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Why won’t my car start?

Modern cars, trucks and SUVs are 21st century wonders of engineering. Like airplanes, smartphones, and the internet, we typically take these complex machines for granted — until something goes wrong. The most common problem — one we'll all face at some point — is when our vehicle won't start. Not surprisingly, there are several things that can go wrong and keep a vehicle from starting.

What exactly do you mean, “My car won't start”?

When we say our car “won't start”, what exactly do we mean? Let's dig a little deeper.

  • When you turn the ignition key, will it turn to the starting position or is it locked and unable to move?
  • Does it make a clicking sound when you turn the key to start the vehicle?
  • Does the engine “turn over” like it wants to start but won't fire up?
  • Does the engine actually start for a second and then stall out?
  • Is there total silence when you turn the key?
  • Do the headlights, horn or interior lights work, or are they out as well?

The answers to these questions are important clues as to what's going on under your hood. There are a number of possible reasons why your car won't start, but some are more common than others. Let's start with the most common reasons:

Why won't my key turn in the ignition?

Will the key turn? If not, this can happen when locking of the the steering wheel and ignition cylinder happen at the same time. This usually occurs when the front wheels are turned sharply after the ignition is turned off, which is something you might do when parking on a hill. Try turning the steering wheel back and forth while jiggling the ignition key until the steering lock releases.

Am I out of gas?

Your engine runs on a precisely metered combination of gasoline and air. When the gas tank runs dry, the engine will simply stop running.

If you're out of gas — and assuming everything else is working properly — a quick check of your gas gauge will tell the tale. Plus, you'll have power to your lights, horn, radio, etc., and when you turn the key your engine will “turn over” as if it's trying to start. If you're certain there's fuel in the tank, a malfunctioning gas gauge or sending unit in the gas tank could give a misleading reading and should be checked out immediately by your factory-trained Ford service technician.

How low can I run my gas tank before filling up?

It's not a good idea to regularly run your fuel to near empty before filling up. Your fuel sending unit — usually referred to as the fuel pump — is in your fuel tank, immersed in gasoline which helps keep it cool. As the tank runs low, the sending unit can run hotter than its designed operating temperature. Over time this can cause premature failure of your fuel sending unit.

Is my battery dead?

A dead battery is the single most common reason why vehicles won't start. The battery provides electrical power to the entire vehicle. Once the car is running, the alternator continually recharges the battery, and working together they meet the electrical needs of the vehicle. They keep the lights on, the engine firing and the sound system belting out the tunes.

But if the battery runs down — in other words if it isn't charged sufficiently — the car won't start. Your battery can die for any of several different reasons:

  • leaving your headlights or a dome light on overnight is most common
  • a loose wire or an electrical short somewhere in the vehicle's wiring can drain the battery
  • the battery's lifespan has expired

Can I recharge my battery?

Possibly. Try jumpstarting your vehicle using jumper cables. If it starts, the battery is likely the problem (though it could be the alternator that's not recharging the battery). Allow the car to run for a while — thirty minutes or so — and it will recharge (assuming the alternator is functioning and the battery is in otherwise good shape.)

What if my alternator stops working?

If the alternator stops working it will not recharge the battery. The battery will continue to supply the vehicle's electrical needs until it is drained, which won't take long if the alternator has failed. At that point you'll end up with a dead battery that will generally be fine after it's recharged, but will quickly drain again as all of the vehicle's electrical needs will run off the battery.

What if I have corroded battery terminals?

A no-start situation can sometimes be caused by corroded battery terminal connections. Battery cables connect the battery to the starter motor and to a ground. The connections at the battery can become corroded and reduce conductivity. The fix? Check the battery terminal cable connections and if they look corroded, clean the battery posts and cable connections and try to start the engine. (Inexpensive battery terminal brushes are sold at most any auto parts retailer.)

What if my starter motor stops starting?

The starter is an electric motor powered by the battery. When you turn the key, the starter engages with the engine's flywheel and “turns over” the engine until it starts. Once the engine is running, the starter's job is finished. If the starter goes bad, the engine will not crank properly or may not crank at all when you turn the ignition key. You may hear a “clicking” sound (but not always) when you try to start your vehicle.

What else could go wrong?

There are a couple of other problems that can cause your car not to start. One is a clogged fuel filter. Depending on your vehicle the fuel filter is either in the gas tank or in the fuel line between the gas tank and engine. It filters out impurities in your gasoline, much like the oil and air filters do for oil and air.

If your fuel filter is clogged, the right amount of gasoline may not reach the engine. This makes it hard for the engine to properly burn the right mixture of fuel. Your Ford owner guide lists the replacement intervals for fuel filters and — just like the air and oil filters — should be changed according to the recommended schedule.

Also, if your car doesn't turn over on the first few tries you might have a problem with the ignition switch; that is the electrical part of the switch; not the mechanical part your key turns. Try turning on your headlights, which are powered by the battery. If they turn on but your vehicle won't turn over and start, a bad ignition switch should go to the top of the suspect list.

There could also be problems with the fuel injectors, various sensors that monitor air and fuel, or the ignition system that provides the spark to the spark plugs. In any of these cases, your engine would turn over like it was trying to start, but wouldn't actually “fire-up” and run.

When should I call my Ford dealer for help?

If the problem isn't readily apparent, the best course of action is to turn to the experts at your local Ford dealership. Factory-trained technicians have the knowledge and proper test equipment to quickly diagnose and fix your no-start condition. Our quality Motorcraft® batteries feature the latest technology in design and engineering, and provide dependable power to today's high-technology vehicles across a wide range of conditions.

Need a new battery? Download your Ford Motorcraft® battery or Ford service coupons here. Then, contact your local Ford dealership or log into your Ford Owner account to schedule an appointment today.