Car Broken: Diagnose!

1997 Nissan Altima, manual transmission. Drove it this morning without incident, tried to start it again just now, met with silence.

No clicking, no sound, no response at all when I turn the key. While sitting in the car I instinctively hit the switch to lock the doors and got nothing but faint buzz (locks did not toggle). My non-automotive mind says it’s something electrical and not specific to the starter, but I honestly have no idea.

History and trivia! The car’s always been a bit flakey with electrical stuff. Every six months or so, when it rains, the interior dashboard lights will stop working for a week or so, then they’ll be fine again. The tachometer needle lies flat most of the time, then it bounces back and forth spastically for a few minutes, then it lies flat again (no correlation to engine behavior).

Sometimes when I decelerate, there’s a danger of stalling, and it seems tied to the steering in some way. When I can feel it shuddering before it stalls, I can also feel it starting to faintly tug at the wheel. Assuming I’m not slowing for a turn, if I hold the wheel just right, I’m fine. If I’m in a turn, it’ll probably stall, but I’ve gotten pretty good at just reaching for the key as it stalls and cranking it back up mid-turn without missing a beat. In my head, I invent connections between this and my electrical problems, like maybe as I’m decelerating the engine’s not generating enough power for the power steering or something, but those could be totally separate things. To be clear, I’ve had zero trouble actually starting the car recently, until just now.

The car doesn’t have a lot going for it except that it’s lasted far longer than it has a right to, and as long as I can keep it running cheap, it’s saving me money. Anybody got any guesses they want to throw out before I call a tow truck?

Have you tried jumping it?

Nope. I just poked at some fuses, and got a click once or twice when I turned the key, but nothing else.

Did you jiggle the battery connection wires?

Poking and prodding at wires has gotten me a few brief start-up sounds; clicking, the door-open ding, but haven’t gotten anything out of the starter yet.

Apologies for just throwing this up here before I’d even tried basic stuff like jumping it, but I’m not a car guy by any stretch of the imagination so I appreciate even the stupidest and most obvious of suggestions. As I poke at things, is there anything I shouldn’t try? I mean, I probably shouldn’t lick the battery contacts, but is there anything that might seem like a good idea that I’d be stupid for trying? Any wires that might look like “I’ll just reconnect this in a second” that I shouldn’t be touching in the first place, or anything like that?

lol, buy a new battery.

Your problem is almost certainly electrical, especially if you’re experiencing issues after rain. That means something is getting wet that is not supposed to be and it’s now totally shorted out. Any leaks appearing in the car after rain?

When was the last time you replaced the battery? My SO’s car has the same problem right now, and I asked him when the last time he replaced his battery … he doesn’t remember. It’s a '99 Acura in his case, so the battery could be 11 years old.

My own car (a '91 Honda) has gone through a couple of batteries lately, so I’m kinda familiar with the symptoms. If the doors aren’t working either then it is likely to be at the point where it’s totally drained.

As I scrape gunk off the battery contacts I’m reminded of the warning from the last time I had any work done that I should probably get them replaced…

Just guessing from memory, but I’d say the battery’s probably three-four years old.

Sounds like a problem with the flux capacitor.

Nope, I just fixed that next week.


P.S. Honest…try jumping it.

You can also buy inexpensive battery chargers you plug into your garage outlets, if you don’t mind waiting.

PS, it sounds like the battery is dead. This should be an easy and inexpensive repair. If my car has any trouble starting at all i’ll run by an automotive store and let them hook up their electrical testing equipment to the alternator to see if the battery or the charging system has gone bad. Car batteries are more flaky than you might guess and sometimes have difficulty providing a steady amount of the right power when they get older, despite still being able to charge and be discharged.

Yup, jumping it got it going. Letting it run for a while now, I’ll drive it a bit tonight, I think I’ve got a backup plan for transportation to work tomorrow if it’s dead again in the morning, and I’ll try to get it looked at tomorrow afternoon to see about getting the contacts/battery/whatever replaced.

Thanks for the tips!

Why wait? If you try it right away you’ll know if the battery is shot or not. If it requires jumping to get it started everytime, it means the battery is probably shot. Replacing a battery is very easy to do; you don’t need “someone to look at it” unless you like spending extra money.

Guess a: your battery has a bad cell. In which case, its not going to start tomorrow.

guess b: if it isn’t the battery, your alternator is bad, and the battery isn’t charging.

If you need to clean the battery poles, mix baking soda into a glass of water, pour over the connections, and apply a steel brush (or a toothbrush if you don’t have a steel brush). Clean thoroughly. Baking soda is like aspirin, its a miracle cure. If you don’t have any, try Coca-Cola. I’m not kidding, btw.

To test the alternator, take it to a shop and say “please test the alternator”.

Or just use a digital multi meter. I’m a car dunce and I can test an alternator when the car is running.

However, given the symptoms described, I’d say its obvious that the car doesn’t have any electrical power handy. I’d get it jumped or towed and taken to the friendly neighborhood mechanic promptly. They’ll be able to tell real quick whether it’s a battery or alternator that is needed and install whichever is needed. Both are quite cheap in terms of car maintenance.

Thanks again for the help. It did not start a second time after being jumped, so I picked up a new battery. Started up fine with that. I’ve had alternators die before, and this didn’t feel like that (car dying even while engine’s running), so hopefully I’m good to go. I should probably get some general tune-up stuff done though, so I’ll take it somewhere tomorrow and have them double check things.

I tend to assume the worst with cars. Actually, I tend to invent scenarios worse than what would actually be reasonable to even assume. So some part of me is still expecting that for some reason, this won’t start in the morning. I guess we’ll see!

If the battery is as dead as you say it is, even if its new, its likely hooched. Letting car batteries get that low damages them. They can also last a surprisingly long time too though, my battery is approaching a decade and I got it tested last month and it`s doing just as good as a new battery.

In a little late, but 3 things would have immediately come to mind, and in this order: 1) Bad battery. 2) Alternator is not charging the battery. 3) Solenoid is toast.