Don’t Overreact To These Common Car Problems

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

If you’re not a mechanic — or mechanically inclined — when your car starts doing something “funny” it can be pretty scary. Sometimes, it’s something to worry about — but maybe not.

How to know the difference?

Here are a few commonly occurring problems that aren’t big deals — usually — but have been know to make some people freak out.

The “Check Engine” Light

Typically, this is a service reminder that illuminates when your car’s computer senses a problem with the engine’s emissions control system.

While it’s important to have a tech look at the car at some point in the near future (in addition to possibly producing higher-than-usual exhaust emissions, a fault in the system, if left uncorrected for too long could lead to more expensive repairs, eventually) it’s not a “pull over now!” situation. If the light should come on, you can keep on driving. Just make a mental note to have the car in for service when it’s convenient.

Caveat: If the “check engine” light is red rather than amber it could be something serious that requires immediate attention, such as low engine oil or low oil pressure. If the red light comes on, at minimum, you should stop as soon as it’s safe to do so, open the hood and check the oil level and look for sign of overheating, such as steam coming out from around the radiator. Check your car’s other instruments, too — especially the water temperature gauge, if so equipped.

Look in your vehicle’s owner’s manual to see precisely what the “check engine” light means for your specific car — and respond accordingly. Ideally, do this now, before the light comes on — so you’ll know what to do (and how to react) when it does!

Clicking Sounds As You Roll

This can drive you nuts — and make you think there’s some major problem with your vehicle — when often it’s just a piece of gravel or road debris that’s lodged in between the treads of one of your car’s tires. The good news is all you need is a pen (or something similar) and some patience to fix the problem.

Find an empty parking lot (or your driveway) and check the visible/exposed tread of each tire. Next, get in the car and roll it forward or backward just enough to expose the part of the tread that was in contact with the ground. If you didn’t find the piece of gravel (or whatever it was) before, it should be visible now. Use the pen (or similar implement) to dislodge it — and there you go, problem solved!

Can’t Get The Key Out Of The Ignition!

Has this ever happened to you? One day, you arrive wherever you were going, put the car into Park, turn off the engine, rotate the key in the ignition switch — but it won’t come out. It’s easy to understand why you might freak out. You don’t want to leave the car with the key in the ignition — but you don’t want to be stuck sitting in the car for who knows how long until AAA (or whomever) comes to the rescue.

But, fear not. The issue is usually fixed simply by turning (or jiggling) the steering wheel a bit to get everything inside the column (including the locking mechanism) lined up correctly so you can get the key out. It might take a little man-handling, but no tools or expertise are needed.

Sometimes, a similar thing happens with automatic transmissions; the driver returns to the car and find that it’s (apparently) impossible to get the gearshift lever to move out of Park. Modern cars have something called a brake-shift interlock; basically, it’s a safety device intended to prevent the vehicle from being put into gear before the driver has put his foot on the brake. Sometimes, the switch fails — and the car appears stuck where it is.

But if you look around the console trim plate, near the shifter lever, you should see a little tab. Pop it open and you can then manually depress a switch that releases the brake-shift interlock — and you’ll be able to move the selector into Drive and be on your way. You can get the interlock fixed at your dealer whenever you have time.

Where’d My Oil Go?

Most people don’t realize that all car engines — from the lowliest Hyundai to the priciest BMW — burn oil. From Day One. Some more than others, for sure — but without exception, all of them do it.

This does not mean your engine (or car) is a clunker. It is perfectly normal. Some oil will always seep past pistons rings and elsewhere; it usually happens in very small amounts and gets consumed as part of the normal process of combustion within the engine.

What’s unnerving — especially when there is no obvious sign of oil consumption, such as blue smoke coming out of the tailpipe — is the way the level on the dipstick mysteriously dips over time, whether it’s every 3-4 weeks or every couple of months. It can make you think there’s a big leak or some other issue that’s going to cost you a fortune.

Don’t worry. Usually, all it’s going to cost you is whatever the cost of a quart of oil (be sure to use the correct grade, etc. recommended in your owner’s manual) happens to be. The key thing is to be in sync with your car’s normal rhythm of oil usage.

By checking the dipstick every two weeks (at least) you’ll not only get a feel for how much oil your car normally consumes, you will notice any deviation from that pattern that could indicate a new (and potentially serious) problem, such as internal wear or a leak somewhere.

And that could save you some money — and potentially, a real hassle!


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