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How to Diagnose Your Vehicle Using Your Senses

Quickly and accurately serviced vehicles are the ones that the operator can provide clear and concise detail of the symptom(s). Your senses are your most valuable resource so why not use them? Your mechanic uses these senses everyday to diagnose and repair vehicles and equipment. Use them to convey an accurate description of your problem. Read on to learn how to describe a concern to your mechanic or service writer so they may return your vehicle repaired and quickly.


Be as accurate as possible when describing the noise your vehicle is making. Do your best to pinpoint the area the noise is coming from. Imagine sitting in the driver’s seat. From this seat is how you would refer to the area you are describing. The passenger side is the right and the driver side is the left. Front and rear… well you already know those.

Consider these areas and situations where you hear the noise:

  • Inside or outside the vehicle.
  • Left, right, front or back.
  • Driving over a bump or hitting a pothole.
  • Turning the steering wheel left or right.
  • Sitting still or moving.
  • Moving slow(parking lot speed) or fast(highway speed).
  • Changing gears or idling.
  • Are any systems turned on when you hear the noise? ex. heater, ac, wipers, turn signal, 4WD, brakes etc.
  • Is the noise you hear directly proportional to how fast you are traveling?
When you describe a noise to the mechanic use lots of adjectives and verbs. This descriptive type of information is crucial to getting you car fixed quickly. Other words work well instead of trying to make the actual noise yourself. Here are a few examples of words to use when describing the noise to your mechanic.
Rhythmic Fast Howl
Raspy Slow Pop
Deafening Chatter Click
Faint Grab Crunch
Melodic Rub Rattle
TIP- Noises that occur on a vehicle may be difficult to diagnose. In some instances some components may be partially disassembled to pinpoint the exact cause of the noise in your vehicle. Be patient with your mechanic.

Bad example: My window is broken.

Good Example: I hear a crunching sound when I try to lower the right rear window. The window only lowers about one inch and then stops.


Use your sense of sight to pinpoint physical abnormalities of your vehicle, judge integrity of fluid filled systems, and inspect for anything out of the ordinary. A simple visual check of most systems can easily be performed on your vehicle with a “walk-around” inspection.

Start under the hood with the engine oil dipstick. The engine oil is the most critical fluid in your vehicle. Pull the dipstick and check the level. Is it black or golden in color? If the engine oil looks milky there may be water present in the crankcase.

Check your coolant level. Antifreeze comes in a variety of colors. Red, blue, green, gold, yellow. Be careful not to mix any of these unless your maintenance manual says it is OK. Inspect for cooling system leaks around seams of components, at hose connections, and gasket mating surfaces.

Some vehicles do not have a dipstick for the transmission even if it is an automatic. Have your mechanic advise you if you cannot access this fluid easily to visually inspect it.

Check your brake fluid, steering fluid, and window washer fluid while under the hood.

Keep an eye on these vehicle systems as they may develop a leak at any time. If you monitor these hydraulic systems closely you may be able to pinpoint the area of concern before it becomes a severe case.

Inspect your drive belt for cracks and/or fraying. Get your mechanic to change the serpentine belt or drive belts as needed.

Inspect the engine air filter and cabin air filter. If you do not know where these are located, ask your mechanic. They will be glad to show you and advise you accordingly.

See if any of your tires look low on air. Have your mechanic adjust the air pressure per manufacturers recommendation. Have them visually inspect the wear pattern and tread depth of each tire. Do not forget about the spare!

Is any of your glass or mirrors cracked? Have this address immediately. Do all of your lights and indicators work correctly? This includes the warning lights on the dash. If any warning lights are on and the vehicle does or does not exhibit unusual symptoms, get it to your mechanic immediately with a good description of the issue.

Another huge example is smoke coming from the vehicle. Typically smoke will be black, blue, or white. This would indicate the burning of carbon or fuel, oil, and water respectively. Do not confuse light, wispy white smoke which is condensation for thicker, heavier white smoke which may be coolant. Condensation is normal and cannot be avoided. Condensation will typically burn off once the vehicle is warm.

Bad example: My car is leaking fluid.

Good example: I have noticed my coolant level is low every morning. There is a small greenish puddle on the ground near the right front of my car.

Touch or Feel

Compared to the other senses, the scope of touch or feel may be limited for the operator. Tread wear pattern and hose condition may be difficult for the operator to distinguish. There are other systems and components on a vehicle that the operator can “feel out.”

The driver may feel a shake in the steering wheel, driver’s seat, or the entire vehicle in some instances. These can be attributed to tire wear, tire balance, brake rotors out-of-round, worn or leaking socks, drive line, etc. Take note when you feel the concern. Are you braking? Cruising at highway speeds? Turning left or right?

Let us consider the heater and ac system. Does the air temperature correspond with the thermostat setting? Does the air flow from the system match the correct vent setting? Does the volume of air match the fan speed?

Concerns with the ignition system, more commonly referred to as spark plugs and/or wires, can cause a buck or jerk that may be interpreted as the car cutting off or slipping out of gear. This can be felt under heavy load or when towing.

A “washboard” feeling at highway speeds may be attributed to the torque converter failing.

Bad example: My car acts like it wants to die.

Good example: When putting my car into “Drive” the engine feels like it wants to cut off. When I put it back into “Park” it runs normal.


There are a few things in a vehicle that can smell. Oil is one. It has an earthy type smell to it, go figure.

Antifreeze or coolant smells sweet like pancakes.

Fuel, which is unmistakable, would most likely be from the tailpipe.

A burning rubber smell could be from the drive belts.

A smell that is hard to define is brake or a clutch. This smell will almost make you sick to your stomach if it is intense enough.

Wrap up

Now that you understand how to use your senses to pinpoint a concern with your vehicle, you can convey the symptom(s) more clearly to your mechanic. If there is anyone that wants your fixed as much as you, it is your mechanic!

Is there an instance in which using your senses to describe a problem has helped you?

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