Even under normal operating conditions, there’s plenty of heat in your car’s powertrain. Occasionally, temperatures get too great and your car overheats. When it happens, what you do can mean the difference between a slight delay and major repairs.
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Stop. Pull over and shut off the engine as soon as safely possible. Even if you’ve been stuck in traffic and feel certain the temperature will level off if you can just keep driving, don’t. You may be absolutely right, but you’re taking a huge risk by taxing an overheated engine further. Engine problems have a funny way of showing up unannounced and without clear indication. Most cars’ cooling fans will continue to run with the ignition off, so be prepared for yours to cycle on and off a while. Consider running the heater a bit to further relieve the engine.
Before you forget, make a mental note of any smoke the car made under the hood or trailing behind you, as well as the color and particular smell. It will be helpful to remember and describe this when talking to a technician about the problem.
Look. Once you’ve pulled over, get out of your car if it’s safe to do so and pop the hood. An open hood will also make you more visible to passing cars while allowing heat to dissipate faster. Proceed with caution, since the overheated engine may have let out steam or hot fluids, plus the cooling fan can spin at any time.
Look around the engine compartment for any signs of antifreeze or oil. Allow time to pass before checking fluid levels. Even if your car has a radiator cap, this isn’t the time to loosen it for a peek inside. Refer instead to the expansion tank.
Listen. After giving your car a timeout, turn the ignition to its first position. Without starting the engine, note the temperature gauge. If it’s back within the “normal” range and engine fluid levels are acceptable, you can try starting the engine. No need to force it at this point. If it does start easily, listen for any unusual sounds or rough idling. If it behaves the least bit unusual, shut it down and call for a tow. Again, it’s not worth the risk of causing further damage.
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Repair. If your car overheats, it could be an isolated incident when any mix of weather, load, terrain or traffic conditions overcame the drivetrain. Most likely it’s a cry for help that something’s amiss and needs repair. Communicating how it happened and what you observed will help your technician diagnose problems and better address them.
Monitor. What you should do once repairs are done is monitor your car closely for signs of an overheat repeat. Overheating is less of a surprise when you’re towing a camper in bumper-to-bumper mountain traffic on a July afternoon than moving freely on flat stretches in cool weather. Either way, watch for it and be prepared.