We know that any car will develop more squeaks and rattles with age, but a noise in a car can also be a sign of a mechanical problem. Should you be concerned? What is the best way to describe a noise? If your mechanic “can’t duplicate” the noise, what can you do? How can you tell if the noise is “normal?” These are the topics we will try to cover in this article.
The first question you should ask yourself whenever there is an unusual noise in your car is “Is my car safe?” Your sunglasses rattling inside the glass holder won’t make your car unsafe. The noise caused by a bad ball joint or one of your wheels being loose is a major safety hazard. How can you tell if it’s some plastic shield rattling under your car or your wheel is about to fall off? Are your bakes squeaking because of minor rust build up or your brake pads are done? The only way to find this out is to have your car inspected. Visiting your local drive-through fast lube shop won’t be enough. Many parts in your car, such as brakes or suspension can only be inspected when your car is lifted on the hoist. You also want to trust your car to a skilled mechanic and not a high school co-op student. This means that you will have to take it to your dealer or a local repair shop with good reputation. If your dealer is far or the same day appointment is not available, take your car to any local repair facility. Google ratings will help you find a good shop. It’s well worth to pay $50-$100 for an inspection to ensure your car is safe. Of course, if you suspect that one of your wheels might be loose, you alway can pull over to a safe parking lot and check all your lug nuts (nuts that hold the wheels). Any car has a lug nut wrench in the trunk and you can find the instructions in your owner’s manual.
What can cause a noise in a car? There are hundreds and hundreds of possible sources of noise in your car. Some problems can be obvious and your mechanic can spot them during a regular inspection (e.g, leaking strut, bad ball joint, loose exhaust heat shield). Other noises are common in a particular make and model. This means that an experienced mechanic at a dealership might be able to diagnose the noise by a good description. In most cases, however, your mechanic must be able duplicate the noise in order to diagnose it.
How to describe a noise to your service advisor
Consider this real life example. A car owner brings her car for regular service and asks to check for a noise coming from the back of her car. The mechanic that gets the job reads the complaint “there is a noise in the back.” The mechanic test drives the car around the block, there is no noise. He lifts the car on the hoist, check all basic components, everything looks normal. He completes the service and returns the car stating “cannot duplicate the noise.” The car owner drives home and realizes the noise is still there. She visits another dealer. This time she makes sure the service writer describes it in details: “There is a metal rattling noise coming from the back of the car when driving on a rough road or over bumps. The noise goes away when brakes are applied.” This time the mechanic knows right away what to look for. He takes it to the back road and hears the rattle over bumps. He replaces the loose spring in the rear brakes and the noise is gone. The key to solving the problem for a mechanic in the example above was knowing what the noise is related to. In that case, it was related to brakes and he was able to duplicate it by driving on a bumpy back road.
When describing the noise, try to give as many details as possible: Is the noise more noticeable at low speed or only on the highway? Does it go away when brakes are applied? Is it noticeable when driving on a rough road? Does the noise correspond with the wheel rotation? Do you notice it more when the car is cold or fully warmed up? Does turning the air conditioner on or off make any difference? When describing the problem to a service writer, ask to type your complaint in detail.
What if your mechanic cannot duplicate the noise?
In many well-run dealerships and repair shops, you can request for a test drive with a mechanic, shop foreman or a service manager. This will allow you to demonstrate the noise that concerns you. Another option is to have your passenger record the noise on a phone and demonstrate the video to your service advisor or a mechanic. Check this video; an experienced mechanic should have a good idea what to look for after watching a video like this. This is especially helpful when a noise is very intermittent and doesn’t happen all the time.
Is this noise normal?
This question often comes up when your car is still under warranty. It’s true, some noises can be a result of normal wear. Any car will have more noises after a year or two of driving. On the other hand, we also aware of cases when dealers don’t want to admit the problem to avoid warranty repairs. One of the solutions in this case is to see if your dealer can offer you another car of the same model from their lot for a test drive to compare. Another option is to have a second opinion from a different dealer. According to one of our friends working at a dealership, you will also have a better chance to have your problem properly looked at if you schedule your visit in off-peak hours, when they are not too busy.
Noise in a car started after last service
There are many reasons why a new noise may appear after a regular service. The common practice is to return and have the shop re-check their job. A reputable shop should be able to inspect and correct the problem if something went wrong. A similar situation has happened recently to one of our colleagues. After a service her air conditioner fan start making flapping noises. It turned out to be a leaf that got stuck in the fan after a cabin filter was replaced. The dealership has corrected the problem at no charge.