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It is a situation that most of us have probably encountered at least once: sticking your key into the car’s ignition and… nothing. Nobody wants to wake up to find that their car isn’t going to start up and take them where they need to go.

Often, if a car won’t start, this can indicate that the starter motor might have gone bad. If you do not have extensive automotive experience, it can be challenging how to tell if your starter is bad. Knowing the signs of a bad starter can help you diagnose the problem and get back on the road as quickly as possible.

What is a Starter?

To keep the explanation simple, a starter is essentially a small electrical motor. This motor is powered by the car battery. The one job of this motor is to help get your car up and running. The starter motor is one piece of the starting system in your vehicle. Other pieces or parts of the starting system include the battery, battery cables, a starter relay, connecting wiring, ignition switch, Transmission Gear Position switch, Clutch Interlock switch (manual transmissions) and in some cases the engine computer. If any of these parts of your starting system are malfunctioning your car won’t start and you won’t be able to get it moving without a tow truck.

Of course, there are multiple reasons why your car may not start, and the starter is just one of those potential reasons. Here are some common bad starter symptoms:

1

Dash Lights

The dashboard warning lights come on when you try to turn on your car, but the engine does not crank or spin over. This is a classic sign of a bad starter.

2

Clicking

If you experience the dreaded “clicking” noise when you try to turn the key, this is a good sign of starter failure. Keep in mind though that even if you do not get the clicking noise and nothing happens when you try to start the car, the issue may still be with the starter.

3

Slow Cranking

Another symptom of a failing starter is an engine that cranks over very slowly, the starter seems to drag or struggle to spin the engine over.

4

Smoke

Since there are so many electrical components connected to the starter system, if you try to turn on the car and the only result of this is a ton of smoke, you definitely need to put the key down and call a mechanic. This could be a sign of the starter causing the electrical system to overheat.

5

Oil-Soaked Starter

You may also want to take the time to pop open the hood and see if you can locate the starter. Sometimes, the oil system can spring a leak which soaks the starter, leading the starter to malfunction. If this is the case, you may be in for some very expensive repairs. You will likely need to replace the starter, but you will also need to repair the oil leaks to prevent premature failure of your replacement starter.

If nothing gets your engine started, even a jump start, it is likely that the problem is with your starter. If this is the case, you likely need to go ahead and call a tow truck to get your car to a mechanic, unless you’re comfortable replacing your own starter.

Starter Parts

Select the parts you need, and enter your vehicle’s year, make, model, and engine to find the part that fits.

How to Start a Car with a Bad Starter

The reality is that you may not actually be able to start the car at all, depending on the nature of the problem. However, if you suspect that you have a bad starter, the first thing to do is try to jump start the car.

In order to jump start the car, you need to ensure that both batteries are in good condition (so no leaks and no corrosion) and ensure that anything electronic in both cars is completely turned off. You also need to have a set of jumper cables and some gloves to protect your hands while you are connecting the batteries together.

Once this is done, you can connect the battery in your car to the battery in the functioning car. There should be red cables and black cables marked clearly on the jumper cables. Place the red cables on the positive terminals and the black cables on the negative ones. Make sure that you double check that you have connected the correct jumper cable to the correct battery terminal. Failure to do so can cause very expensive problems in both cars!

When you have ensured that everything is connected correctly, go ahead and start the working car. This causes the non-functioning car to borrow energy from the functioning one. You want to keep the functioning car on for a few minutes so that the non-functioning car has time to borrow the energy.

Once this is done, you may be able to start your car.

If you are not able to start the car with a jump start, you may want to consider checking the following:

  • Look at the battery of the car. It is possible that a dead or weak battery is causing your car not to start, rather than a problem with the starter system. A voltmeter can help you check this.
  • Carefully inspect the battery cables and connections. The battery cables and connections need to be clean and tight, there should not be any rust or corrosion on the battery cables and all of the connections at the battery and the starter should be tight and secure.

However, if you use any of these methods to start the car, it is important to get ready for some DIY repairs or take the car to a mechanic as soon as possible. A starter that is struggling now will fail soon after.

Advice, how-to guides, and car care information featured on AutoZone.com and AutoZone Advice & How-To’s are presented as helpful resources for general maintenance and automotive repairs from a general perspective only and should be used at your own risk. Information is accurate and true to the best of AutoZone’s knowledge, however, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes.

Be sure to consult your owner’s manual, a repair guide, an AutoZoner at a store near you, or a licensed, professional mechanic for vehicle-specific repair information. Refer to the service manual for specific diagnostic, repair and tool information for your particular vehicle. Always chock your wheels prior to lifting a vehicle. Always disconnect the negative battery cable before servicing an electrical application on the vehicle to protect its electrical circuits in the event that a wire is accidentally pierced or grounded. Use caution when working with automotive batteries. Sulfuric acid is caustic and can burn clothing and skin or cause blindness. Always wear gloves and safety glasses and other personal protection equipment, and work in a well-ventilated area. Should electrolyte get on your body or clothing, neutralize it immediately with a solution of baking soda and water. Do not wear ties or loose clothing when working on your vehicle.

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