What does it mean if your engine is sputtering?

The most common causes for a sputtering engine are underlying issues within the car’s fuel or exhaust systems.
Don’t ignore a sputtering engine. This isn’t a problem that will fix itself and could wind up ruining your car. Bringing your car in for repair immediately is the best way to remedy the situation.

How to get an inspection for a sputtering engine

First things first—make sure you aren’t about to run out of gas, as this can also cause the engine to sputter. If the gas gauge is showing the tank is far from empty, something more concerning may be at play.
Take your car to a trusted mechanic. They’ll perform an inspection of the following components of your exhaust system to identify the source of the problem.

Seals and gaskets

The exhaust system contains numerous seals and gaskets. If one of them wears out, the engine may begin to sputter. Your inspector can help you replace any seals and gaskets to prevent more serious damage to other exhaust components.

Exhaust manifold

The exhaust manifold collects exhaust gases. When it is leaking or cracked, the engine sputters or runs unevenly. This makes your car dangerous to drive—you may also notice your check engine light come on, noisy, lackluster engine performance, or the smell of exhaust fumes from inside the car. The mechanic can inspect your exhaust manifold for damage that could be causing your engine to sputter.

Fuel injectors

Fuel injectors are responsible for controlling how much fuel is delivered to the engine. Their nozzles get clogged as your car ages—leading to a sputtering, laggy engine. If the problem is caught early enough fuel injectors can be cleaned, but if the clogging persists they must be replaced.

Airflow sensor

An airflow sensor measures how much air is entering the fuel injection system and sends a message to the vehicle’s computer to deliver the proper amount of fuel to the engine. When one or more of these sensors gets dirty they malfunction—meaning that the computer is sent the wrong information. When the engine doesn’t get the proper fuel to air ratio, it sputters and runs roughly.

Vacuum leak

vacuum leak causes a host of issues for the engine—including stalling, hesitating, and sputtering. Your check engine light will illuminate when you have a vacuum leak.

Spark plugs

When spark plugs are dirty or working incorrectly, they don’t ignite the fuel cleanly in the engine’s combustion chamber, resulting in misfiring or sputtering. Like fuel injectors, spark plugs can be cleaned if the issue is detected early—otherwise, you can replace them for fairly cheap.

Oxygen sensors

Oxygen sensors measure the richness of the exhaust gases as they leave the combustion chamber. The car’s computer uses this measurement to determine how much fuel enters the engine. Sensors that are dirty or malfunctioning fail to regulate the proper amount of fuel—which makes the engine sputter. Oxygen sensors are meant to be replaced regularly.

Catalytic converter

If you notice that the sputtering engine is accompanied by the smell of rotten eggs, this is likely signaling the failure of the catalytic converter. The unpleasant odor is due to the converter no longer being able to break down the sulfur created by the engine. This will trigger the check engine light, and as the converter becomes more blocked, your car will no longer start.

How important is a sputtering engine inspection?

A sputtering engine is your car’s cry for help. Getting your car diagnosed and repaired promptly is a must. Sputtering engines often lead to worse maintenance woes—such as stalling, difficulty to start, and not starting at all.

Tips for getting a sputtering engine inspection

Contact a mechanic

This is a job for an experienced mechanic. Contacting an auto body shop that comes personally recommended or has good reviews online is best when deciding where to have your car serviced.

Check if you are still under warranty

Cars purchased through a dealership typically come with a warranty. While you’re under warranty, the dealership’s mechanics will fix the vehicle at no cost to you. Make sure you check your warranty period before paying for the repairs on your own.

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