My car won’t start, what should I do?

Your car won’t start, but why? And what should you do? Here are some possible reasons your car might not start – as well as the solutions.

Your car won’t start, but why? And what should you do? Here are some possible reasons your car might not start – as well as the solutions.

Daniel Hutson
Motor insurance expert
minute read
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Posted 4 JANUARY 2022

If your car isn’t starting, check for… 

1. A flat or faulty battery 

If your car won’t start, there are a number of possible causes. But the most likely one is that your battery is flat or faulty. When you try to start the engine, do you hear a faint click or complete silence? If so, a flat battery might be the issue. 

It’s fairly common to find that your car won’t start if you haven’t used it for a while – for example, over the Christmas holidays. Your battery can also go flat if you accidentally leave your lights on overnight. 

To get your car going again, you may need to jumpstart the engine. You can do this with some jump leads and another car with a fully charged battery – but only if you know what you’re doing. You don’t want to injure yourself, or damage the engine. 

If the battery is faulty, you may need to tighten and safely clean the connections, or get help from a mechanic. It might be that your battery is getting old – most need to be replaced after about six years.

2. A faulty starter motor 

If you hear a loud clicking noise when you try to start your car, it could mean there’s something wrong with the battery. But it could also suggest a problem with the starter motor. This is the electrical motor connected to the battery. It sets the engine in motion when you turn on the ignition. 

The most likely issue is a poor wiring connection or faulty solenoids (electromagnets). A faulty starter motor is difficult to fix yourself, so you may need to phone a friend to tow you to a garage.

3. Fuel problems 

When it’s cold outside, your car needs more fuel to get going. If you’re already running low, the engine could have trouble starting. A simple top-up should solve the problem. 

If your fuel filter is clogged, the petrol or diesel won’t reach the engine, making it difficult to burn the fuel needed to start. Manufacturers generally recommend replacing the fuel filters every two years, or 15,000-20,000 miles, but check your handbook for guidance.

4. Low oil levels 

If there’s not enough oil in your engine, it can strain the battery when you start the car. If, when you turn the key, it sounds like your car is trying to start up but keeps falling short, your oil levels could be running low. A top-up might be the answer. 

When you check the oil, make sure your vehicle is on flat ground and stationary. The engine should be cold. 

Here’s how to check the oil: 

Turn off the engine, then remove the dipstick. Wipe off the oil with a clean cloth and replace the dipstick. After about half a minute, take it out again. If the oil mark sits between the minimum and maximum indicators, you’re good to go. If the oil level is below the minimum level, top up before you drive any further.

5. A flooded engine 

If your car won’t restart, or keeps cutting out, your engine may have flooded. This can happen with older petrol cars when there’s too much fuel and not enough air in the engine, preventing the spark plugs working. 

The trick is to be patient. Wait a while, then with the gear in neutral and the handbrake on, put your foot flat on the accelerator and start the engine. Once it catches, leave it to idle for a few seconds so it warms up properly before you set off. If this doesn’t work, you may need to call the professionals.

6. A faulty key fob 

Some modern cars come with keyless entry and ignition where the car starts at the push of a button. The button receives a coded signal from the smart key fob to work, so if the engine fails to recognise your key, it won’t start.

If this happens to you, you may simply need to replace the key fob battery. You’ll know this is the case if the central locking system doesn’t work, either. Sometimes you can start your car with a dead key fob by holding it against the button when you press it. 

If you think the key fob itself is faulty, contact your dealer for help. 

Top tip
If your car won't start because you can’t turn the key, the steering wheel may have locked. Try slowly pulling the steering wheel left and right, while carefully turning the key in the ignition.

7. Cold weather 

If it’s particularly chilly outside, or your car’s spent time in the snow, you may have a frozen fuel line. This is when water collects in the fuel line and is more common when your tank is on the empty side. 

To stop this happening, mechanics recommend keeping your tank at least half full during the winter months. If your fuel line isn’t the problem, you may have damp spark plugs. If you’re not sure, it’s best to call a mechanic – and your insurance could help with this.

The benefits of breakdown cover 

Regardless of what caused your breakdown, you’re likely to need help. This is when breakdown cover comes into its own. 

Compare the Market is here to help you find car insurance and breakdown cover at a price that’s right for you. Start a quote today to see if you could save on your car insurance.

Frequently asked questions

What’s the most common cause of vehicle breakdown?

The number one reason cars break down is a flat battery. There are lots of possible reasons this might happen, but the main one is human error – namely, you left the lights or radio on.

Can I call out assistance if I don’t have breakdown cover?

If your car won’t start and you don’t have breakdown insurance in place, you can still call for roadside assistance. However, you may find yourself landed with a pretty hefty bill. By having the right insurance in place, you can rest assured, knowing you’re covered.

What tools should I carry in my car in case I break down?

It’s helpful to keep a few pieces of kit in your boot, so if you find your car won’t start, you’re prepared. In case of emergencies, we recommend having jump leads, a tyre jack, a spare tyre and an empty fuel can on hand.

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