Car noises you shouldn't ignore

December 21, 2022 by PEMCO Insurance

GettyImages-840838810.jpgRumbling, squealing, groaning, knocking, hissing and other strange noises coming from your car could mean serious trouble is on the way. Learn which noises are an easy, cheap fix and which ones should send you driving straight to your mechanic. 

Strange car noises and what they might mean 

Just because your Check Engine light isn’t on, don’t think it’s safe to tune out that strange noise your car has started making. The type of noise and when it happens – whether that’s braking, turning, accelerating or simply starting the engine – can sometimes signal the start of a potentially dangerous or expensive problem. 

While no checklist can substitute for a visit to a skilled mechanic, here’s what 10 common car noises might mean and what you should do about them: 

Noise: Low, loud rumble
when you start your car. You also may smell strong exhaust fumes.  

Possible cause: Your catalytic converter has been stolen. 

Solution: Get a tow to the nearest repair shop.  

While your car may run without a catalytic converter, it’s not safe to drive. Your car may lurch or conk out completely at low speeds. And the exhaust fumes you’re likely smelling? They contain lethal carbon monoxide. You also don’t know what other parts (like your fuel line) the thieves may have damaged when they sawed off the converter.  

If you selected Comprehensive coverage for your car, your PEMCO policy can help with the cost of towing and repairs for a stolen catalytic converter as well as other damage the thief may have caused to your car.  

RELATED: How to protect against catalytic converter theft | PEMCO  

Noise: Squealing from under the hood
, especially when you start the car.  

Possible cause: A loose or worn serpentine belt. 

Solution: Make an appointment with your mechanic.  

While replacing a serpentine belt isn’t terribly expensive, it’s important to get it checked out and replaced right away before it breaks.  

A broken belt can lead to expensive engine damage – not to mention being stranded if the engine fails or, even scarier, left trying to maneuver a car that’s suddenly lost its power steering. The serpentine belt delivers power to multiple systems including your alternator, air conditioner compressor, power steering pump and water pump. Because this belt is so critical, most manufacturers recommend it be replaced every 60,000 to 100,000 miles even if it looks fine.  

Noise: Your engine makes a knocking sound.  

Possible cause: Using fuel without adequate octane. 

Solution: Try switching to Premium fuel to see if it improves.  

Most cars are designed to run just fine on Regular – and your owner’s manual will tell you if your car is one of them. However, some older and high-performance cars do better with the added oomph of higher octane, which Premium fuel contains. The higher octane blend means it’s less likely to ignite too early in the combustion process and cause your engine to knock. Knocking can damage your engine over time. 

Noise: Your brakes squeal
when you press on them.  

Possible cause: Your “squealers” have activated, letting you know your brake pads have worn down and need to be replaced. 

Solution: Schedule an appointment with your mechanic for a new set of brake pads.  

The squealing noise is meant to get your attention and, while it’s not an emergency, it’s not something you want to ignore. You’ll soon wear through the brake pads to the point where you’re grinding metal-on-metal. That reduces your stopping power and sets you up for expensive rotor repairs. 

Sometimes, wet brakes can squeal, too. If you hear squealing for the first time on a rainy day, see if the sound goes away on its own after a few stops. You can help keep brakes dry by avoiding standing water on the road. If you inadvertently drive through deep water, brake moderately once you’re back on bare pavement to dry them out. 

If you hear a squeal coming from your wheels but it’s not necessarily tied to braking, it may be worn wheel bearings. The bearings act as a buffer between the wheel and axle, allowing the wheel to turn freely. If ignored, worn bearings could cause your wheel to seize up, putting you at serious risk for an accident. Your mechanic probably will routinely check your wheel bearings beginning around 60,000 miles and likely recommend replacing them around 100,000 miles. But regardless of mileage, a squeal from your wheels is a noise you’ll want to check out right away. 

Noise: Your brakes make a crunching or grinding sound
when you press on them.  

Possible cause: Your brake pads have, indeed, worn through and you’re now grinding on your brake rotors. 

Solution: Make an immediate appointment with your mechanic.  

Damaged rotors are much more expensive to fix than simply replacing worn brake pads. What’s worse, driving on degraded brakes means you can’t stop effectively and you’re at greater risk of an accident. 

Sometimes, grinding noises can be a sign you have a rock caught in your calipers (an easy, cheap fix) or your rear brake drums need lubrication. Only your mechanic will know for sure, though, so don’t delay. 

RELATED: Warning signs to check your brakes | PEMCO  

Noise: Your car makes a creaking or groaning noise.  

Possible cause: Worn shock absorbers or struts – or about 10 other things! 

Solution: Make an immediate appointment with your mechanic.  

Creaking or groaning noises are common and could be clues to all sorts of problems. 

Besides worn shocks and struts, which are relatively simple fixes, those noises also can indicate problems with steering system components, constant velocity (CV) joints or wheel bearings. Minimize driving (and sudden turns in case it’s the steering) until you can get it checked out. 

Noise: Your car makes an “rrr, rrr, rrr”
noise as it’s trying to start.  

Possible cause: A failing battery. 

Solution: Get your battery tested by your mechanic and replace it if it’s older than three years.  

If you can see that you accidentally left the lights or accessories on without the engine running, a weak battery is likely the problem. However, batteries are surprisingly short-lived, and many of our Claims experts simply replace theirs every three years, having seen so many towing claims for failed batteries. 

Turn off all the accessories, let the car sit for a few minutes, then try starting again. If it’s a no-go, you can decide if you want to try jump-starting your car or call for roadside service. 

RELATED: How to jump-start a car battery | PEMCO 

Noise: Your engine continues to sputter
after you turn it off.  

Possible cause: In older, carbureted cars, a cylinder keeps igniting. 

Solution: Try switching fuels or schedule an appointment with your mechanic.  

If you drive a fuel-injected car, this isn’t a problem since the fuel is pushed to the injectors with an electric fuel pump (no fuel is delivered with the key off). But in cars built before fuel injection became standard, the problem was common enough to earn the nickname “dieseling.” If a change of fuel doesn’t stop the sputtering, your mechanic can likely adjust your idle to solve it. 

Noise: Your car makes a hissing sound.  

Possible cause: Some sort of leak, often when liquids hit a hot engine part. 

Solution: Schedule an appointment with your mechanic.  

Like creaking and groaning, hissing is a common car noise with plenty of possible causes. One of the more likely is a damaged cooling system. If that’s the case, you also may notice overheating, fast idling and your “Check Engine” light may pop on. 

Noise: Rattling that seems to be coming from your wheel.  

Possible cause: A lug nut that has come loose and is stuck inside a hub cap. 

Solution: Check your lug nuts and visit a mechanic for an inspection.  

Mistakes happen. Sometimes, a tech will “finger tighten” a bolt but forget to go back and tighten it completely with a wrench. Over time, it can work loose. It’s an easy fix, but don’t delay. You don’t want to drive around on an improperly tightened wheel. 

How do I find a good mechanic? 

Finding a good mechanic can seem a lot like choosing a doctor – it can feel like trial and error until you discover someone you “click” with! And just like with your doctor, you want to have a good mechanic lined up before you find yourself with a serious problem. 

The American Automobile Association (AAA) makes its auto repair facility locator tool available free to everyone, whether you’re a AAA member or not. It can point you to more than 7,000 shops across the country that have passed a AAA inspection and use technicians certified by the manufacturer or the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). 

If you need glass or body work, you also can try a tool we really love: PEMCO’s Find a Repair Shop tool. Automakers have identified shops on our list as qualified and trained to work on their make. In addition, they’ve taken steps to verify shops have the correct equipment to properly repair their vehicles to industry standards. Not only do these shops offer high quality, competitively priced, quick repairs, but they’ll also work directly with us to handle costs and payment (if the repair is part of an insurance claim). 

It also never hurts to see how a company is rated by the Better Business Bureau (click “Auto Repair” under Popular Categories). 

RELATED: Five steps to finding a good mechanic | PEMCO 

Is an extended warranty or mechanical breakdown insurance worth it?  

They might be, depending on your financial reserves (if something went seriously wrong with your car, could you afford to fix it out of pocket?), the age of your car and likelihood of needing repairs. 

When buying a car, ask your dealership or lender what’s available after your car is no longer covered under its factory warranty. If you’re buying a used car that doesn’t have much factory warranty left, extended warranties can give you peace of mind if something major like the transmission goes out. It’s easy to add to your financing or you can pay a lump sum. 

Ordinary car insurance doesn’t cover repairs unless they’re connected to some kind of loss like an accident or a car being vandalized or stolen. But some companies sell insurance coverage just for auto repairs. The cost varies from company to company and, like any insurance policy, is subject to a deductible. 

If you decide to go that route, make sure you understand any restrictions, like where you can take the car for repairs, and take care you’re not duplicating coverage you already have under a warranty. Just like a warranty, the policies won’t cover maintenance and there are mileage and age restrictions. 

You may be better off skipping the extended warranty or car repair insurance and just setting aside at least $50 a month in a savings account earmarked for car repairs, according to Forbes Advisor. If you’re lucky and never need a big repair, you’ll accumulate a nice chunk of cash you can use for something else. 




How to protect your car from theft | PEMCO 

Prevent car breakdowns | PEMCO 

How to start your car in winter | PEMCO 

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