How can I get my car to start?
December 19, 2013 1:27 PM   Subscribe

My much-babied, recently inspected 2008 Scion xD won't start! When I got in the car yesterday morning and turned the key in the ignition, it made a buzzing/grrrr sound and some of the dash lights come on -- but that was it, the engine wouldn't turn over. I tried again about a half hour ago, and it did start up after a little hiccup, so I thought maybe yesterday was a fluke. But when I got in the car just now to actually go somewhere, it refused to start up again. Now the radio won't even turn on, though most of the dash lights still do. I tried rolling it down the hill, pumping the breaks, all the stuff non-mechanically-minded me can think of. Help! What can I do right now to get it to start and to get the engine to turn over?

It only has about 40,000 miles on it. I got it new back in 2007, and it's the car I learned to drive on -- I love it! It's been completely dependable until now, and has only needed the most basic possible repairs -- to replace a blown tire, new brake pads, etc. It gets an oil change every few months, and I've only driven it about 1,000 miles since the last one -- in fact, I got the car inspected just a couple weeks ago to change its registration to my new location (it passed with flying colors). The only thing I've been putting off is pumping its tires for winter, but I can't imagine that's what's causing it not to start now!

I've used it for commuting (mostly freeway) on and off, and crisscrossed the country in it a couple times. On a 4,000 mile road trip this summer it had trouble in the heat and through the Rockies, but it didn't even have a hiccup otherwise. The only thing I can think of is that I've had it out in LA for the past few years, and this is the first cold snap it's gone through since it's been back East (since this fall). But it's 50 degrees out today and it's been sitting in the sun, so what could be frozen?

I have responsibilities that keep me from being able to rely completely on public transportation, and I am also pretty broke for the foreseeable, so a quick and cheap solution I can do myself would be the best possible answer...I'm hoping that's the case!

What can I do to get my car to start?
posted by rue72 to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total)
Get a jump start. Sounds like your battery may be dead. That buzzing/grr sound could be your starter.
posted by Rob Rockets at 1:29 PM on December 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

Is the transmission manual or automatic?
posted by unreasonable at 1:31 PM on December 19, 2013

Yeah, get a jump start and/or replace the battery. This isn't really an unusual situation - IME batteries only last 3-5 years so yours was right on schedule to die.

If you can't jump it and replacing the battery doesn't do anything, you'll have to get it towed to a mechanic.
posted by muddgirl at 1:32 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, 5 years is about when batteries start to go. Batteries produce less current in colder temperatures, too, which can make them seem to "die" all of a sudden. Believe me, your local auto parts store has seen a ton of people replacing their batteries this month!

Batteries aren't too expensive, but since you're on a budget make sure you bring back your old one after installing the new one. (There will be a "core charge" on your invoice, which is a sort of deposit you get back when you bring the old one in, to encourage you to recycle it rather than throwing it away.)

If you can get the car to the auto parts store (a jump start will work), they will probably install it for you for free, and they have the tools for it too.
posted by kindall at 1:33 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Car batteries typically die at about 5 years old. If you take your battery to an auto parts place, most will test it for free to see if it's bad. Car starters are also a common failure item that are generally not too expensive.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:33 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking Battery as well. AAA can check that pretty easily and even tell you how much life a batter has left in it. If it's an alternator, that means that your battery isn't being recharged as you drive around. So you'll want to know if there's that complication. Most repair places can tell you easily. Ditto the starter.

If it's a manual, you can Bump-Start it if you need to get it going, but that requires a hill and/or friends to help you out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:37 PM on December 19, 2013

Nthing a bad battery. Also, you should be aware that batteries can damage alternators as they die, and that bad alternators can damage batteries. Point is - be on the lookout for alternator trouble as well after you replace the battery.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:38 PM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, get a jump start and/or replace the battery. This isn't really an unusual situation - IME batteries only last 3-5 years so yours was right on schedule to die.

You all are probably right that it's the battery. What's throwing me, though, is that so many of the electric components still work -- keyless locks, interior lights, headlights, a lot of the dash lights come on as though it's started. Last time when I drained my battery (left the lights on, of course), none of that worked.

Does that mean it might be the alternator instead? Does that make any difference in what I can do?

Anyway, the car is an automatic, which explains why my attempt at a bump start didn't work.

It's the only car in the household at the moment, and this is the absolute worst time for this to happen (I was on my way to a final when I couldn't get the car started yesterday, and it's the same story today) so I am really hoping to get it running today and tomorrow and take it to the shop over the weekend -- but it sounds like it won't start without a jump anymore until I get a new battery? If I jump it and take it to campus now, I'll just have to jump it again to get back home?

Jeez, I've been having such bad luck lately. For example, when I was coming from the dead car back inside to post this question, the top part of my house-key broke off as I opened the door. Ridiculous, you just have to laugh.

Also: THANK YOU. Your help is much appreciated.
posted by rue72 at 1:57 PM on December 19, 2013

It's the battery. The reason some things work is because they have different draw requirements (current or load) and so some things can still function with a battery that is too flat to run the car.

Cold kills batteries. You're over thinking it, so just get yourself a new battery.... In the meantime a jump start will get it going but it likely won't hold charge overnight again (even if you turn everything off) and start in the morning.
posted by Brockles at 2:03 PM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, it's time to get friendly with the neighbors and get a jump.
posted by stormygrey at 2:13 PM on December 19, 2013

And for about $50 you can get an emergency jump start battery to keep in your trunk for when there is no available neighbor. Put a reminder in your calendar for it's monthly top off charge so it too won't be dead when you need it.
posted by Sophont at 2:21 PM on December 19, 2013

It really is just the battery. It's got just enough charge to run the interior and warning lights, but not enough to turn the engine over.

Whether you can get back from campus on your own depends on how dead it is (it's possible that it'll be warm enough that it'll start on its remaining charge), but perhaps you could get another jump as you're leaving?
posted by mgar at 2:23 PM on December 19, 2013

Make that some things can function but the battery is too low to *start* the car... if it ran after starting last time, and stayed running while you were driving it, it's unlikely to be the alternator.

It might well start with a jump again - but then you'd be doing that every time you use it til you either replace it or it decides not to work.

We were on the way to my son's Eagle Scout board of review last night when we discovered OUR battery was dead, thanks to my daughter not-quite-shutting the door... and were very thankful a potential jump-starter was very nearby. The most reliable thing to do is replace it ASAP.

If you want to absolutely ensure it's the battery before doing so, take it to an auto parts store where they can test it.

Now that I think about it, you might want to take a look at your connections and wires and just double-check that they are all connected tightly, don't have much in the way of corrosion, etc. Just in case.

For future reference - starters and alternators are at the low-cost end of repairs, imo. They can also be tested, and the instructions for taking them out and replacing them are generally pretty easy to follow in the car-repair manuals. (These are often available as a free online database from your local library, if you don't have a book.) They're generally fairly quick for someone knowledgeable to do. It *is* something you could probably do yourself if you were *really* desperate - I have, and I am not at all mechanically inclined - but I'd much rather let someone else when possible. Just remember, if you ever do try this yourself - have the one you think is bad tested, because if you install a new one, and try it, whether it fixed the problem or not, you cannot return it at that point because it's an electrical component, and returns aren't accepted on electrical car components.
posted by stormyteal at 2:24 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had this happen before with the battery and especially at this time of year, because you're likely to be running heater, wipers, lights, everything every time you go out, and if you're mostly taking short trips then you might not be doing enough to recharge a battery that's on the edge of being kaput sufficient to start it up the next time. Generally, if you keep trying long enough those lights that were still working will eventually go out.
posted by Sequence at 7:19 PM on December 19, 2013

If you have a Costco card, you can probably get your battery there for $20-30 less than a typical parts store.

This does indeed sound like a battery. Certain things like the radio, dash lights, etc don't require a lot of battery power to run. A car battery has a LOT of juice on it and can run a lot of these things and barely notice them. But your starter needs everything your battery can throw at it; it's rotating the entire engine, which has hundreds of pounds of metal, pushing through 160 psi of compression in each cylinder. If your battery is below full capacity, it will be able to power almost everything else but it won't be able to put enough juice through the starter to rotate the engine.
posted by azpenguin at 9:26 PM on December 19, 2013

It is quite possibly just corroded battery terminals, I've gotten a lot of cars showing those symptoms to start by just twisting them back and forth (though taking them off and cleaning is obviously the best solution).
posted by 445supermag at 9:39 PM on December 19, 2013

Thank you! I appreciate everyone's input, it helped me handle this with much less hassle and anxiety than I could have otherwise.

I've used the bus, metro and cabs the last couple days, but today, I finally got a jump and took the car down to the service station. Turns out everyone was absolutely correct, it was a dead battery. Just as you'd predicted, the battery was due to die because of age, and the cold weather didn't help. They replaced the battery no problem, even pumped my tires, and all is well.

Also, the emergency jump start battery is a fantastic idea -- I had no idea those existed. I'm going to pick one up ASAP to keep from getting stranded again.
posted by rue72 at 6:28 PM on December 21, 2013

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