock. Vehicles with column shifters may hide the release on top of the steering column or on the bottom. Your owner’s manual will help you identify the location on your car.
A transmission that’s low on fluid also can be hard to shift out of Park, though that also would likely cause a noticeable degradation in the transmission’s overall performance, such as sluggish or harsh shifts.
Another possible cause is that when a car is on even a slight incline, it will put more load on the transmission parking pawl (a bar that engages teeth in a transmission gear to prevent the vehicle from rolling). This is more likely to happen if you didn’t engage the parking brake before releasing the brake pedal. The weight of the vehicle rolling onto the parking pawl makes it harder to shift out of Park. To avoid this, engage the parking brake when on an incline before shifting into Park or releasing the brake pedal. That way the parking brake, not the transmission pawl, bears the load.
Though battery problems are often associated with cold weather, Consumer Reports magazine says heat is a bigger enemy of car batteries and will take a bigger toll on performance and reserve capacity. The magazine recommends that vehicle owners in hotter parts of the country have their car battery tested after two years of ownership and then every year after. Those who live in colder areas can wait four years to test performance and capacity, and then every year after.
“Heat kills batteries,” according to John Banta, a Consumer Reports project leader and part of the team that tests batteries for the magazine. “Many times in cold climates your battery fails to start your car on a below-freezing day. The reason this happens is that the heat of the past summers has weakened your battery. When you use it in the cold, the starter requires more electrical current to turn over the cold engine with its thickened oil.”
Testing a battery’s performance and reserve (or amp-hour) capacity is not just a matter of seeing whether it will hold a charge (or checking the electric eye found on some batteries to see if it is green), so testing is best done by an auto technician.
Some signs that you need a new cabin air filter are reduced air flow through your climate control system, such as when you crank up the fan too high and get more noise than results. Another is persistent bad odors. Even if you don’t have these warnings, you should have the filter checked at least once a year, and you may be able to do that yourself.
Many cabin air filters are located behind the glove box and are easily accessible by freeing the glove box from its fasteners (instructions should be in the owner’s manual). Others are located under the dashboard and may not be easy to reach, or under the hood where fresh air enters the climate control system. Some of these filters are expensive, as in $50 or more at dealerships, so you could save money by buying a replacement at a parts store and doing it yourself.
Replacing power-steering fluid generally is not listed among the regular maintenance items that should be performed, so on most vehicles replacing it is at the owner’s discretion.
When you take your car in for routine service you may hear an urgent pitch for having your power-steering pump flushed and filled with fresh fluid because the current fluid has turned dark. Bear in mind that engine oil and transmission fluid also become darker after a while, so a deeper shade of red doesn’t mean the power-steering fluid is bad. Before you jump at paying for this service, see what your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule says. You probably won’t find mention of changing the fluid.
You should check the power-steering fluid reservoir monthly to make sure it has the proper amount and that the power-steering system isn’t leaking. Reservoirs on many vehicles are the see-through plastic type, so you don’t even have to remove a cap to check the level. Consult your owner’s manual for the location of the reservoir in the engine compartment for help. You also should check the manual for the type of power-steering fluid that is required. The manufacturer may call for a specific type of fluid instead of a generic type found at parts stores.
Losing sleep worrying about the power-steering fluid in your vehicle because of its appearance or age? You could refresh it without draining all the fluid and flushing the system, but that may be more complicated than you’re comfortable doing yourself (or paying for). Instead, find a turkey baster that will fit inside the reservoir and drain as much old fluid as you can. Then, you can refill it with fresh fluid to the proper level. You won’t get all the old fluid, but do this a few times and you should be able to replace most of it.