When you come in to service your vehicle, many of the terms we use are common knowledge.
Most drivers understand tires keep you safe on the road – you can see them and notice a nail in the sidewall.
You also understand motor oil keeps the engine running. Without it, your car would come to a halt.
Where things get a bit fuzzier is with words like “powertrain.” What is a powertrain? What does it do? And how do you know if something is wrong?
If your car is experiencing common powertrain problems and you catch it early, you’ll keep repair bills to a minimum. If you let it go …
If you’ve ever experienced a strange noise or feeling while driving your car, chances are it’s related to your car’s powertrain. Here’s what you need to know.
What is a powertrain?
Before diving into common powertrain problems, let’s define what a powertrain is.
The powertrain is the mechanism that produces power and delivers it to the wheels. The powertrain is composed of:
- the engine
- the transmission
- the driveshaft
- the axles
- the differential
The engine is where the power is generated. The transmission changes the gear ratio between the engine and the wheels, allowing the car to move at different speeds. The driveshaft is a long tube that connects the transmission and the axle. The axles connect the driveshaft to the wheels and help supply power to them. And finally, the differential sends power from the driveshaft to the axles and ensures that the wheels can turn at different speeds.
Without a powertrain, your car wouldn’t be able to move forward.
The five powertrain components and what they do
Even glancing at the five components gives you a pretty good idea of how important they are to the overall operation of your vehicle. But let’s dive deeper into their function.
- Engine – The engine is the heart of the powertrain. It converts fuel into mechanical energy, which drives the vehicle. It consists of various parts, such as the pistons, cylinders, crankshaft, and valves, that work harmoniously to generate power.
- Transmission – The transmission is responsible for controlling the power and torque generated by the engine and transferring it to the wheels. It allows the driver to change gears and adapt to different driving conditions. Without a transmission, you couldn’t adjust a car’s performance based on needs and driving conditions.
- Driveshaft – The driveshaft transfers power from the transmission to the axles. It connects the transmission output shaft to the differential input shaft. It adjusts its length based on the movement of the vehicle’s suspension.
- Axles – Axles connect the driveshaft to the wheels. They transmit the rotational force from the driveshaft to the wheels, allowing them to rotate and propel the vehicle forward.
- Differential – The differential is a part of the rear axle. It enables the wheels to rotate at different speeds while the vehicle turns. It splits the power from the driveshaft and sends it to the wheels with the most traction, ensuring smooth cornering.
These components come together to allow your car to move and accelerate. If the powertrain is in good working condition, you won’t have issues on your drive. You’ll have smoother acceleration, better operations, and experience better driving conditions no matter what is happening around you.
In short, you’ll have peace of mind.
Common powertrain problems
Even the best cared for vehicle will wear down over time. In many cases, it’s the powertrain where drivers experience common problems.
Powertrain issues can range from simple, easy-to-fix problems to significant, expensive repairs. Here are some typical powertrain problems that car owners may encounter:
- Misfiring – When the engine cylinders do not fire correctly, it leads to a rough running engine or loss of power. Possible causes include spark plug issues, fuel delivery problems, or faulty ignition coils.
- Overheating – Coolant leaks, a malfunctioning thermostat, or a failing radiator can cause engine overheating. It is essential to address this issue promptly to avoid severe engine damage.
- Lack of Power – A decrease in engine power may be due to clogged fuel injectors, a faulty oxygen sensor, or a worn-out catalytic converter.
- Slipping Gears – If the transmission slips out of gear or changes gears unexpectedly while driving, it could indicate a worn clutch, low transmission fluid, or a faulty solenoid.
- Gear Shifting Issues – Difficulties in shifting gears, such as grinding or resistance, may be caused by worn-out synchronizers, a clutch problem, or a malfunctioning linkage.
- Leaking Transmission Fluid – Leaks can occur due to damaged seals or gaskets. If you notice reddish fluid pooling under your vehicle, it is crucial to address the issue promptly to prevent further damage.
- Vibrations – Excessive vibrations while driving could indicate a problem with the driveshaft, such as worn-out universal joints or an imbalanced driveshaft.
- Clunking Noise – When shifting from drive to reverse or during acceleration, a clunking sound may suggest a worn-out driveshaft component or a loose connection.
- CV Joint Issues – CV joint problems often manifest as clicking or popping sounds when turning. CV joint failure can lead to a loss of power transmission to the wheels.
- Axle Seal Leaks – Leaking axle seals can cause the axle to lose lubrication, leading to premature wear and potential damage to other components.
- Whining Noise – A whining noise during acceleration or deceleration may indicate worn-out differential gears or improper gear meshing.
- Fluid Leaks – Leaking differential fluid can cause gear wear and lead to costly repairs. It is important to inspect and address any leaks promptly.
Powertrain warning signals
The good news is a car rarely breaks down without sending you a few warning signals first. If you know what to watch for, you can catch damage early and repair it before it escalates. Watch for:
Check engine light – This sensitive dashboard icon pops on for a variety of reasons. It includes things like an oxygen sensor error or issues with the ignition coils. Always take the check engine light seriously, and have it inspected by a professional to determine what’s wrong.
Grinding noise – A grinding noise from the powertrain can indicate various issues. It could be a sign of worn-out gears in the transmission or differential, which may require repairs or fluid replacement.
Whining noise – A high-pitched whining noise may indicate problems with the transmission or differential. It could suggest worn-out bearings, low fluid levels, or improper gear meshing.
No engagement – If the powertrain fails to engage when shifting gears or starting the vehicle, it could be a sign of a clutch problem in manual transmissions or a malfunctioning torque converter in automatic transmissions. A professional inspection is recommended to diagnose and resolve the issue.
Burning smell – A burning smell from the powertrain can cause concern. It may indicate overheating of the engine, transmission, or other components. Common causes include leaking fluids, worn-out clutches, or overheating due to a malfunctioning cooling system. It is crucial to address this issue promptly to avoid severe damage or potential safety hazards.
Gears slipping – If you experience a sudden loss of power or feel the transmission slipping out of gear while driving, it may indicate a problem with the transmission. Common causes include low transmission fluid levels, worn-out clutch plates, or a faulty solenoid. Prompt attention should be given to prevent further damage and ensure safe driving.
Leaking transmission fluid – Transmission fluid leaks can occur due to damaged seals, gaskets, or faulty transmission lines. It is important to address any fluid leaks promptly to prevent damage to the transmission and ensure proper operation.
Take care of your vehicle’s powertrain
Your car’s powertrain is a complex system that can encounter problems from time to time. Knowing how the powertrain works and how to troubleshoot any issues you may face can help you keep your car running correctly.
Have questions? That’s the perfect time to schedule an inspection. By consulting with a mechanic early, you can avoid further damage and ensure your vehicle is safe and reliable to drive.