How hot does a car engine get? Your dashboard markings may only show hot, cold and middle ratings, not enough to tell you how hot it can truly get. For most cars, the normal operating engine temperature will range from 190 to 225 degrees.
A car engine is the most expensive “system” underneath the hood. If it’s not well cared for, pushing it for even a few seconds can do catastrophic damage.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence. As you’re driving down the highway, you’ll notice a car pulled over on the side of the road. Smoke billowing out from underneath the hood.
It’s not fire. It’s vapor coming from an overheated cooling system. It’s a sign of a leak somewhere within the cooling system. If pushed too far, it results in an overheated engine that leads to an expensive repair.
Why does an engine overheat?
When people say the engine is overheating, it’s not a problem with the engine itself as much as it is an issue with the cooling system.
When the cooling system isn’t operating well, it stalls heat somewhere inside the engine compartment. It’s often due to a leak or blockage in the cooling system or other engine components.
You’ll find this occurs more frequently on the hottest days of the year. But it can be from a variety of issues:
- A leak, block, or shortage of coolant
- A failing thermostat
- A failing water pump
- Leaks within gaskets or hoses
- A failed radiator fan
It’s the coolant’s job to ensure a proper temperature in the engine compartment. As an engine runs, it creates a series of explosions inside the cylinders as it moves down the street. These bursts of energy create a lot of heat. To deal with this heat, coolant circulates to transfer this heat through the engine to the radiator and back again, releasing heat outside of the vehicle. It’s an endless loop to regulate the operation of the vehicle.
Overheating starts when one of the coolant passages becomes blocked or starts to leak. It’s most likely to occur in the cooling system itself. There might be a leak in the hose that transfers coolant to the engine, or back from the radiator. They have a useful lifespan, and will deteriorate over time.
When this occurs, heat builds and problems begin. The sooner you catch the problem, the easier it will be to fix.
What are the signs of an engine overheating?
Like all other systems inside your vehicle, problems rarely surface without warning. Paying attention to the warning signs will allow you to fix the issue before it has a chance to escalate. Of few of the more common signs of an engine overheating include:
- The engine temperature gauge on your dashboard starts to creep out of the middle zone and up toward H, or the red zone of the gauge.
- Steam coming out from underneath the hood. It may resemble smoke, but it’s vapor coming from an overheating cooling system.
- Strange smells coming from the front of the vehicle. The easiest way to tell the difference between leaking coolant and motor oil is by the odor. Coolant takes on a sweet smell, while motor oil will produce a burnt odor.
Preventative measures to ensure the engine stays cool
Your best line of defense is to ensure you never have a problem with your cooling system or engine block at all. Preventative measures are key to a well-operating car. To keep the engine compartment cool:
Keep a visual checklist in place and run through it regularly as you drive. This includes watching the temperature gauge to ensure it stays in the middle range and taking steps to protect your engine if it starts to climb.
Bring your vehicle in for regular inspections to ensure every system operates efficiently. If you do notice changes in the way your vehicle performs, it’s another sign to bring it in for an inspection to keep your repair bills to a minimum.
If you notice the temperature gauge climbing, turn your heat and fan on high. This helps pull heat away from the engine block and gives it another way to dissipate. Make sure the air conditioner is off, as this will reduce engine strain. This is also a time to pull safely off the road and put the car in park. Avoid braking, as this keeps heat away from the internal part of your car.
You should also create an emergency kit that you carry with you, and ensure extra coolant is in it. This gives you a chance to fill up the reservoir if an accident or issue occurs.
What to do if your car overheats
Even when you do everything right, you might find yourself in a situation where your car is overheating. What should you do? First, realize that the farther you drive it, the more your engine will be damaged. Even a short distance can be catastrophic for the engine. Then, it’s important to take immediate action.
Turn off the air conditioning if it’s on.
Turn on the heater and set the fan to high.
The air conditioner is stressing the cooling system, which causes a higher temperature within the cooling system.
The heater acts as its own cooling system, pulling heat off the engine and passing it through to the passenger compartment. It’s an easy way to help the engine retain a closer to normal temperature.
With these two actions in place, it’s time to find a safe place to pull off the side of the road. Put the car in park and allow the system to cool down. Do not open the hood – this has the power to burn your skin. Wait until the car has returned to cool.
If you’re comfortable with looking at the cooling system, you can determine if it’s low on coolant, fill it up, and restart the car to see if this is the issue. This is a warning sign – even if you can drive your vehicle, your next stop should be with your mechanic. It’s a sign of a bigger problem, and fast action can help you keep your repair bills lower than if you continue driving.
If you aren’t comfortable with inspecting the system yourself, it’s time to call in a tow truck.
We can help you decide what the best action step is to repair your vehicle and bring it back to good working condition.