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Troubleshooting Starting Issues

Winter weather has a way of bringing out the worst in our vehicles. A weakness in our car's electrical system can easily succumb to cold temperatures. If you're having starting issues, here's a couple trouble shooting methods to help easily identify the culprit.

Author's Note: As most starters are difficult to access, this article is designed to help diagnose a bad starter with simple tools and easy access points on the car, namely, the battery. These trouble shooting steps assume the clutch pedal safety switch (in manual cars) has not failed or been disconnected.

If we're already speaking gibberish, check out this brief explanation of what the starter is, and how it operates, then join us back on this troubleshooting article.

This is the starter on a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Easy to spot due to its location in front of the engine, behind the radiator. In most vehicles, however, you won't be able to see the starter without removing an intake manifold or crawling under the engine.


2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Starter


Unfortunately, starter life is unpredictable. Mechanics have seen a lifespan range of 10k-200k+ miles. Starter longevity can be affected by where you live, the type of driving you do, how often your vehicle is used, and, on a key ignition, how much the starter is abused when the car is started. Many times, this vehicle component is blamed when starting issues could easily be the result of a bad or insufficiently charged battery, or the starter solenoid.  

The first symptom indicating a bad or insufficiently charged battery would be if nothing happens when you attempt to turn the car over. If your dome lights or headlights don't turn on or are very dim, this is likely your culprit.

While a car's battery is usually easy to spot, it can be located anywhere. In most cases it sits in one of the four corners of the engine bay, as we see here in this 2017 Ford Fusion.


2017 Ford Fusion Battery Location


In many German cars, the battery may be in the trunk. Sometimes you may even have to lift the spare tire cover to access it, as is the case with some Mercedes-Benz. This picture of a 2002 BMW M3 shows the battery sitting on the passenger side of the trunk.


2002 BMW M3 Battery Location


Let's first check the battery terminals for corrosion, which can easily be cleaned with a wire brush or little piece of sand paper. Clean off the contact points inside the connectors, as well as the battery terminals, aiming for a nice shine.

We can now test the battery using a simple voltmeter, placing the red probe on positive and black probe on negative. A normal, properly charged 12 volt battery should read around 12 volts when the car is off. Most vehicles require around 11.8 volts to properly start, though lower compression cars can get away with less. Here we see 12.22 volts, which is great.


Testing a Battery with a Voltmeter


Keep in mind that batteries take a beating, especially in cold weather. While your battery may have the proper voltage, without a full charge it may not have enough amperage. If you suspect the battery, give it a full, overnight charge.

Once you've eliminated the battery as the problem, it's time to move on to the starter. With tighter engine bays in newer cars today, it may be difficult to locate the starter. Still, we can see if enough juice is getting to the solenoid. With your voltmeter leads back on the car's battery, have someone attempt to turn the ignition over. If the measured voltage drops around 0.5 volts, the solenoid is working, and taking voltage to the starter. This means your starter is likely the problem and may need replacing. If the voltage reading doesn't change when you attempt to turn the engine over (and assuming nothing is wrong with the wiring between the solenoid and battery, or solenoid and ignition switch), it is likely the solenoid itself that needs replacing. If this is the case you'll usually hear an audible "click" coming from the solenoid when it engages with the proper voltage.