EVERONE loves a good road trip. You’re cruising along the open road, singing along with Tom Petty, free as a monkey escaped from the zoo-- life is great until you glance down at your cluster and notice your temperature gauge. You knew in theory that little needle could move, but this is the first time you’ve SEEN it happen. . . and it’s climbing. Panic-stricken, you pull over. The potential of being stranded is making your free monkey feel like a lame bunny in a forest full of wolves. What’s wrong with my car?
The first step is to understand your cooling system. Cars are either liquid-cooled or air-cooled. Air-cooled is less common and generally older. You’re more than likely dealing with liquid-cooled. In a liquid-cooled system, a water pump circulates coolant through a thermostat that regulates the temperature of the coolant using a radiator to cool the coolant and hoses to carry coolant through the engine and heater core. Are you getting that coolant is a big deal? This is your first step. Pop the hood and look at your coolant reservoir. If it’s empty, fill it and check for leaks. DO NOT try to fill it while it’s hot and sure as heck don’t open the radiator cap when it’s hot. Still have coolant in there? What about fan? You need the engine running to check this. You don’t need to be a master tech; stick your hand in the open space and you should feel air moving.
Be careful when checking, this is a running engine after all. The fan is necessary for temperature in town, but on the highway, not as much. Imagine the wind whipping through your hair—it does the same in the engine and cools it some by default. If it’s not so breezy under the hood, the fan itself or may be bad, the radiator switch may not be telling the fan to switch on or the fan belt could be broken (keep in mind, newer cars may not have a fan belt). Fan’s okay? And you’re sure there’s no puddle of coolant under the car? Okay, keep going. You could have a clogged radiator or your thermostat could be stuck. A clog means coolant can’t move through the engine, hence it can’t cool the system. A sticking thermostat allows coolant to move through the engine without being cooled, which doesn’t do you any good blazing down the highway at 70 mph. You may need some help to identify the offending component at this point and it’s not going to fix itself at the roadside, so now it’s time to move. Be nice as you go, your car is not feeling well. Turn off your air conditioner and crank up your heat. This will be less than amusing on your summer road trip through the New Mexico desert, but remember your cabin heater hijacks heat from the engine and will take some pressure off your car while you move toward help. Make doubly sure you have coolant in the reservoir and try to keep moving, avoiding stop and go traffic. Use your head here. Watch your temperature gauge and pay attention to how your car feels. Obviously, steam or smoke is a sign that you need to get off the road and probably out of and away from the car. If you’re not able to drive and keep the temperature down, get off the road and call a tow. Nobody likes an $80 tow but it’s much more palatable than a cracked engine block, a blown head gasket, warped cylinders—you get the idea.