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How to understand what your car is trying to tell you

Carlton Boyce / 22 September 2015 ( 29 November 2018 )

The noises your car makes can alert you to problems. Read our guide to the warning sounds and signs you should be listening out for.

Broken down car with bonnet raised and emergency triangle laid out on the road ahead of the vehicle.
If your engine starts making funny noises, then pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so and turn the engine off

Your car is constantly relaying information to you. Whether it’s the tyres telling you how much grip they’ve got or the engine telling you a big bill is on the way, it is trying to help you - if you speak car.

Here’s our guide to understanding what your car is trying to tell you!


• Tyre squeal is your tyres' way of telling you you are cornering or braking too fast. The answer? Slow down. It’s not just safer; it will help extend the life of your tyres,saving you pounds over their lifetime.

• Your tyres will also tell you if you’ve got a slow puncture: loosen your grip on the steering wheel a little (don’t let go, of course!). If the car pulls to one side more than usual (all cars will pull to the left in the UK due to the camber of the road but you should be able to feel the difference compared to how it handles when the tyres properly inflated) then you might have a tyre on that side that could do with some more air in it.

• How your tyres wear tells you a lot: if they’re worn in the middle of the tread they have been over-inflated for a long period; wear on both shoulders shows they’ve been under-inflated; and wear on just one edge of a tyre shows that your car’s wheel alignment is off.

• Your tyres will also tell you when they’re losing grip. If you’re driving along and the steering starts to feel lighter than it did before, the chances are that’s because the co-efficient of friction has changed: in English, your tyres aren’t gripping as well as they were. This could be due to a number of factors such as black ice, a wet road, spilled diesel, or simply excess speed. No matter what the cause, they’re warning you to slow down (gently and progressively and without braking, which could trigger a full-blown skid) before you have an accident.

Planning a long journey? Read our guide to driving long distances.

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Warning lights and symbols

• Talking of black ice, your outside temperature indicator (if you’ve got one) will flash and beep when it gets to 3°C. Why 3°C rather than zero? It’s because black ice can linger in hollows in the road and in the shade for a while after the temperature has risen above freezing. So, if your car bleeps and flashes the outside temperature, it’s telling you to take care because it might be slippery.

• Car manufacturers all fit warning lights, but some of the symbols they use can be a bit obscure. So why not sit in your car with owner's handbook open in your lap and the ignition turned on (but the engine off). With the ignition switch in the first position all the warning lights will illuminate, enabling you to look at each one in turn and then find out what it’s for. That way, you’ll know what it’s telling you when it lights up.

• There is a relatively new warning light that you might not have come across before: the one for the DPF, or diesel particulate filter. The DPF is a clever little device that filters carcinogenic particulates from the exhaust gases of diesel cars, saving lives by preventing them reaching the atmosphere and being inhaled. However, the DPF can get blocked if you only do short, low-speed journeys, triggering the warning light. If this happens, you can clear it by taking the car for a ten-minute blast at a minimum of 40mph using higher revs than usual, most easily accomplished by holding the car in a lower gear. This will burn the particles off, cleaning the DPF and saving you from a four-figure bill for a replacement.

Keep your car in top condition with our guide to basic maintenance

Engine noises

• If your engine starts making funny noises, then pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so and turn the engine off. Carefully open the bonnet – being mindful of boiling fluids and ruptured hoses – and check the oil level using the dipstick. Top up if necessary and check for anything else that looks wrong, like loose hoses or stray electrical cabling, for example, before cautiously starting the engine. If the noise persists, turn the engine off immediately and call your breakdown service. It’s not worth progressing under your own steam if it means ruining your engine.

• Your car will struggle going up hills compared to running on the level because the engine fights gravity. Your instinct will be to accelerate a little to maintain a constant cruising speed. However, if you listen to the engine and maintain a constant throttle angle, you might bleed a little speed off but you’ll save a fortune at the petrol pumps.

Read our eight simple tips for driving economically


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.