Dan Ferrell writes about DIY car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in Automation and Control Technology and Technical Writing.
Use Your Ears and Your Headlights to Help Diagnose Your Starter System
Bad starter-system issues are more common than you may think.
Starting system troubles may be caused by poor maintenance, or just wear and tear. Even with decent maintenance, the different system components get a lot of wear during their service life and are bound to start having problems eventually. Problems may show up as a no-crank or slow-cranking condition, caused by a worn-out component, a bad electrical connection, or an undercharged or failed battery.
Unfortunately, a problem in the system can catch you unprepared and leave you stranded with a huge repair bill.
If you have a little experience with car repair, you may feel tempted to rush out and start buying and swapping components, trying to fix your car. This may lead to frustration and a waste of time and money.
But troubleshooting the starting system is actually relatively easy, compared to other electrical systems in your vehicle. This system can give you some clues about the type of problem you are facing. And, armed with your car repair manual, you may be able to make the necessary fixes to get your car going again.
So here are some of the most common symptoms you may notice when having troubles with the starting system in your car.
Diagnosing a Problem With a Starter: What Noise Does It Make?
- "I hear a whirring sound."
- "It's a buzzing sound."
- "I hear a loud click."
- "It's more like a grinding noise."
- "I don't hear anything!"
- "My headlights don't work."
- "Cranking the car makes my headlights dim or go out."
- "My headlights are fine, but my car still won't start."
All of these instances will be thoroughly described and diagnosed below. If your engine is cranking as usual and still refuses to start, you're likely dealing with an ignition or fuel system issue, not a starter issue.
What Do You Hear When You Try to Start Your Car?
As discussed in the video below, there's a difference between a "crank-no start" situation and a "no-crank-no start" situation. If your engine is cranking as usual and still refuses to start, you're likely dealing with an ignition or fuel system issue, not a starter issue. Below, we discuss different situations where you turn the key and hear either nothing or something other than the engine turning over. Depending on the situation, the problem may be the starter itself, or something else.
Sounds May Indicate Electrical Problems in the Starter or Elsewhere
Funny sounds, or no sound, upon the turn of the key may indicate electrical problems in the starter or elsewhere in the starting system. Some of the most common electrical problems are corroded electrical connections, an undercharged or bad battery, or a malfunctioning component:
- bad neutral safety switch (automatic transmission)
- bad clutch safety switch (manual transmission)
- bad starter relay
- bad starter solenoid
- corroded electrical connections in the starting circuit
- worn-out part in the starter motor or some other system component
Sounds and Their Possible Meanings
"I Just Hear a Whirring Sound."
Car starter motors use a small device called an overrunning clutch, or one-way clutch. When you turn the ignition key to the run position, the starter solenoid interlocks the starter's pinion gear with the flywheel on the engine to rotate the engine at "cranking speed." Once the engine starts and exceeds cranking speed, the overrunning clutch releases the pinion gear from the flywheel.
However, if the solenoid mechanism is too worn to engage the flywheel, all you'll hear is a swishing sound as the armature in the starter spins all by itself, unable to crank the engine to a start. So this sound may indicate that the solenoid in the starter is worn out.
Read More from AxleAddict
"I Hear a Buzzing Sound."
Sometimes you just hear a buzzing sound. Electrical current is making it to the starter solenoid, but all it does is try unsuccessfully to activate the solenoid's plunger to engage the pinion gear and flywheel. This failure is usually caused by poor current flow due to low battery charge or poor electrical connections along the starting circuit, including corroded battery terminals.
"I Hear a Loud Click."
On the other hand, if you can hear a single, solid click, the starter circuit may be getting enough current, but you may have a bad starting motor, bad solenoid, or even an engine mechanical problem.
"It's More Like a Grinding Noise."
If you hear a harsh or grinding noise as you try to crank up the engine, you may have a loose starter motor (mounting bolts), or a flywheel or pinion gear with broken or worn-out teeth. If the gears on the flywheel and pinion aren't able to mesh properly, all you hear is the sound of metal teeth clashing loudly.
"I Don't Hear Anything."
When you try to start your car, you may hear no sound at all. This silence may be due to electrical issues, such as:
- a discharged or failed battery,
- a failed system component (for example, relay or safety switch),
- or corroded electrical connections (including battery terminals) that prevent electrical current from reaching the starter motor.
Starter Motor Components
- Main housing (yoke)
- Overrunning clutch
- Field coils
Using Your Headlights as a Diagnostic Tool
OK, so now you have an idea about what may be the cause of your starting system problem. But, is there a way you can confirm your suspicions?
Actually, there is. And you don't need special equipment either. Let's use your car's headlights to confirm your tentative diagnosis.
The test: Have a friend or a willing assistant turn on the headlights and try to start the engine, as you stand in front of—but to one side of—your car (just in case your car decides to start and lurch forward).
"My Headlights Don't Work."
If you hear no sound, and the headlights don't come on, you're on the right track. Either:
- Your battery is dead,
- there's an open circuit in the starter, or
- corroded terminals (most commonly battery terminals) are preventing electrical current from reaching the starter motor and other systems.
"Cranking the Car Makes My Headlights Go Out."
What if the headlights turn on OK, but go out as soon as your car starts cranking? There are several possibilities:
- Your battery may be undercharged.
- If your battery is properly charged, you could have a short in the starting motor that is causing it to draw too much current.
- Another possibility is that you may not be dealing with a starting system problem at all, but an engine problem.
"My Headlights Are Fine, They Don't Change."
There's the possibility that your headlights remain bright while your engine cranks poorly. Then, it's likely you have an open circuit or too much resistance in the circuit.
Check for a failing component, or corrosion at one or more of the system circuit connections, including the battery terminals.
ACDelco Starter Motor
Starting-system problems are hard to diagnose sometimes, but paying attention to the symptoms will help you repair your car faster than you could otherwise. And not only that, it can help you save money in the process.
And if you are the DIY type or are mechanically inclined, having the repair manual for your particular car make and model can greatly help you zero in on the root cause of the problem and get it fixed, even if you don't have much car repair experience.
Car Repair Manuals
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 lights are working and service engine light is on, but I hear a clicking sound when I turn the ignition. I put in a brand new battery. What is going on with my car?
Answer: Assuming your battery is properly charged, if you hear a rapid series of clicks, there might not enough current reaching the relay/solenoid. Check the cables and wires between the battery and starter.
If you hear a single solid click, have the starter or relay/solenoid check.
Question: When I try to start my car, I hear rapid clicks, what could that be?
Answer: Probably not enough voltage is reaching the solenoid, or the solenoid itself is bad. Check the battery voltage and how much voltage is reaching the solenoid.
Question: A week ago my car wouldn’t start. A random person jumped my car, and it started. I went and had the starter, alternator, and battery checked. They were all good. During the week my car did it a few more times but turning the key a couple of times the car started. Each time I turn the key, there is one click. All the electrical is working the car just isn’t starting. It’s a 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew. What could be the problem?
Answer: It could be a loose wire or cable that is connecting and disconnecting. Wiggle the wires and battery cables and see if this makes a difference. And it'll be a good idea to check voltage drop in the starting circuit. This post may help you,
Question: I turn my key but no sound, and the lights are dim. But I just had the battery replaced, changed the oil and added new oil as well. The lights don't work either, even when the key is turned all the way or halfway to let the lights on. Nothing happens except for the interior lights, which are barely dimmed, will turn on. What would cause my car to never start and the lights to not turn on?
Answer: There could be a loose engine ground or starting system ground. These other two posts may help:
Question: I just put an engine in my car. Can a bad starter make my car run rough?
Answer: Not really unless the starter is draining the battery and the alternator has difficult recharging it, assuming the engine is working fine.
Question: My 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee won't start. I have a good battery and replaced my alternator after testing my old one and it was bad. I have lights but there's no noise at all when trying to start it. What could be my issue?
Answer: You need to make sure there's voltage getting to the starter motor. If there's voltage, check the ground. If not, the problem might be on the ignition side of the circuit.
Question: My 98 Jeep Grand Cherokee wants to start, but there is no sound and no start at all. All lights work fine. I changed the battery, but nothing changed. So is it my starter?
Answer: Check the starter circuit including the ignition. You may need the diagram for your application to trace the voltage. Start at the solenoid and make sure voltage is getting there.
Question: I replaced a starter on my moms car, it's still doing the same things. I move the wire for the ignition and it starts. I'm confused, Is it a bad solenoid or a bad starter, or a bad connection?
Answer: There could be an open in the wire or a bad connector. Check the wire for voltage while wiggling the wire. You can use a test light or voltmeter.
Question: My 2001 Civic is cranking normally but not starting despite a new battery. Any ideas what could be wrong?
Answer: Check the spark and fuel pressure first.
Question: Our Kia minivan has had an alternator/ battery/fuse panel/ignition switch replaced, and still won’t start on a daily basis (1-2 times a day). I can hold the key in the start position for 30-90 seconds & it will finally start. All lights, doors, windows, etc. work. It seems to happen more in summer (very little in winter). Are we dealing with a starter issue?
Answer: Check to see how much voltage the starter is receiving, and how much current is pulling. There could be a circuit issue. Make sure all engine grounds are properly connected, and there are not missing. This can give trouble to the starter.
Question: My Toyota will not crank or make a sound. This happens intermittently; usually when it has been driven for a while. After it sets for a while, there is no problem. Could it be the starter contacts? When I turn the key on everything lights up, the battery is fully charged. There is just no crank or noise except for a click in the starter relay.
Answer: Check the cables for damaged, loose wires or corrosion in the starting circuit. Wiggle the wires and cables while trying to crank the engine when this happens. Also, check the starter relay, make sure voltage is coming out.
Question: I put a new starter in, I charged the battery and a new ignition but when I turn the key I get nothing. Any ideas?
Answer: If you don't get even a click (voltage getting to the starter solenoid) or clicking sounds (poor voltage reaching the starter solenoid), then check the starter circuit. Something is preventing voltage from reaching the starter motor. The connection at the ignition might be the problem. Check the voltage drop in the circuit. This will give you an idea what's going on:
Question: My 2009 BMW X5 won't start. I replaced the start 2 months ago. I went to the store, shut the car off, and when I tried to start it again, it tried but only cranks. I believe I noticed a new brake light on the dash. It should be yellow, but now stays on and is red. Could it be a sensor in the brake pedal? Why won't it start?
Answer: Basically the red light is a warning about the hydraulic brake system. It may be losing pressure, worn pads, or another related problem. This may or may not prevent your car from starting, depending on your model. Have the brake system checked first.
Question: Why is it that when my battery is fully charged, but in 18 to 20 hours my car won't start? They say that the alternator and other systems are fine.
Answer: If other systems are fine, do a hydrometer check on the battery - it may be failing. Or take it a shop for a diagnosis.
Question: My 2008 Toyota Yaris isn’t starting, but its headlights work. What could cause my Yaris' problem?
Answer: Check you have enough battery power and that enough voltage is reaching the starter solenoid. If there's power and voltage is getting to the solenoid, then have the starter motor checked.
Question: Whenever I turn on the ignition switch, the interior lights go out, the headlights dim, and the starter does not come on. After a brief wait, I activate the key switch to start, and starter comes on without hesitation, and the engine turns over normally and starts. What is the possible problem?
Answer: Can you hear the fuel pump buzz sound when you turn the key? Something may be pulling too much current. Have the battery checked and make sure all starting system connections are clean and tight.
Question: I just put a new battery in my car, plus an alternator. Now it won’t start after getting a jump and turning it off. But when I did jump it, I noticed I wasn’t able to charge my phone. Any thoughts?
Answer: You may need to check the battery cables, connections and those for the charging circuit. Also, check for engine grounds. A little bit of corrosion or a loose wire can cause a lot of electrical trouble.
Question: Replaced the starter in my car a month ago. All lights, radio, etc work fine. But still won't start. What could be wrong? Alternator?
Answer: Sometimes, problems with sensors like the crankshaft position sensor or camshaft sensor will prevent the engine from starting. Check for trouble codes, if necessary. The most common faults are a bad spark and fuel pressure. So make sure you got a good battery and it's fully charged. If you got good spark and fuel pressure, then check the starting system and circuit. These other posts may help:
Question: I replaced my old starter (single solid click sound) with a new one. After using it for a while it has the same issue with a single solid click of my new starter. What is going on with my car? Thanks.
Answer: Make sure there’s not a problem with the circuit. Double check that enough current is reaching the starter motor. This other post may help you here.
If there’s enough current, there’s probably a mechanical problem. In this case, try turning the crankshaft using a breaker bar, using a socket on the front crankshaft pulley. Put the transmission in neutral and turn the crankshaft clockwise. If it doesn’t turn, there’s something preventing the engine from turning.
Question: Before I sent my car to the shop, the remote key starter used to work fine; now the remote doesn't start the car at all. What happened?
Answer: The most common reason is a dead battery. Also, you might want to check the internal contacts. They wear out over time.
Question: I have a 1999 Oldsmobile and when I turn the key to crank it up I hear clicking sounds and it won't start but the lights in dashboard and inside come on. What do you think the problem could be?
Answer: Make sure the battery has a good charged. Also, too much resistance in the circuit can prevent the starter from working. Usually, a series of clicking sounds is a sign of low voltage reaching the starter motor. This other post may help you check the circuit, if necessary:
Question: My car lights come on inside and outside the car, as well as the check engine light, but it doesn't start. What is the problem?
Answer: First, download the trouble codes from the computer memory and take that as a guide. Also, if necessary, check the starting circuit and make sure the starter motor is working properly. This post might help you as well.
Question: I'm dealing with a 1956 Packard. I left the key on overnight and the next day it wouldn't start, and only made a click noise. I charged the battery and tried to start but just heard the click. The sound seems to be coming from the starter. I tried to jump start it but only heard that click noise again. I tried a different battery, and the same thing happened. Could I have caused damage by leaving the key on overnight?
Answer: If the battery is good, check the starter solenoid using a voltmeter. You may have a remote type. Make sure there’s voltage on both sides when turning the key to start the engine. It this checks good, have the starter motor tested.
Question: My car had a burning smell as I drove. I checked the oil and it was empty, I filled it up and it's still in there. The oil is black. My car has not started right up for me twice. We knocked on the starter, and it started. I've had it checked and changed the starter and it was not it. It stopped working. When I try to crank it, it doesn't start, it makes a weird, loud, rumbling noise afterwards when I stop trying to start it. It makes the same noise when I'm trying to start it. What could it be?
Answer: If the oil feels thick, it may be contaminated. If the oil is getting contaminated, that may have to do with the engine being hard to start or not starting. Also, the rumbling noise may come from a weak battery that can't deliver the amount of current the starter motor needs to run. Check the battery and cables for looseness and corrosion.
Question: Why my car stops after 3 km drive with out any fault sign? The dash board lights on. It usually starts with jump starting. But it doesnt work. When it ignites, it makes a cracking sound.
Answer: You might want to check the computer memory for pending or stored trouble codes. Check fuel system pressure.
Ignition modules and fuel pumps - are two (but not the only ones) that when going bad can quit after components warm up.
Question: When I turn over the engine in my car it does not make any sound. When someone goes under to hit the starter connection it just spins, all lights and everything still work in the car, though. What could be the problem?
Answer: The problem could be a faulty starter motor or solenoid. Make sure the wiring and connections are good. If voltage is reaching the starter with no problems, then suspect the motor. You may want to remove it and have it checked.
Question: Help please, my car won't start. I have a 2013 Nissan Sentra SV with a keyless ignition. I've already replaced the transmission, starter (twice), battery, and battery terminals. When I try to start my car it just clicks a few times. The lights turn on, the dash lights turn on, my radio turns on and horn honks but the car won't start. I've had the starter tested and it reads good. Any advice?
Answer: There could be a problem in the starting system circuit. This other post may help:
Also, check engine grounds:
Question: Why does my Jeep start at every turn, then idles down and stalls out? Once it's warmed up, it starts every time.
Answer: There are several possibilities: there might be fuel system problems, the air filter might be clogged, there may be MAF sensor problems, or there might be carbon buildup around the throttle bore or valve. Check out this article for some diagnostics you can do at home:
Question: I have a 2007 Dodge Caravan. Sometimes it’s hard to start. I have to jiggle the key and keep trying to get it started, and sometimes I have to open the door and try starting it again. Then it starts. It usually starts right away. It just doesn’t start when I least expect it. What could be wrong?
Answer: The ignition key lock cylinder might be worn. Usually, it needs to be replaced to fix the problem.
Question: My 2009 Pontiac G5 won't start when it is warm but will start first thing in the morning, or if it has cooled down after I drive it. Why will it start when it is cold but not after I drive it?
Answer: Sometimes a sensor and starter motor may fail due to temperature related issues, preventing the engine from starting at operating temperature. Download trouble codes form the computer, even if the check engine light is not on. There could be pending codes that can guide you here. This other post may help you test the cps:
Question: At first, it's a no crank, no start issue. I can tap it with a hammer, and it will eventually start. But it sounds like it's dragging. What could the culprit be?
Answer: Probably the starter motor brushes are worn out. Have the starter checked. Probably you need a new one.
Question: My 2001 Hyundai Elantra wouldn't start. Jump started it and ran for a week, then it wouldn't start again. A jump start worked this time also. I stopped and started multiple times in a day and now doesn't start again. The battery is less than a year old. Had it tested at an auto parts store and confirmed good. When trying to start here a single click. Suggestions?
Answer: Seems like a problem with the starter motor or solenoid. You can do a system voltage drop to confirm this. Intermittent problems are hard to diagnose some times. This other post may help:
Question: When a car cranks, but wants to start, what is the problem?
Answer: There may not be enough fuel or it has a weak spark. Spray some starting fluid while cranking. If the engine responds better, the problem may be in the fuel system. Otherwise, check the ignition system.
Question: My 2002 Grand Marquis starts, but it struggles to start, battery and the alternator is good. What else could it be?
Answer: Check fuel pressure and for a healthy spark. Scan the ECM for possible pending codes, if necessary.
Question: I have a 2003 Buick Century and I just got it out of the shop after replacing a 10 amp fuse. It ran for a few days, then broke down again. All my dash lights work and my headlights work too, but no sound when I tried to start it. What may be my problem?
Answer: You may not be getting any power to the starter motor. This other post may help you check the circuit:
Also, check the control circuit between the starter and the ignition, if necessary. Check the fuses and a possible short circuit in the system.
Question: I had changed my battery and my car wouldn't start. I did a complete tune up but I didn't change the starter. Do you think that could be the problem?
Answer: The starter motor could be the problem, but first, you need to make sure the wire and cables are properly connected, and the starter is getting battery power. Here’s a post that can help you check the starter’s circuit:
Question: My car cranks but won’t start. I have changed the battery, spark plugs and leads, coil pack and cat converter and still won’t start. Any ideas of what I should do?
Answer: If the engine turns over, usually the problem is in the ignition or fuel system. Make sure you have good spark and fuel pressure. You can use a spark tester and a fuel pressure gauge. This other post may help:
Question: Why is that when I start my truck the starter gets stuck? It sounds like it spins or gas doesn't pass, but after three times, it will start. I got a new battery for it, but still, the same thing happens.
Answer: Make sure the connections in the starting circuit are clean and tight. But it seems like it could be a leaking injector. After you spend the fuel, it leaked, and so the engine fires.
Question: My car won't start when it is hot after 4 to 5 minutes. But, when the engine is cool, it starts without any issues. What could be the problem?
Answer: Make sure the coolant level is correct, and have the battery tested and, if necessary, the coolant temperature sensor.
Question: My starter performs perfectly when the engine is cold. However, when the engine is hot, it won't start up. Instead, it produces a click sound only. Otherwise, I have to wait for up to 45 minutes for it to cool down. Then, it will start up. What could be the problem (Nissan Cube)?
Answer: The starter or solenoid may be ‘heat soaking’. Basically, starters absorb heat from the engine or exhaust manifold when the engine is operating. Some models use a starter motor heat shield to prevent this. Heat acts as a resistance to the motor or solenoid. However, you want to make sure the starter motor, solenoid, and battery, cables are in good shape. No corrosion, good and clean connections. Some ways to solve a heat soak problem is to upgrade battery cables and/or battery to feed extra amperage to the motor. If you didn’t have this problem before or it showed up after installing a new starter or starter system component, see if you are using a non-OEM part or forgot to replace a heat shield, and components are working properly.
Question: 2017 Subaru WRX. Sometimes it cranks fine, other times it struggles and the dash lights dim as it struggles to crank. I’ve had the battery and alternator tested twice and has passed both times. No clicks or anything. It just seems like a weak crank, sluggish. Only 57k miles. Car doesn’t seem to mind if it’s been sitting for a while or not. I’ve had successfully cranked it/gotten slow cranks at either temperature and after the car has been sitting overnight. What could my problem be?
Answer: There could be a bad ground or starting system connection. These other post may help:
Question: Especially on cool mornings, I turn the key and hear one click, but no crank. Usually, on the third try the engine starts as normal. Is it likely my starter is bad?
Answer: Check the battery and connections. This post gives you some tips when dealing with a not star in cold weather:
Aslo, check the starter circuit to make sure the connections are clean and tight:
Question: My starter system comes in. That is the dashboard. I turned on the wipers and headlights, and they work. I hear a calm rumble sound on the passengers side. Could it be a starter? What do I do to get it started?
Answer: If you hear the sound when you try to start the engine, but the engine doesn't crank or turn over, most likely it's the starter. You need to check that you have enough battery power and make sure you got good connections between the starter and the battery. If all this checks out OK, then you may have a faulty starter motor. This other post may help you:
Question: Why does my car make a buzzing sound under the hood if the headlights work and I've installed a new battery but the inside lights don't work and the steering wheel is locked?
Answer: There may not be enough current going to the starter motor. The problem could be at the ignition switch if the interior lights are not working. You can check the voltage going in and out the switch using a test light. But you may need a wiring diagram. You can find one in the repair manual for your particular model. Some auto parts stores carry manuals that may help you here.
Question: If I just had my car battery replaced on 9-5-19, what would cause my starter to then go out 2 weeks later? My car was starting up great after I had the new battery installed, but last weekend it developed a "slow cranking" issue. The exact same day I planned to drive it to the shop & be checked, I got stranded & had to call AAA!
Answer: Probably the starter motor was at the end of its service life. But this can also be a problem with the starting circuit. When you install the new starter motor, check the circuit voltage drop and engine grounds to make sure that adequate voltage is getting to the starter. These other two posts may help:
Question: My car wouldn't start. I took the starter in. It tested and passed. But it sounds like the solenoid is not catching. Could it still have passed? Put new power cable on and now sounds like it is the battery?
Answer: Test the battery. The problem could be in the circuit. Full voltage might not be getting to the starter. This other post may help:
Question: My car is a 2014 Kia Optima. Working nicely, but for the last month, sometimes it doesn’t start while turning the key with no sound. The battery is in good condition and providing enough power. What is the problem of this repeated, intermittent startup? ?
Answer: If you don't hear even a click coming from the starter solenoid when this happens, as you try to fire up the engine, there could be a loose or corroded connection or wire between the battery and ignition switch, or switch and starter solenoid. When this happens, put the ignition key in the Start position while checking for voltage at the solenoid. Disable the fuel system [pull the pump fuse] to prevent it from starting while testing. Use a test light or multimeter. If there's no voltage, trace the circuit back to the switch. You may need the vehicle repair manual for your particular model to identify wires. With intermittent faults, this is usually a loose connection or wire.
Question: My boyfriend's car got a used engine. We had to replace the starter but now it's trying to not turn over. He checked the starter, the spark plugs and even moved around the spark plugs. What could we do or check to avoid another expensive auto shop trip?
Answer: If the engine is not turning over, then the starter is either faulty or there's something wrong in the starter circuit. Since you guys replaced the starter motor, assuming it's good, try checking the circuit. This other post will help you:
You'll need a digital multimeter for the tests, but will help you determine the faulty wire, connection or component.
Question: What are the steps for removing starter and replacing new solenoid?
Answer: The steps to replacing the starter change, depending on your particular vehicle make and model. If you just want to replace the solenoid, it's better to have the repair manual for your particular model. You can buy a copy at your local auto parts store or Amazon.
Question: My starter went out today, so I went and had it replaced. Now my truck keeps cutting off. Why would my truck turn off after replacing the starter?
Answer: Try downloading trouble codes, even if the check engine light doesn't come on. Also, these other posts may help:
© 2014 Dan Ferrell