Cars make the funniest sounds, but it’s only a laughing matter when they’re coming from someone else’s vehicle. Odds are you won’t think it’s so funny when it happens to you. If you’re hearing creepy, inexplicable noises coming from your car, it’s not the ghost of Halloween past catching up with you but the warning signs of an issue that should be addressed. Here are some of the most commonly heard automotive sounds and what they mean.
1. Strange rattling under the passenger compartment
No, that’s not a family of rodents living underneath your floorboards. More than likely, it’s a sign something’s come loose under your car. Since there aren’t that many components right below the passenger compartment, rattling in this area is usually the result of a loose exhaust assembly piece like a hanger, heat shield, or clamp. This is brought about by rust and is most common in snowy climates. As long as your exhaust isn’t leaking, the fix is fairly inexpensive.
2. Squeals and Chirps
Don’t take these sounds as indication your car is saying hello. It could be serious business. A short squeal or chirp, especially right after you start your car but before you vehicle is in motion, means you may have to replace your serpentine belt. This typically happens first thing in the morning and gets worse in cold weather. It’s not usually an emergency if the sound goes away immediately, but if the sound grows persistent you should act fast. If it breaks on you, your car will become inoperable and leave you stranded. A persistent squeal can also mean issues with other components like pulleys, tensioners, and wheels. Regardless, tend to it right away before it affects other parts of your car.
3. Whining, howling, and groaning
In addition to being outright creepy, these noises are also tricky to nail down because they could be the result of a variety of components and scenarios.
- Cupped Tires
This is also known as “scalloping” and appears as random uneven wear. It’s caused by worn-out shocks or struts, misalignment, or other suspension issues. If you’re hearing a whirring sound that gets louder around 30 mph, it could be your tires issuing a cry for help.
- Wheel bearings or axle bearings
To complicate matters, these components make virtually the same noise as cupped tires—starting shortly after takeoff, growing louder, and changing in pitch the faster you go. Wheel bearings are responsible for your wheels spinning, so addressing problems here is important. If you don’t, the whirring will become a grinding sound. In extreme cases, the bearings can melt and cause catastrophic failure. A failed wheel bearing can also cause damage to a front axle – adding to the amount of a repair.
This usually results in a hollow groan caused by low fluid levels in the differential. First order of business should be to check the differential fluid. If that’s not done soon enough, you may be forced to have the differential or bearings replaced, which won’t be cheap.
4. Clicking under the hood
If it sounds like someone is tapping out a message in Morse under your hood, it’s probably just a normal function of your fuel injection system. In most modern cars, it is a fairly common occurrence to hear a rapid, low-volume “tick” when you’re sitting at a drive-through with the engine on or driving alongside a wall with your window down. If, on the other hand, the ticking occurs only when you’re running your air conditioner and is especially loud, this could be a sign that your A/C system is low on refrigerant.
5. Squealing or grinding when hitting the brakes
Car brakes are finicky. The good news is that these days, brakes are relatively maintenance free and self-adjusting—so if you’re hearing squealing or grinding when you hit the brakes, get your car to the shop soon. Although occasional, intermittent squawks are to be expected, continuously squealing brakes aren’t. This is caused by microscopic vibrations on the brake pad or sensor, offering indication your brakes were either not installed properly or are nearing the end of their life.
A grinding sound is something else entirely. This happens when a brake pad has worn all the way through to the metal backing. When your brakes get to this point, you will also have to replace the rotor as well. To avoid this, have your brakes checked every 10,000 miles or so. The average life expectancy of brakes is 40,000 to 60,000 miles.
6. Clunking when braking
A “clunk” when you’re braking is never good news. Many things can cause this, and all are concerning. This noise can be the result of a loose brake caliper bracket, ball joint, control arm, strut, or other suspension components. Get your car in to a qualified technician ASAP if you’re hearing this.
7. Clicking when turning into a parking lot
Sometimes when you’re in a parking lot you have to make hard, sharp turns. A clicking sound when doing this is almost always caused by a worn CV axle. This happens when all of the grease has leaked out of the joint’s rubber boot. Since your CV axle is one of the main components of the driveline, this should be repaired immediately. If the joint breaks and fails while you’re driving, it could be dangerous. If nothing else, it could cause damage to other nearby components.
8. Growling noise that gets louder when turning
Growls are never good things to hear, especially not from your car, but before arranging for an exorcism, check your power steering fluid. If you let this go long enough and allow your steering fluid to go completely dry, you could be in for a costly power steering pump replacement.
What to do, where to take your car when any of the above happens
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Written by Rob Grant, Automotive Service Manager at Openbay. Rob is an ASE Certified Technician and frequent contributor to this blog, specializing in all things automotive service and repair.
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