Why Isn’t My Car Starting? A Quick Troubleshooting Guide

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If your car won’t start, it might be due to a weak battery, a busted starter, faulty electrical connection, bad spark plugs—or you might just be out of fuel.
But before you throw your hands up and start looking at buying a new car, take a breath. There are some easy troubleshooting steps you can take to figure out what the issue is (and hopefully fix it).
To help you out, the car insurance comparison shopping and broker app Jerry created this handy guide to check your car’s symptoms and make some crucial adjustments. With any luck, you’ll be on the road and making apologies for being late in no time.
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Why isn’t my car starting?

To figure out why your car isn’t starting, you’ll need to determine whether:
  • Your vehicle clicks but the engine doesn’t turn on
  • Your vehicle doesn’t click when you try to start it
  • Your engine turns but doesn’t fire
Based on the symptom, you’ll be able to try a few solutions to help you get on your way.

Your vehicle clicks but the engine doesn’t turn

That click you hear is your car’s solenoid, a component that connects the battery to your car’s starter when you turn the key. This means that power is going to your starter, but it might not be enough. Alternatively, your starter might be busted.
To test for a weak battery, check the dome light as you try to start the vehicle. If it dims significantly when you turn the key, that’s a sign that the battery is weak. If you have a voltmeter, get a read on the battery (for most cars, it should read 12v).
If you’ve got this symptom, try:

Key cycling

It’s sometimes possible to get your car started by simply warming up the battery terminals and starter. Try “key cycling” by turning your key to the starting position and back quickly about ten times in a row. After that, wait five minutes and try to start the motor.

Make sure everything is connected

For electricity to properly flow to your starter, the electrical connections in your car need to be solid. Start by checking the terminals on your battery. They may be covered in built-up residue. If they are, clean it off with a toothbrush and some vinegar or lemon juice.
If that doesn’t work, make sure that all the wires leading away from your battery—as well as the ones leading to your starter—are properly connected. A little jiggling may be all you need.

Give it a jump

If you’re sure everything is connected properly, it’s likely that your battery just doesn’t have enough charge to start your car. This means it’s time for a jumpstart. Call up a neighbor, or flag down a good samaritan, hook up your cables, and let your battery charge a few minutes before trying to fire the car up again.
If you can’t find anybody to help you out, Jerry has a roadside assistance program that includes jumpstarts, plus fuel delivery, lockout services, towing, and more—all for just $6.99!.

Tap the starter

Have you ever heard of “percussive maintenance?” Sometimes all a vehicle part needs is a solid tap to settle internal connections or clear up blockages. Take a wrench or hammer, locate your starter, and give it a couple solid whacks.
Key Takeaway If you hear a click but the engine won’t start, your car may need a jumpstart to get going again.
If you’ve exhausted all of these options, you might have a bad starter. If you don’t know how to order and fix one yourself, it may be time to contact a mechanic.

Your vehicle doesn’t click when you try to start it

This is often caused by a defective solenoid. Luckily, vehicle solenoids aren’t very expensive and are typically easy to replace.
It’s also possible that electrical connections in your starter system are keeping your vehicle from sending power to the solenoid at all.
Try these tricks:

Play around with your transmission

Some vehicles have automatic systems that stop power from going to the starter depending on the state of the transmission. It’s possible for these systems to hiccup, and shifting around can often correct them.
To do this, try to start your vehicle after each of these steps:
  • Disengage your emergency brake
  • Pump your brakes a few times
  • Shift into neutral
  • Shift back into park
  • Keep your foot on the brake pedal and repeat each step

Rock your vehicle back and forth.

If shifting your transmission didn’t work, it’s time to try jiggling the whole car to try and get its connections on track.
Put your car in neutral, hop out, and give it a push in both directions a few times before trying to start it again. A word of caution: do not do this on a hill.

Jump the solenoid

While this should only be done as an emergency effort, it’s possible to bypass your car’s automated starting system by jumping the solenoid.
To do this, find your solenoid. It should have a terminal that leads to the battery and another that leads to the starter. Engage your emergency brake, put your car in neutral, get a screwdriver (or another thick piece of metal with a non-conductive handle), and use it to connect both terminals. This should allow electricity to flow to your starter directly.
Key Takeaway If your vehicle doesn’t click when you start it and you’re not handy with cars, you may need the assistance of a mechanic to get you back on the road.
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Your engine turns but doesn’t fire

If the starter engages and turns your engine but the engine doesn’t fire up, you may have bad spark plugs or poor fuel supply. Here’s what to try:

Swap your fuel pump relay

To get fuel to your engine, most vehicles use a fuel pump. These fuel pumps connect to battery power through a relay located in your fuse box. If you’ve got a bad relay, the engine may not get the power it needs to produce a spark and ignite fuel.
To solve this, you’ll need to bust out your owner’s manual. Use the manual to locate the relay for your fuel pump and remove it.
If you’ve got an extra, great. If you don’t look around for an identical relay from a non-essential system like windshield wipers or dome lights. Remove that relay, swap it for the fuel pump relay, and try to start your car.

Un-flood your engine

Engines need a very precise mixture of fuel and air. Trying to start a car over and over floods the engine with fuel, making it impossible for combustion to occur. If your engine is flooded, you may even smell fumes in your vehicle or when you open up the hood.
To unflood an engine, all you need to do is wait for the fuel inside it to evaporate. Open the hood of your car and air out the engine for about 20 minutes before trying to start it again.

Tap your tank

Percussive maintenance to the rescue again! A blockage in your fuel tank can keep the fuel pump from delivering gas to the engine. Try to fix it by getting underneath your car and whacking the fuel tank and the pipe that goes to the fuel pump a couple of times.
Double-check to make sure you’ve actually got fuel in the tank before resorting to whacking.

Clean your spark plugs

Spark plugs use an electrical charge to ignite the fuel in your engine, and they can get dirty with residue over time.
To clean your spark plugs, remove them with a spark plug puller and give them a good scrub with a wire brush or spray-on plug cleaner. Once they’re good and clean, plug them in and turn the key one more time.
Key Takeaway An engine that turns but doesn’t fire usually has an easy fix, such as unflooding the engine or topping up your gas tank.

Finding cheap car insurance

A breakdown is a bummer, and paying for one can be even worse. Fortunately, it’s possible to get mechanical breakdown insurance that covers damage unrelated to normal wear and tear.
If you want to find an excellent insurance policy quickly, all you need to do is use Jerry! Jerry uses AI to scour up to 50 insurance providers to give you the coverage you need at the best possible rates in under a minute. Swapping is just as effortless. Jerry takes care of all the paperwork and phone calls and even cancels your old policy on your behalf!
The average Jerry user saves $897 per year on their car insurance!
Jerry blew my mind, honestly. From start to finish, using the app took me 10 minutes, and I ended up with $100 of savings a month. Best of all, customer service answered all my questions about rental car reimbursement and roadside assistance.” ––Savanna R.

FAQs

Why isn’t my car starting if my battery is good?

If your battery is good and the car still won’t start, it’s usually a bad starter, poor fuel flow, or worn spark plugs.

What should I do if my car isn’t starting?

Take a deep breath and run some simple diagnostic tests to pinpoint the issue. If you’re not able to determine what’s wrong and fix it, take your car to a mechanic who can help.
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