Top 10: ways to detect a breakdown

Cold conditions over the winter season can test the reliability of even the most robust cars. But if your car were about to conk out, would you know the warning signs and how to deal with the effects? Find out more about RAC Breakdown Cover.

Here are our top 10 tips on how to spot a vehicle breakdown and the best way to deal with each eventuality:

  1. Freezing temperatures can take their toll on mechanicals and electronics. If your vehicle’s engine won’t turn over, you could have a flat battery or a stuck starter motor.

    Look to charge your car battery or receive a jump-start from a healthy car. If it happens again, your alternator might not be charging the battery properly, too. Seek help from a local garage if so.
  2. The brakes are the most important safety feature of any car, so it’s important to keep an eye on wear rates and condition – especially when grip could be at its lowest in winter.

    Unusual grumbling noises, a car pulling to one side or a ‘long’ spongy brake pedal could point towards a problem with the braking system; get things checked out by a qualified mechanic if you’re not sure.
  3. Flaring engine revs under hard acceleration are the main indicator that your vehicle’s clutch is slipping. If this is the case then unfortunately there’s no cheap fix – the clutch will have to be replaced, which is an involving job.

    DO NOT leave it as doing so will damage your flywheel and in turn, your engine.
  4. Your tyres can tell you a lot about how your car is performing. If they aren’t wearing evenly, then tyre pressures may be mismatched or there could be a fault with the steering.

    Check pressures are all correct and that the steering wheel is straight ahead when you’re going straight ahead (known as tracking). For everything you need to know about tyres, read our tyre safety guide here
  5. An intermittent knocking or droning sound – especially when going round corners – could indicate a worn wheel bearing.

    If left unchecked this could eventually cause expensive damage to the hub assembly and suspension. A professional mechanic will have all the tools to replace the offending item.
  6. Constant freezing, thawing and condensation can see water accumulate where rain doesn’t during the winter. If your car’s seals are past their best and water gets into the electrics, it could manifest itself in a number of ways: engine misfires, faulty electric windows or dud door locks can all be signs of a leak.

    You can try and track down the fault yourself, waterproofing the offending area, or alternatively take it to a garage.
  7. Hesitation from the engine when asking for acceleration could be down to a problem with the fuel system – or, more simply, you running low on fuel!

    If you’ve let your car run very low on petrol or diesel, it could have disturbed some sediment in the tank and sucked it past the fuel filter causing a small blockage…
  8. Or the stuttering could be that your spark plugs or spark plug leads have deteriorated to the point that they aren’t working properly.

    Either way, both these points can cause damage to the engine, so it’s worth getting them checked by a qualified technician as soon as possible.
  9. We take getting into our car for granted, but if your vehicle won’t open using the remote central locking fob in winter, you’ll certainly be able diagnose the problem. Make sure you replace the battery regularly if (as many modern cars do) your car doesn’t charge the key through the ignition.

    If that still doesn’t get you inside, it could be the receiver. Best use the key lock as a back up in this instance.
  10. Loud knocking noises from deep within the bowels of an engine are never good news. If your car develops a strong rattle, stop the engine immediately and first check the oil level on flat ground. If it’s below the minimum on the dipstick – or not even registering on the dipstick at all – top it up with a suitable grade of engine oil.

    You may have averted crisis if it goes away, if not, you could be looking at a very expensive repair or replacement expensive at Christmas time.