When you hop in your car, turn the key, and your car won't start, a million thoughts may go through your mind. What's wrong with it? How much will it cost? Is it something serious? 

It can be a stressful situation, but it's sometimes a simple and relatively inexpensive thing to fix. And in some cases, you can even diagnose and fix it yourself, saving you tons of money in the process. 

We'll cover a few troubleshooting tips that will help you determine why your car won’t start. Plus, we'll let you know when it's best to step back and let a professional handle the job.

Troubleshooting When Your Car Won't Start

A car can demonstrate two non-starting symptoms: The first is no activity at all or just a clicking sound, and the second is cranking but not starting. A wide range of problems can cause these symptoms, but there are a few common reasons for each no-start symptom. 

We'll cover some basic troubleshooting procedures for these more common causes. 

No Activity at All or Just a Clicking Sound

If you get no activity at all when you turn the key or if you just hear a series of clicking noises from the starter, this is a sign there isn't enough power getting to the starter to turn the engine over. 

There are countless reasons this can occur, but here are a few troubleshooting processes to help you narrow down the issue. 

Check the key fob

In today's push-button start vehicles, the key fob has become a new weak link in the system. If your key fob's battery is dead or weak, the ignition will not recognise it and will not start the vehicle. 

This is often joined by a message on the instrument panel or dash light that reads something like "No Key Detected." If this occurs, review your owner's manual to determine how to start the vehicle with a dead key fob battery. 

Check the Battery Terminals

The battery terminals are the simplest place to start. You'll need a battery terminal cleaning spray, a battery terminal brush, and a small wrench set.

Open your hood and examine the battery terminals. If they have corrosion on them, this could be limiting the flow of power. Use the battery terminal spray and terminal bushes to clean off the corrosion. 

Wiggle the battery cable ends — the wires that connect to the battery. If they feel loose, carefully snug them with your wrench set. Sometimes, a loose connection is enough to create a non-starting condition. 

Check the Battery's Charge

If your car battery is low on charge, it may not have enough power to turn over the engine, except by jump start. You'll need a multimeter and possibly a small wrench set to test for a dead battery. 

Set the multimeter to 20-volts DC and place the red probe on the positive (+) battery terminal and the black probe on the negative (–) battery terminal. Check the voltage on the multimeter. A good battery will show at least 12.6 volts. 

If the battery is less than 12.6 volts, charge it using a battery charger and retest it. If you don't have a charger, you can remove the battery with your wrench set and take it to a local parts store for charging. There may be a small cost associated with this. 

If it's still testing below 12.6 volts after charging, you may have a bad battery. It'll require further professional testing to confirm it's bad, though. A repair shop can also test your alternator — the component that keeps your battery charged while the car runs — along with other parts of the electrical system to ensure no other issues are causing the battery to fail. 

Other Issues Best Left to the Professionals

The above troubleshooting tests are ones that virtually any car owner can perform. Still, many other issues that require a professional’s touch can cause a clicking sound or no activity when trying to start the vehicle. These other issues include: 

  • Bad starter motor: The electrical component that cranks the engine to start it. A faulty starter will often click or spin without engaging the engine. 
  • Bad starter relay: The electrical switch that allows power to flow from the ignition switch to the starter motor. A bad starter relay won't deliver power to the starter, making the vehicle do nothing when you try to start it. 
  • Bad ignition switch: The ignition switch detects when you want to start the vehicle — by turning the key or pressing the "Start" button — and it sends power to the starter motor. With a bad ignition switch, no power gets to the starter, so there's no action at all.
  • Faulty wiring: Bad wiring between any ignition components can cause this issue. 
  • Bad park/neutral safety switch: The park/neutral safety switch senses whether your vehicle is in park or neutral before sending energy to the starter. If it senses the vehicle is in gear, it won't allow power to the starter so the car doesn't jump forward or backward. If this switch fails, it can prevent all power from reaching the starter, causing the vehicle to do nothing when you turn the key. 

Engine Cranks but Won't Start

When your engine cranks but won't start, there is generally an issue in the fuel or ignition system. In most cases, these are more complex issues that require a technician's touch, but there are a few troubleshooting procedures you can do to rule out simple fixes. 

Check the Fuel Pump Fuse

Most modern vehicles have robust electrical systems, and the fuel system taps into this. The fuel pump is one of these electrical components, and it's responsible for moving fuel from the fuel tank to the engine so the vehicle can run. 

If there's no fuel, the engine will crank but not start. You may initially think the fuel pump is bad and plan to shell out hundreds of dollars on the repair. Fortunately, it can be something as simple as a bad fuel pump fuse.

In your owner's manual, find the fuse box and the fuse map — the diagram that shows where each fuse is. Find the fuel pump fuse and pull it out. Look through the top of the fuse, and you'll see a metal filament. If that filament is broken, you have a blown fuse. 

Replace the fuse with the correct amperage fuse listed in the owner's manual and retry. If the fuse blows again, you may have additional wiring issues causing the fuse to blow. 

Other Issues Best Left to the Professionals

In addition to the fuel pump fuse, many issues can cause a car to crank but not turn over. However, troubleshooting and repairing these issues are best left to the professionals at a repair shop. 

  • Bad fuel pump: The fuel pump delivers fuel from the fuel tank to the engine. If it's not operating properly, the engine will crank but won't start.
  • Clogged fuel filter: Though extremely rare, debris can build up in the fuel filter, restricting fuel flow to the engine. This may cause the engine to crank but not start. 
  • Bad fuel: When fuel sits too long in your gas tank, it can become contaminated with water and other things. This can cause your vehicle to crank but not start.
  • Bad ignition system: Your car's ignition system comprises several components — coil, wires, spark plugs, and more — and is responsible for igniting the fuel when it enters the engine. If one or more of these components fails, your vehicle may crank but not start. 
  • Broken or jumped timing belt: The timing belt ensures the engine, and the ignition and fuel systems are synchronised. Over time, this belt can wear and break, causing it to jump to the wrong position on the pulley or break. If the timing belt jumps or breaks, you'll notice the engine will crank as normal without starting.

Car Won't Start? Upgrade Your Ride With Clutch

If your car won't start, it can be because of any number of issues, which can be frustrating. Fortunately, you can perform basic diagnostics to rule out simple problems that you can fix yourself, like a bad battery or a blown fuel pump fuse. 

Some of the root causes for a no-start condition can be complex and require a trip to the repair shop for a full diagnosis and repair.

If you've had enough of the constant no-start problems, upgrade your ride with a quality pre-owned vehicle from Clutch. We're Canada's first 100% online pre-owned car dealership, allowing you to shop for a quality pre-owned vehicle online and have it delivered to your home — no pushy salespeople or stuffy dealerships. 

All our vehicles have been through a 210-point inspection before going on sale to ensure they're in top shape. We also include a 90-day or 6,000-km warranty to ensure the vehicle is covered if something does crop up. And, you have 10 days to test the vehicle risk-free. If you don't love your new Clutch vehicle, you can return it for a full refund, or exchange it for another vehicle. 

We also offer the Clutch Protection Plan — an extended warranty covering potential causes of a no-start condition — for long-term peace of mind.