Are You Listening to Your Car? Sixteen Noises You need to be Concerned About—And Two You Don’t!

Noises. Every car makes them. Most are routine, everyday sounds we’re used to. But some catch our attention, telling us that things may be amiss.

But identifying a noise and describing it to your service technician can be difficult. To identify what component on your car may be making the offending noise, it helps to answer a few questions for yourself first:

• Where is the noise originating? (It can help, especially if the noise only starts up when the car is in motion, to use the ears of a passenger in the back seat to pin down where the sound is coming from.)

• What is the car doing when the noise starts? Is it sitting still? In motion? Turning? Braking? Accelerating? Be as specific as possible.

• When did the noise occur? Is it ongoing or intermittent? Did you hear it when you first started the car, first put it in gear, etc.?

• What was the outside temperature and weather like when you heard the noise? Believe it or not, these factors can play a major role in the occurrence of strange noises.

Once you’ve got the noise pinned down, describing it is your next step, which is where we come in. Following is a list of noises, sorted by location, that can help you describe problems to your automotive technician or mechanic.


Underhood Noises

Squeal — A rubbery squeal, especially one that is intermittent but growing worse over time, usually means a loose or worn serpentine belt, but it could also indicate a problem with a more expensive accessory component like the car’s air conditioning compressor, power steering pump or water pump.

Growl — Also could be a whine that is audible at all times, even at idle. This could mean one of the car’s accessories is failing. A groaning when you turn the car could also mean the power steering pump needs to be checked for proper fluid level or fluid condition.

Clatter — A metallic clatter coming from inside the engine could mean the engine’s valves are loose, or it
could indicate a low oil level or the need for an oil change (old oil tends to “foam,” meaning it doesn’t coat the insides of an engine correctly, which could lead to valve “clatter”).

Bubbling — A bubbling or gurgling sound means air is trapped inside one of the vehicle’s fluids, most commonly the antifreeze/coolant. You may also hear this sound from inside the vehicle, as the same liquid circulates through the car’s heater core to provide heat.

hissing catHiss — Can also be a whistle. Hearing this under the car’s hood usually means a leak in a vacuum hose. Alternatively, a high-pitched whistle coming from the area near the serpentine belt could indicate an alternator that is being stressed.

Flapping — This could mean the serpentine belt is coming apart. Have it checked immediately.

Clicking — A clicking sound in the engine could indicate valves that are slightly loose from wear, an issue that, while noisy, is not particularly worrisome or indicative of broader mechanical problems. Many older engines exhibit this noise, which can sometimes be “cured” by installing specially formulated “high-mileage” motor oil or even synthetic motor oil.


Undercar Noises

Clunk — If you hear this when the car shifts gears, it could indicate transmission problems. Alternatively, if you hear a clunk when you put the transmission in gear, it could indicate worn U-joints.clock

Rattle — A rattling sound coming from beneath the car usually indicates loose exhaust components. It can also indicate a failed catalytic converter.

Whine — A constant whine when the car is in motion could indicate worn gears in the driveline, usually in the differential. It could also mean the differential fluid needs to be replaced.

Ticking — That ticking noise you hear whenever you turn the car off? It’s just the exhaust system cooling off. For once, nothing to worry about!


Tire/Suspension Noises

Knocking — This can also be a clicking or groaning. If you hear it from the tires or suspension when you’re at speed (say, above 40 miles per hour), it could mean a worn constant velocity (CV) joint. If you knocking on doorhear it at low speeds, especially when you’re turning, it could mean a wheel bearing about to fail.

Squeak — A squeak coming from the suspension whenever you go over a bump usually means the rubber bushings that dampen vibration in the suspension system are worn. Can also mean the shocks or struts are in need of a closer inspection.

Clicking — If you hear a clicking sound that changes frequencies as you change speeds, chances are you have some foreign object either stuck in a tire or lodged between a wheel and brake or suspension component.

Howling — A tire that “howls” at high speed likely indicates an alignment problem. Alternatively, it could mean a worn shock or strut is allowing the tire to move slightly. Can also be accompanied by a vibration in the steering wheel.


Brake Noises

Squeal/Squeak — The most common brake noise (by which we mean noises you only hear when you apply the brakes). Usually this means that a metal wear indicator in the brake pad has been exposed, indicating it is time to have the brakes replaced. Can also mean a brake is hanging, which can be caused by old or worn brake fluid.

Clunk — Usually means that one or more of the brake components is loose. Requires immediate attention.

Grinding — A rough grinding noise indicates metal-to-metal contact, which usually means the brake pad has been worn through. Have your brakes checked immediately.

Today’s automobiles are mechanical marvels that emit all sorts of pleasant sounds (the whir of a finely tuned engine or the rumble of a sports car’s exhaust) and, occasionally, the not-too-pleasant (the ones we’ve catalogued here are the most common but by no means the only troublesome noises you might encounter). By identifying where and what the sounds are, you can have an honest conversation with your technician or mechanic and potentially keep a small problem from turning bigger and more expensive.

21 thoughts on “Are You Listening to Your Car? Sixteen Noises You need to be Concerned About—And Two You Don’t!

    • Car makes a popping noise like a plastic bottle being cracked. Does this intermittently. Sometimes when just starting the car and sometimes as it is running. Sounds like it is coming from center console. Other times it makes no noise at all – very sporadic.

  1. There is a clicking noise when warmed up…intermittently, however when I shut it off…loud clicks intermittently and gurgling from around the water pump area. Could it be the thermostat is installed incorrectly? Help

  2. I think it was a good thing that I stumbled across this article. I’m usually at a loss when my car starts making random noises. At least now I may have an idea of what kind of repairs might be needed for my car.

  3. Hi all..My 4 year old commodore has had many problems. One that really annoys me is when I put the windscreen wipers on and hear a constant knocking noise when the wipers reach the far right.It never done this until the first service . Dealership told me to get new wipers but the noise still continues. CAN ANYONE PLEASE give me any suggestions as to what it could be.

  4. trying to pin down rattling sound that comes on mainly in 4th gear(around 60kmh mark) of 20 y.o.manual ford courier(goes away when put into 5th and minimally heard in 3rd gear).one mechanic told me it is diff. whine….but i feel that this is a different noise.as if something is loose somewhere from previous experience.
    although you did say that it maybe an issue with catalytic converter…regards rattling sound on your list.
    other than that the car running both on unleaded and lpg and having done neally 350,000 km is still going quite well.
    regards tony smith

  5. Hi i made a long journey from Northern Ireland through England and down to Lyon in France and in the last 20 kilometres a loud scary scraping sound started at the back of my camper van. It isn’t heard until at 30mph. Not sure if related but indicators stopped working temporarily too. Please help

  6. I’ve been hearing a few noises coming from under my hood that have been worrying me. I thought it was really unusual when I started hearing a bubbling noise that seems to be coming from my engine. Since it could be trapped air inside of my antifreeze or coolant, I should have this checked out by a mechanic to know how I can prevent this from happening.

  7. I just bought my first car, so it is good to know what kind of noises I need to watch out for and what they could mean. I am noticing that a lot of the questionable noises could mean that something is wrong with the exhaust system. I think it would be beneficial to take my car to a company that specializes in exhaust systems to make sure it is ready to go. Thanks for sharing these insights!

  8. I have a 2013 Toyota Corolla that makes a ticking sound when I am accelerating I cannot hear the tick when the car is idling or when I let off the gas. Just wondering what this tick may be and if I should be worried about it ?

    • My 2013 Nissan Altima does the same thing. My car runs perfectly fine. It’s been doing it for over a year. It gets on my nerves for sure.

  9. hello, i am experiencing a high pitched squeal from under the hood as soon as i turn the car on, but oddly the noise stops when i accelerate and can maintain speed at about 40 mph or more. as soon as i it i take my foot off the gas or it drops under 40 the noise starts up again. when i turn the car off the noise doesn’t stop right away, for a few seconds it sounds kind of like when letting the last of the air out of a balloon. what could this possibly mean??? any advice would be much appreciated.

    • I hope you figured it out, but I thought I’d reply anyway. It’s probably a loose belt, maybe the serpentine belt.

      My 89 Mazda B2200 pickup did this after an engine/belt replacement and I believe the mechanics tightened a belt to get it to stop.
      It could be your ac belt or alternator possibly too.

      Good luck!

  10. hello, expert:
    my car is 2001 Cadilac STS, its growling noise is only when first time starting the car on morning, especially a cold morning. and the growling noise is very very clear when I sitting on the driver seat and it sounds like it just from behind the display panel. After starting car, the growling noise is lesser and lesser, and almost gone in about 1 or 3 minute depending on the temperature.

    what do you think it is from?

    Thank you very much!

  11. and it may be difficult for me to hear the growling noise from outside the car, I tried to, but only can hear it inside the car.

  12. my Toyota corolla makes a noise while in drive as if its a worn cv joint but ive tried to run it in gear while each of the wheels is jagged up and the noise still comes on.opened the diff n n only found some play on the sun gears of around 0.5mm.could this be the cause or a failing bearing on the layshaft?

  13. My 98 Ford Taurus just started making a noise like wind blowing through a hole. Not high pitched. When I put on the brakes it stops. And every once in a while the O/D brake light comes on. Don’t even know what that is. What would cause this? TIA

  14. Hi my car seems to be making a noise like something is under the car on the left hand side,it souds like something in glove box or pockets in car door moving about just had its mot any idea what it is please

  15. just noticed as i started my 99 Pontiac grand am this am., that it sounds like it has bbs racing around the top end of my engine. Not a super cold morn.? Thank U for Ur help

  16. My car is 16 years old, 220,000 miles. 2001 Ford Focus, Whenever I brake, I hear a knocking sound. My check engine light has been on forever, never had any issues. Now when the knocking occurs, my check oil light comes on but I’m two quarts over in oil currently. I need an idea of what could be going on. I had it checked out once and the guy said I need an engine replacement. Anything else it could be before I’m car less?

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