There are roughly 6500 languages spoken in the world today, but none of them can adequately translate your car's language. Your car is always talking. Most of the time it will tell you all about how good it's feeling. Unfortunately, eventually it's going to complain, and it will be up to you and a qualified technician to decipher what it's trying to say.
Fortunately, we know enough to have compiled a few key phrases in your car's language. It won't prepare you for a European excursion, but these translations might help you out during your daily commute.
Variable Speed Slapping
A dying tire has a very distinctive sound. Slapping that changes tempo with your car's velocity is an indicator of your tire breaking apart and impacting your car like a rubber and steel weed whacker. Stop driving immediately if you hear this, or you may cause significant body damage to your vehicle (or worse, find yourself in a potentially major accident). Now's the time to install that spare tire, if you have one.
Sweet Smells and Colorful Leaks
Ah, the sweet smell of a coolant leak. Ethylene glycol, the primary component in most antifreeze/coolant has a sweet smell and taste (so we're told, please don't taste your coolant). Cracked or ruptured radiator hoses or a dying water pump could be the source. Ignoring this smell could be disastrous for your engine. Green, orange, or yellow puddles under your vehicle means you need to pay attention! If your temperature gauge reads hot, and you see steam from under the hood, it's time to park and shut off the engine immediately.
Puddles Without Rain
Speaking of puddles, liquids under your car can tell you a lot about what may be happening. Water puddles are common and normal, especially in hot and humid months, originating from A/C compressors dripping condensation. Take note of the color and location of fluids under your parked car. Feel the consistency, and smell it if necessary. If it's not water, there might a problem that needs to be solved. Many of your engine's fluids can be measured with dipsticks located in your engine bay, checking your fluid levels regularly can alert you to issues before they become serious. If you're just not sure, a qualified technician can help you find the problem.
Cheese and Whining
Squeals or whines typically come in two flavors: speeding up or slowing down. A squeal that changes when you press on the accelerator indicates that your serpentine belt's life is near its end. A broken belt could leave your vehicle dead where it stops and could cause other issues. Heed the whine, replace the belt! On the other hand, squealing when the brakes are applied indicates brake pads that need replacement. If this noise changes (usually to a grinding sound) or disappears, you may be doing damage to your brake system.
Grating and Grinding
In a front-wheel-drive car, a grinding, clicking, or rumbling noise during tight turns is likely a failing constant-velocity joint. The CV joint allows the front wheels to both receive power and turn. If this continues, you may wind up with a one-wheel-drive car at best, or a no-wheel-drive brick at worst. There are other reasons you may hear grinding from the engine or wheels, and it's never normal. A well maintained machine should be as quiet and smooth as possible. Don't ignore these sounds, repair costs could go up exponentially if you do.
Chuffing Like A Train
Dogs are supposed to pant, your car shouldn't. A rhythmic chuffing sound could be an exhaust leak. Pipes can separate or form rust holes, letting gasses escape the exhaust system ahead of the muffler. While it might make your car sound a little beefier, exhaust seeping its way inside your car while you're sitting in it isn't a good thing.
Crunching the Gears
If you use a manual transmission, you know it's a wholly different driving experience. You also know that crunching noises when shifting is not a good thing, but you may not fully understand why. Syncros can wear out over time and smooth shifting can gradually change into a frustrating chore. If you're having to deliberately pay attention to the way you shift, it's a good bet that your synchros are giving up the ghost.
Spinning in Place
Higher RPM when climbing a hill is normal for a car with a continuously variable transmission, but it translates to serious transmission problems on a vehicle without a CVT. If your manual-transmission car revs too much on a hill, it's telling you that the clutch has very little friction material left. It's time to replace that clutch as soon as possible. Automatic transmissions can experience the same symptom with a similar root cause, but the fix is likely a costly transmission rebuild.
Tracking Like a Hunting Dog
Weaving when your car should be driving straight could point to a number of concerns, but you shouldn't go out and start replacing parts just yet. While it could be ball joints or a worn out steering box, an alignment should be the first thing you do. Many people skip alignments, and if you can't remember the last time you had your alignment serviced, it's probably time to do it. When your tires are perfectly parallel, they won't be fighting each other for grip on the road. As an added bonus, proper alignment will help you get the best mileage out of your tires and reduces wear and tear on suspension and steering components.
The Mobile Bounce House
While you may think that cushy shocks and struts are the key to a smooth ride, they actually need to be quite stiff to dampen vibrations and bumps in the road. Eventually, springs can lose their stiffness and hydraulics can begin to leak. If it's relatively easy to push down on each corner of your vehicle, or if it's bouncy or springy, it's probably time to replace these parts.
Do I Need a Mechanic or an Exterminator?
Is that a hamster wheel or the HVAC system making that noise? Unless your career involves both cars and various members of the Rodentia family, your blower fan could be wearing out. These fans are mounted underneath the passenger side of your dashboard. If your vents aren't windy anymore, you should get the fan checked out. In the meantime, a light kick to the blower motor could get it spinning for the duration of the drive to your local shop (but please don't kick the hamster, that's just rude).