Dan Ferrell writes about DIY car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in Automation and Control Technology and Technical Writing.
Car starter problems arise unexpectedly and for more than one reason. Whenever there's corroded terminals, loose connections, a bad, worn out or damaged system component, you'll notice. Starting your car becomes more difficult or it simply refuses to start.
Unfortunately, you won't see the source of the problem when all of a sudden the system fails. And repeatedly turning the ignition key, hoping that eventually the engine will fire up when it refuses to start, doesn't always help. Most often, it creates more problems.
Fortunately, common starter system problems happen in predictable places. And you have at your disposal more than one strategy to help you check the system in your car. Whether it is lack of power, a bad electrical connection, or a bad starter component, use these five troubleshooting tips to fire up your engine again.
Begin with one of the most common sources of engine starting problems.
Checking the Battery Voltage
You need to know whether you have enough juice to operate the starter motor by measuring the amount of voltage in your battery using a voltmeter.
- Set your voltmeter to a range higher than battery voltage, like 20 volts on the DC (direct current) voltage scale.
- Turn on the meter and connect the test leads across the battery terminals. Touch the negative lead to the negative (-) post on the battery and the positive lead to the positive (+) post on the battery.
- Turn on your car's headlights.
- Read the display on your meter. Your battery should have between 12.4V (75% charge) and 12.6V (100% charge) to properly operate the starter motor. If there's less than 12.4V, recharge the battery and try to start the engine again.
With a reading of 12.4V or less on a three to four years old battery, it's a good idea to hydrometer-check your battery. The hydrometer is a simple tool that lets you know the state of charge and health of your battery. So you'll know whether one or more cells have failed. Buy an inexpensive hydrometer online or at most auto parts stores. Then check this article on troubleshooting a car battery using a hydrometer.
Common Sources of Starter System Problems
- Loose electrical connections in the starting system
- Dirty connections
- Corroded battery terminals
- Worn out or failed starter system parts
Inspecting Cables and Wires
Corrosion around battery terminals prevents electrical flow. This is a common problem on a battery or starter system that hasn't received much attention. If you notice a layer of corrosion around one or both battery terminals, clean them with a solution of baking soda and warm water.
- Mix 8 ounces of warm water for 1 tablespoon of baking soda in a small container.
- Thoroughly mix the solution.
- Disconnect the terminals from the battery and apply the solution to the terminals and battery posts using a soft brush.
- Clean the battery top with the solution as well to remove dirt and acid, which drains battery power, but don't let the cleaning solution seep under the filler caps.
- Remove the caps from the top of the battery and check the electrolyte level. The electrolyte should reach the bottom of the filler rings. If necessary, add distilled water to bring the electrolyte to the correct level.
- Check the tray where the battery sits and clean it as well.
- Reconnect the terminals and try starting the engine again.
Inspecting the Starter Solenoid
Check the connections at the starter solenoid (the small cylinder on top of the starter) or starter relay. Most Ford vehicles use a remote starter relay instead of a solenoid. The positive (red) battery cable connects directly to the solenoid or starter relay. Can't find the relay? Consult the vehicle repair manual for your particular car make and model.
If the solenoid or relay fails, the car won't start:
- To quickly check the solenoid, disable the starting system by disconnecting the thick wire from the center of the distributor cap or by removing the fuel pump fuse — consult your vehicle repair manual to locate the fuse, if necessary. This will prevent the engine from accidentally starting as you check the solenoid or starter relay.
- If you disconnected the wire from the distributor, ground it to a bolt or unpainted metal bracket on the engine block using a jumper wire.
- Ask an assistant to try starting the engine as you listen for any sounds coming from the starter solenoid or relay. If you hear a solid and loud click, it means the electrical current is reaching the solenoid and it's properly working. If you hear a weak click or chattering sound, check the wires connected to the starter solenoid or relay.
- Check for dirty, loose, disconnected or broken wires that will prevent electrical current from reaching the motor. If the wires and connections are in good condition, the starter motor, solenoid or relay have failed, and you need to replace it.
Read More from AxleAddict
Starter Motor Components
- Main Housing (yoke)
- Overrunning clutch
- Field coils
Checking the Starter Motor
Depending on your particular vehicle model you may need to raise the front of the car or remove the intake manifold or some other component to reach the starter motor. Consult the car repair manual for your particular model, if necessary.
If you need to raise your car, safely support it on jack stands, engage the parking brake and block the wheels to prevent the car from rolling.
- Make sure the starter mounting bolts are tight. Loose mounting bolts will keep the starter drive from properly engaging the flywheel. When this happens, you'll hear a grinding noise as you try to fire up the engine, since the ring gear on the flywheel and the pinion gear on the starter clash, unable to mesh properly.
- If the mounting bolts are tight, remove the starter motor from the vehicle and check the pinion gear — this is the small gear at the front of the starter that engages the flywheel to crank the engine. Check the condition of the pinion gear's teeth. Worn or damaged gear teeth will prevent you from cranking the engine as well.
- Using a standard screwdriver, try to rotate the pinion gear in both directions. The gear should only rotate in one direction. If it moves in both directions or doesn't move at all, replace the starter.
Make sure to watch the following video to get a visual reference of the trouble points you want to pay attention to.
Inspecting the Engine Flywheel
If you removed the starter motor for inspection, this is a good chance to check the flywheel as well. The flywheel is the large, heavy wheel between the engine and transmission. This is the wheel that the starter pinion gear engages to crank the engine.
- Once you've removed the starter motor, set your transmission to Neutral.
- Have an assistant rotate the crankshaft by turning the center bolt on the crankshaft pulley using a ratchet or breaker bar and a socket. You'll find this pulley at the front and bottom of the engine block. This pulley rotates the drive or serpentine belt to run the alternator, steering pump and other components. Depending on your vehicle model, you may need to remove a wheel to gain access to the pulley center bolt.
- Watch the flywheel as it rotates and make sure the teeth are in good condition. Missing or damaged teeth will prevent the starter motor from cranking the engine. Replace the flywheel, if necessary.
Testing the Starter Motor for Proper Operation
If you suspect the starter motor, take it to an auto parts store for testing. Many auto parts outlets will test your starter for free. An aged starter motor may have worn out brushes, armature, shaft, or burned field winding that may cause unusual noises, excessive current draw, slow cranking or no cranking at all.
A quick inspection at an auto parts store will reveal the drive mechanism and motor general condition, whether the starter draws enough current to operate, and the general state of the internal components.
If the previous checks did not turn out anything wrong with the starting system, you still have other simple troubleshooting strategies to further test the starter motor. Check the tips outlined in the article "Bad Starter Symptoms: Why Won't My Car Start?"
When you face car starter problems, remember that lack of proper battery maintenance, faulty electrical connections and components will prevent your starting system from working properly. Whatever the source of the problem, these troubleshooting tips will help you when your car won't start. They'll provide you with a relatively quick way to solve your starter problems.
Test Your Knowledge of Faulty Starter Motors
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Which starting system fault does not produce a metallic grinding noise?
- Worn out pinion gear teeth
- Clashing gears
- A bad starting circuit wire
- Dragging starter armature
- Dry starter bushings
- A bad starting circuit wire
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: My car is having trouble starting when I turn the key, and then after about an hour, it starts back up again. What’s going on?
Answer: You need to make sure you have good spark and fuel pressure. Another issue is poor compression, but this usually happens on high mileage engines. Match the symptoms to the descriptions on the headings. Also, follow the procedures described in the post. This could give you a clue about the problem.
Question: What happens if the wires that connect to the starter from the engine touch?
Answer: Those wires come from the power side of the battery. You can produced a bad electric shortcut if those wires touch the engine block itself, for example.
Question: My car won't stat unless the battery is replaced. Alternator and starter doing OK. Could there be something in the ignition system that drains the battery? Or a gear shift lever not completely in the 'park' position causing a drain on the battery?
Answer: The most common reasons for a battery drain are short circuits and accessories that remain drawing current when they shouldn’t. This other post may help you locate the drain-source:
Question: Why won't my starter shut off after my vehicle starts?
Answer: When the starter gets stuck, disconnect the battery negative terminal. Then unplug the ignition wire from the solenoid (small wire) on top of the starter. Reconnect the battery. If the starter runs, the solenoid may be stuck or another starter problem. You may need to replace the starter. If the starter doesn't run, there's probably voltage at the small wire. Check the ignition side of the circuit for the problem.
Question: What causes the starter to click rather than start up?
Answer: If you hear a solid click, it means voltage is reaching the starter but a fault in the mechanism or electrical circuit is keeping it from operating. The problem may be in the solenoid or starting relay, depending on your particular model. This other post may help:
Question: I have a 1992 Ford Explorer with a starter that grinds after starting. If I remove the three-wire voltage regulator connector it stops grinding. The starter, alternator and ignition switch are all new. What can cause this?
Answer: Check the wiring to the starter solenoid -- starter relay. The relay may be getting stuck.
Also, insufficient voltage or bad connection may be causing trouble in the starting system. You might want to check the starting circuit and engine grounds voltage drop. These other posts may help:
Question: I drive a 2005 Opel Astra H. I was driving and while standing on the robot it just shut down. It sound as if my car isn't cranking. I did replace the whole starter. It doesn't seem to solve my problem. Still doesn't want to start. What can it be and what to do?
Answer: Possibly the problem is in the circuit. This other post may help:
Question: I have a 2006 Mazda Tribute and the radiator blew, so I replaced it. Now it won't start. Then I replaced the starter and it still doesn't start. What could it be?
Answer: If the engine cranks but won't start (and assuming you got good spark and fuel pressure), check for something that might've been left unplugged. There could be a problem with a sensor not sending the appropriate signal to the computer. Download trouble codes, even if the check engine light is not on. There could be a pending code that can guide you here. Make sure the battery was not affected when the radiator blew. If engine doesn't crank, check the starting circuit:
Question: Can having too many keys on the key ring that starts the car cause damage to the starter?
Answer: Too many keys can wear out the tumbler in the ignition. You are putting extra weight until the tumbler can't make proper contact and is unable to unlock the ignition, hence you won't be able to start the engine.
Question: My car won't start when I turn the key. The lights come on in the dashboard, so that means the battery is working (I changed it a few months back). There is no sign of cranking either. I leave it for an hour or two and come back, it starts easily as if nothing had gone wrong. Please advise?
Answer: If there are no cranking or click(s) sounds when trying to fire up the engine, the problem could be in the starting circuit. This other post may help:
If necessary, have the starter motor checked.
Also, make sure the charging system is working properly and charging your battery. You might want to have the battery checked, to see what condition it's in. Another potential problem is with the shift selector. The safety lockout will not engage until it feels the correct gear has been selected (Park or Neutral should make good contact). Move the shifter through the different gears and try starting again.
Question: My Kia Sedona van was stalling quite a bit; I could only start it up fifteen minutes later. I have a crank position sensor code, and my van won't start now, its just a click. Do you think it's from the sensor finally going out?
Answer: It could be. You may want to troubleshoot the sensor.
Question: My starter won't disengage, but I put a new solenoid on. When you turn the key off, it won't shut off. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer: Check the wiring between the starter and the ignition switch. One of the wires may have a short to ground or the ignition switch may be the problem.
Question: I have a new battery, new starter and new relay and my car still will not start what is going on?
Answer: If the engine turns over, make sure you have good spark and fuel pressure. Otherwise, check the starting circuit. This other post may help:
Question: My car wouldn't start, but then I noticed my A/C switch was on. So I turned it to the off position and then my car started up! What's going on?
Answer: Usually this happens when the AC pulley seizes. There might be a problem with the compressor. Have it checked and see if this is the problem.
Question: My car has a new battery after I experienced this starting problem. I would go to start the car in the morning cold, and it would slow crank and have a blank no crank. Then slowly crank some more and finally, it would start. But sometimes it would not. I would then have to jump-start the battery to get it to start. Is the starter drawing too much voltage to start my car cold? The engine starts fine AFTER that first morning cold start-up, and the rest of the day it starts fine. What could be the problem with my car's starter?
Answer: If the battery is brand new, the problem could be in the starting circuit or engine grounds. You may want to check the circuit voltage drops. These other posts may help:
Question: My Mercedes 560SEC has a new starter but no crank. What can be the problem?
Answer: Make sure there's voltage reaching the starter solenoid. If there's voltage at the starter solenoid, check the ground. Also check engine grounds and make sure the battery is fully charged and good.
Question: I have a 2017 Nissan Sentra. The first start in the morning is fine. But, if I drive it for more than 30 minutes and kill it, it doesn’t want to restart. It just continues to turn over and over. I can play with the gear shifter and finally get it to start. When it does this, I can smell something that smells like plastic burning. If the engine is cold, it starts fine. It seems to be getting worse. The dealership suggested replacing the wiring harness and ECM at $4000. What is your advice?
Answer: You may want to try this first. A circuit with a lot of unwanted resistance is preventing the engine from starting, and probably it’s the starting system. After driving for a few minutes something in the circuit gets too hot-- possibly a wire or connection-- because current can’t flow properly and it’s starting to burn the insulation or a connector. These other two posts may help you locate the fault.
Question: What if the car on starting cuts fire or backfires?
Answer: This other post might help you:
Question: My car does not want to start. But when I turn the key, the starter works but the engine does not start. What could be the cause?
Answer: If the engine turns over but won't start, make sure you got good spark and fuel pressure. These are the most common sources of trouble. This post may help you here:
If the engine doesn't turn over, these other posts can help you:
Question: Can a car starter work one minute and then not work and then work again a day later? I had it tested and it came back good but now my car won't start. It won't even try.
Answer: Check the starting circuit, there could be a bad connection or corrosion on a terminal. This other post may help you check for voltage drop:
Question: The parking sensor of my car is faulty, what might have caused it?
Answer: They can just become faulty over time, including the wiring or module. An accident can also cause the sensor to malfunction.
Question: I have just serviced my kick-starter, changed my battery, changed my alternator, yet my car won't start because the battery cant carry. What is draining the battery?
Answer: If this didn't happen before replacing the alternator, probably the fault is in the circuit.
If you had this problem before, you may have a parasitic draw on the battery:
Question: I have a 2001 Ford F150. I replaced the starter and solenoid. Battery is good. Get one start, starts up great. Shut it down, won't restart. I'm still getting power to the lights, radio etc., and when trying to start it again, I hear a popping from the solenoid, like it is engaging but won't start. Could the ignition switch be the problem?
Answer: If the starter motor only works when the engine is cool, maybe one of the starter solenoid connections is getting hot when the engine is running and causing too much resistance. Make sure the connections are solid and clean. Also, maybe the motor is missing a heat shield.
Question: My ford falcon 2001 won't crank when I turn the key all the lights are on and at the same time, the word Base flashes on the dashboard, also the Central locking buttons in the car and on the remote, won't let me lock or unlock the car or the boot?. I've got a new battery and starter motor and a new remote for the car alarm and checked the terminals.
Answer: If this began happening soon after installing the battery and starter or using the new car alarm remote, check for blown fuses. If you don't hear any click or clicking sounds when trying to start the engine, the problem could be with the alarm system or the computer itself, if it is trying to do some calibration after reconnecting the battery and failing to complete. In this case, the computer may need, possibly, to be reset. The repair manual for your particular model may tell how to do it, but I'm not sure. Also (less likely), the new remote for the car alarm may have interfered with the system and locked it. If you can hear a click or clicking sound, the problem may be in the starting system. This other post may help in this case:
Question: My starter won't start my Ford Ranger, and I push started the vehicle and drove it home. I noticed there was low current and the battery light was blinking on and off. The needles were going crazy in the dash also, but it didn't stop. I reached home safe. I want to know if it was a safe thing to do and if it could cause any other problems?
Answer: Probably you got a problem with the charging system or the battery. I don't think you caused any more damaged that it already had. Have the battery and the charging system checked.
Question: My vehicle is having trouble. I checked stater motor, fuel pressure and battery. Everything is OK. What’s going on?
Answer: If the starter motor doesn’t run, check the circuit connections, including the ignition system. Also, make sure you have good spark. This post may help you check the circuit:
Question: I just had my battery replaced, yet my car periodically has trouble starting, and it sometimes takes a couple of attempts. What's going on?
Answer: Usually the problem is in the ignition (for example, bad ignition coil) or fuel system (for example a weak fuel pressure regulator or fuel pump). If the car runs with no issues once it starts, you may want to check the starting circuit and have the starter motor checked. There could be too much resistance. This other post may help:
Question: Does the key have to be in the ignition switch when tapping the starter on a 2007 Honda Accord?
Answer: Lightly tap the starter as a helper tries to fire up the engine.
Question: 2007 Civic Auto. When the ignition switch is in the start position, I hear one click, then all power is killed. I release the key and power comes back as if nothing happened. I checked the fuse, fuel pump prime, larger battery, and the same thing happens. Jumping it doesn't work. I have my metal wand at the ready. Any suggestions?
Answer: The problem could be with the ignition switch. You may be able to test the outgoing voltage from the switch using a test light. It seems the contacts are either worn or damaged. It may be easier first to check voltage to the starter solenoid with the ignition key held to the Start position. If there's power to the solenoid, the relay itself or the motor is bad; then follow with the test to the ignition switch, if necessary.
Question: Why does my car turn off on the freeway?
Answer: There could be several reasons for this. The problem could be in the ignition system or a particular sensor. This other post can give you an idea about how to diagnose the problem. Hope this helps.
Question: My jetta 3 is swinging. When it's about to start, the coil sparks back, what is a problem?
Answer: The three most common reasons for a crank no-start problem are ignition, fuel and compression issues. Start by checking the ignition coil and the rest of the system, if necessary. Then make sure there is enough fuel pressure and good compression. This other post may help:
Question: I have a brand new starter motor. After using it for some time, it worked well. But then again, before replacing the old starter with a new one, while turning the ignition switch key, it had a whirring/grinding sound with a loud hard click. What should I do?
Answer: Voltage is probably not properly reaching the starter motor. You need to check the circuit for the fault. The tests described in this post may help you locate the fault. If your vehicle has a remote starter relay, check that one too.
Question: We have a 2014 Dodge Journey and we recently put in a new starter. However, it has started sparking and smoking when started. I took it to a shop and they said it was grounded wrong. How do we fix that?
Answer: If the starter is working properly, check for voltage drop in the starting circuit. This post will give you an idea how to to about it. Probably you'll need the diagram for your model, depending on how well you know the circuit. First check between the battery and starter and grounds.
Question: I have a 2000 Ford Ranger. When I come to turn the key to start it, it will make a weird grinding zuuuuuummm sound and won’t start unless I push start my truck, since it’s a 5 speed! What can it be?
Answer: You may have a faulty starter motor. Have the starter tested in your local auto parts store.
Question: My van turns over but the engine won't start. I checked the fuel pump, gas filter, also gas pressure regulator, spark plugs, coils, and wires; even injectors pressure. The battery is not the one the van is supposed to have. Do you think a wrong battery can be the reason my van won't start?
Answer: If the battery doesn't produce enough amperage for the starter, the engine may not start. Check your car owner's manual, vehicle repair manual or your local auto parts store and see what's the correct amperage for your particular model.
Question: I am driving a Honda civic 2007 model. I had recently replaced the starter motor because my car wouldn't start. It was working fine for a couple of months but now the battery indicator is on again. The battery power is fine. Any idea what could be the reason for this?
Answer: Check the alternator, charging system and battery. Any of these components can trigger the battery light if there's a problem with the charging system.
Question: My car is cranking but not starting. I checked the spark. It doesn't have any spark. What's the problem?
Answer: Depending on your particular model, check for a faulty crankshaft position sensor, ignition coil or module, distributor (including cap, rotor) and distributor to the coil wire. You might want to download trouble codes, even if your check engine light is not on. There could be a pending code for a sensor, (if applicable).
Question: Why there is no spark at the leads in my car?
Answer: Depending on your particular model, there could be a problem with the ignition coil (single coil models), distributor, rotor, or ignition control module. You may be able to use your vehicle repair manual to trace the fault in the ignition system.
Question: I have to jumpstart my Nissan Navara D22 but the engine cranks and spins very slowly. And the starter solenoid gets hot when cranking. What's the problem there?
Answer: There seems to be too much resistance in the starter solenoid. Check the connections for loose wires, corrosion and damage. This other post can help locate the part with the fault in the circuit:
Question: My Hyundai Atos doesn't want to start. It makes a sound but when I turn my headlights they are working. What could be the problem?
Answer: Make sure the fuel pump is working. Can you here the pump priming the lines when you turn the ignition key On? Also, make sure you got a good spark and fuel pressure. These two systems are usually the primary suspects.
Question: We must push start my car, what is the problem?
Answer: You can push-start your car with a manual transmission when there's a problem with the starter motor. But check the battery to make sure it's still in good condition.
Question: I just had my starter motor replaced and most of the time it’s fine but every week or so it just won’t start, do you know what this could be?
Answer: If you mean the starter motor doesn't run sometimes, there could be a problem in the circuit. This other post may help:
Make sure to check engine grounds as well:
If you mean the engine turns over (rotates) but won't start, then the problem could be in the ignition or fuel system or an intermittent issue with a sensor. This other post may help in this case:
Question: The solenoid on my Ford truck is reading voltage on both sides of the solenoid. This isn't correct, is it? If not, what am I looking at?
Answer: The plunger in the solenoid may be stuck. This other post may help:
Question: I have just replaced the battery, alternator, and starter but every time I turn my key, all the power is killed, what is wrong?
Answer: If your battery is good, check the wiring going to the starter, between the starter and battery and the ignition. This other post may help:
Question: I've installed a new starter, but every time I start the truck, I have to push the starter back up and tighten it. I've used pressure washers, loctite, etc., to keep it from loosening but still does it. Why would that be?
Answer: Make sure you have the correct starter bolts. Contact your dealer and see if they can tell you the correct size for your application. You can test the bolts outside with the starter removed. If the bolts have any play when put through the starter holes, they are not the correct ones.
Usually, this may not apply all the time, if your starter doesn't have gear reduction, use shims and support bracket as needed. If you don't have the shims but need to install them, you can find starter shim kits in case you need them. You can find videos only about starting shimming as well. Hope this helps.
Question: I Haven't moved my car in a while, I went to start it, but it just ticks. Is the starter motor completely broke? Also fitted a new battery so it's not that.
Answer: There could be corrosion in the circuit, a loose or damaged wire. Check the circuit's voltage drop, it can help you locate the faulty part of the system:
Question: I have 06 Ford Expedition. I had a misfiring in cylinders 5 and 8. I changed the spark plugs for 5 and 8. Now it won't crank over. Could this be caused by not changing all the spark plugs?
Answer: If the engine is not turning over, the problem is in the starting system. Make sure the battery is good, then check the starting circuit. This other post can help:
If necessary, have the starter checked.
Question: I have a 2012 Dodge Ram 1500. The other day, I had a headlamp switch go bad and drain the battery. It took forever to get it up to charge on a jump to start the truck. When it finally started cranking the engine, it took a long time for it to finally fire over. The rest of the day the truck took many many tries to start before it finally would. I had just driven it the day before. What could be areas to check? It cranks hard, could it be a firing issue?
Answer: If the faulty switch drained the battery, it's better to trickle charge the battery. This will improve the chemical reaction and cell plates. If necessary, check the starter system voltage drop:
Question: Why is the starter motor is blowing smoke? What I do first?
Answer: Probably the starter motor is still running after the engine has started. This will cause the starter motor to overheat and smoke. There could be an internal problem with the motor itself, or a problem in the circuit going to the ignition switch (short circuit) that is keeping the motor running. In the latter case, you'll need to find the short before replacing the motor or you'll ruin the new replacement. First, you may try removing the starter motor and have it checked at your local auto parts store.
Question: We were driving our 1994 Ford Ranger 4.0 and rounded a curve. The truck turned off and has not started since. The coil pack has been changed and there is no spark when trying to start the truck. Can you please help me?
Answer: Have the ignition module and related circuit and connectors (loose or damaged wiring), checked. Some auto parts stores will test the module for you.