There’s nothing worse than being late to work due to your car failing to start. Unfortunately, a no crank no start event is one of the most common issues across all makes and manufacturers, and most car owners have experienced it at least once in their life. To complicate things even further, several potential causes can prevent your car from starting, making it challenging to diagnose if you don’t know what to look out for.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to diagnose a no crank no start event and narrow down the potential causes so that you can find the source of the issue.
If you would rather watch than read, we’ve also made a dedicated video covering the most common no crank no start causes that you can watch below. Additionally, check out our other diagnosis guides including our Rough Idle Causes and Solutions Guide and our numerous engine fault code guides.
How a Car Starts Overview
Before we dive into the potential causes of a no crank no start event, it is important to understand the starting procedure of a car to get a better idea of why your car might be having issues turning over.
A few things have to happen between the time that you turn your key and when the engine starts. When you put your key into the ignition and turn it to the “ignition on” position, a high electrical current travels from the vehicle’s battery to the starter switch. When the ignition is turned on, the starter switch allows current to continue on to the starter solenoid.
At that point, an electrical charge has built up in the solenoid where it is primed to be used by the starter itself. When you turn the key to the third start position, the current is then released to the starter motor that is connected to the engine’s flywheel. As the starter motor spins, it also rotates the flywheel which rotates the crankshaft and allows the pistons to begin to move. The vacuum created by the moving cylinders allows air to enter the combustion chamber through the intake valves.
Once there is air in the engine, the fuel system begins injecting gasoline into the combustion chamber which is ignited by the spark plugs at the right time interval dictated by the engine management system. Once the vehicle starts, the starter switch flips to the off position, preventing any current from reaching the starter motor.
While that sounds like a pretty complex procedure, there are truly only a handful of areas where the ignition system can fail. The primary areas where the process can fail include the battery, starter switch, starter motor/solenoid, fueling, and spark.
Determining the Cause of a No Crank No Start
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the starting procedure, let’s talk about potential no crank no start causes and try to narrow them down based on the specifics of your situation. Ultimately, there are six main points of failure that can prevent your car from starting. Those include the following:
- Starter Switch
- Starter Motor/Solenoid
- Fuel System
- Various Sensors/Fuses
While six potential causes are a pretty good start, it is possible to narrow them down even further based on other factors.
No Crank No Start Causes
If your car isn’t cranking when you turn the key to the start position, it narrows down the potential causes by a significant degree. The term “cranking” simply means that the starter motor is getting sufficient power and is successfully turning the crankshaft in an effort to start the engine. You can hear when the starter spins the flywheel and crankshaft in the form of a rapid clunking or churning noise. We’ll put a sound clip below if you are unfamiliar with what that sounds like.
If you can’t hear that sound or if you only hear a faint clicking, that means that your car isn’t cranking. In that case, the problem is likely to do with the starter motor not receiving enough, or any, power. That narrows down the likely culprits to the battery, starter motor/solenoid, or the ignition switch.
Weak or Dead Battery
The most common cause of a no crank no start situation is a dead or weak car battery. In order for a car’s starter motor to effectively turn the flywheel, it needs quite a bit of voltage. As a result, if the battery is dead or weak, it is unable to supply sufficient voltage to the ignition system. This usually happens if the vehicle has been sitting for an extended period of time without being run if it hasn’t been plugged into a trickle charger.
In addition to the battery itself being dead or weak, rusty and corroded battery terminals and battery wires can also cause a no crank no start issue. Built-up corrosion on the terminals can prevent the battery wires from effectively sending current from the battery to the other components in the ignition system. Additionally, battery wires have a tendency to become loose from the terminals on some occasions, especially if the battery isn’t properly secured. Since the battery wires are easily accessible and easy to check, they are a good place to start if your car is failing to crank.
If the car has been sitting for a while without being plugged into a battery charger, chances are that the battery will have lost its ability to retain a charge. In that case, you will need to replace the battery instead of charging it.
Symptoms of a Dead Car Battery
Other than the car failing to start, there are a number of other symptoms that a dead battery is likely the cause of your car failing to crank or start. Here are the most common symptoms:
- Loud clicking noise when turning the key to the start position
- No interior lights/door chime
- No radio
- Weak or no headlights
Outside of a lack of power to all of the interior electronics, a loud and rapid clicking noise coming from under the hood is another pretty reliable sign that your vehicle’s battery is the culprit. The clicking noise is the starter motor signaling that it is not receiving ample power which almost always indicates that the battery is bad.
Outside of those symptoms, it is also possible to check the battery’s charge with a multimeter. That can be done by setting the multimeter to 15-20 volts, hooking the leads up to the positive and negative terminals of the battery, and reading the voltage. While optimal battery voltage varies a bit between different cars and manufacturers, the voltage should read around 12.6 volts.
Weak or Dead Battery Solutions
If you determine that the battery is the culprit preventing the car from starting, there are a couple of options to resolve the issue. If you need to move the vehicle immediately, you can, with the help of a friend or willing stranger with a running car, jump-start the car with jumper cables. While this will likely work to get the vehicle running for a period of time, if the battery has lost its ability to hold a charge, it will likely die again once you turn off the engine.
If you do attempt to jumpstart the vehicle, it is important to follow the jump-start procedure properly. That procedure is as follows:
- Pull the live vehicle close enough to the battery of the dead vehicle for the jumper cables to reach the battery.
- Turn off the live vehicle
- Attach one side of the red jumper lead to the positive (red cap) battery terminal of the dead vehicle
- Clamp the other side of the red (positive) lead to the positive battery terminal of the live vehicle
- Clamp the black (negative) lead to the negative terminal of the live vehicle
- Ground the dead vehicle by attaching the other negative lead to a metal surface of the vehicle including the strut tower, or any other unpainted metal area. This will ground the electrical flow and prevent sparking from the battery. Alternatively, you can attach the other negative lead to the negative terminal of the dead battery but be careful of sparks.
Jumping the battery is a good way to get the vehicle going for a short period, but you will likely need to replace the battery in the long run anyway. For that reason, if you don’t need to move the vehicle immediately, replacing the battery might offer a better overall option.
Moving on from battery-related issues, an issue with the starter motor itself is another common cause of a no crank no start event. As we previously covered, the starter assembly usually comprises a couple of important components, including the starter motor itself and the starter solenoid.
Most modern vehicles integrate the starter motor and starter solenoid together in one overarching housing. The starter solenoid receives an electrical current from the battery and then releases it to the starter motor in order to crank the engine. If either the solenoid or the starter motor itself fails, the car will fail to crank and start.
Unfortunately, since the starter motor and starter solenoid are often integrated into the same housing, you’ll have to replace the entire starter assembly if you discover that either component is faulty.
Symptoms of a Bad Starter Motor or Solenoid
There are a few ways to diagnose if your vehicle has a bad starter motor or solenoid. Some of the most common symptoms include the following:
- All interior lights turn on but the vehicle will not start
- Clicking noise when the key is turned to the on position
- No noise from the starter at all when the key is turned
- Grinding noises
If all of the interior lights and electronics are functioning properly, you can rule out the battery as the source of the issue. That is definitely the case if all of the electronics are working and you hear a clicking sound coming from the engine bay when you turn the key. In that case, it is almost certainly an issue with either the starter or starter solenoid. You can say the same if all of the electronics are functioning, and there is no noise coming from the starter motor.
Grinding noises are also common with starter solenoid failure. The noise is caused by the solenoid failing to pull the shift lever back properly to engage the pinion gear with the flywheel. That causes the gears to grind against each other.
Testing for a Bad Starter Solenoid
In addition to looking for the symptoms mentioned above, it is possible to test the starter solenoid with a multimeter. That will give you a guaranteed answer as to if the solenoid itself is the problem. To test the solenoid, follow these steps:
- Place the multimeter’s positive lead wire on the output solenoid terminal. From there, place the multimeter’s negative lead wire on the input solenoid terminal
- Turn on the ignition switch while you observe the voltage drop reading. The reading should match the voltage drop on the battery which is typically about 0.5 Volts. If the voltage drop is a match, then your starter problem is likely caused by the car starter and not the solenoid.
If the voltage drop is less than half a volt, then you have a faulty solenoid. If the voltage drops too much, you might have a faulty electrical connection.
The job of the ignition switch is pretty simple yet crucial in a vehicle’s ignition system. Essentially, the ignition switch acts as a circuit breaker between the battery and the starter solenoid which is activated as soon as the vehicle’s ignition is switched on. If the ignition switch is faulty, it can prevent current from reaching the starter motor, causing a no crank no start event. As a result, it is a good place to check if you have already determined that the battery and starter motor aren’t the problem.
Symptoms of a Failing Ignition Switch
Ignition switches tend to fail over time due to wear on contact points or issues with wiring. As a result, it is common for a faulty ignition switch to cause intermittent issues before failing completely. Many of the symptoms of a failing ignition switch are similar to those of a failing starter motor or starter solenoid, as it is responsible for delivering power to those components.
- All interior lights turn on but the vehicle will not start
- No noise from the starter at all when the key is turned
- Stalling when driving
- Electrical issues or inoperative accessories
Testing for a Bad Ignition Switch
As with testing most of the other electrical components in the ignition system, you’ll need a multimeter to test a vehicle’s ignition switch. You can test the switch by putting the key in the run position, setting the multimeter to 20 DC voltage, grounding the black lead on any metal surface close by, and placing the red lead on a connector at the opposite side of the ignition cylinder. If the multimeter displays a reading far from your battery voltage, the switch is bad.
Car is Cranking But Not Starting Causes
Now that we’ve covered the main causes of a no crank no start event, let’s now cover the possible causes of a car not starting if it is cranking. Once again, the term “cranking” means that the starter motor is recieving enough power to be able to turn the flywheel which porduces an audible sound that is pretty easy to distinguish. If you aren’t familiar with what that sounds like, take a look at the sound clip posted above.
If the car is cranking, that eliminates most of the ignition system failures that we covered above. That leaves only a few potential causes for the car not starting. The problem most likely lies in either the fuel system or with the spark plugs and coil packs. We’ll cover those in detail below.
Fuel System Issues
Ultimately, there are a few potential issues with the fuel system that can prevent a car from starting. The most common of which is the fuel pump. Before jumping to conclusions and replacing the fuel pump right away, it is a good idea to first check the fuel pump fuse and relay to make sure that neither of them are faulty. If it is a simple fuse or relay, replacing one of those is far cheaper than replacing the fuel pump in its entirety.
If the fuel pump isn’t receiving power or the pump itself has failed, no fuel will reach the injectors and enter the combustion chamber which will prevent the car from starting. Typically, you’ll notice some intermittent issues before the fuel pump fails altogether including engine sputtering, loss or surges of power, and poor fuel economy.
Additionally, a clogged fuel filter is another common issue that can prevent an adequate amount of fuel from reaching the injectors, especially if the vehicle is old or if the filter hasn’t been replaced in a long time.
The final common source of fueling issues are the injectors. The injectors themselves might be clogged or leaking which would also prevent enough fuel from reaching the combustion chamber.
Fueling Issue Symptoms
As we mentioned previously, fuel system issues won’t usually occur immediately and will instead get progressively worse over time. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but for the most part you’ll notice some performance issues prior to the vehicle failing to start due to fuel system issues. Here are some of the most common signs of a failing fuel system:
- No sound coming from the fuel pump when the ignition is turned on
- Excessive whine from the fuel pump
- Engine stumbling or surging before a no start event
- Poor fuel economy
- Rough idle
Diagnosing the Fuel System
Diagnosing a fuel system issue can be tricky mainly due to the fact that there are a number of components that can lead to a fuel system failure. Start by checking if you can hear the fuel pump running when you turn on the ignition.
With the key in the second position, listen closely to the area in which the fuel pump is located (generally in the rear of the car, in or near the trunk). If the pump is receiving power, it will produce a humming noise that will last a couple of seconds after you turn the key to the second position. The fuel pump might not be receiving power if you can’t hear anything coming from the fuel pump area.
If you turn on the ignition and the fuel pump isn’t activating, check the fuel pump fuse and relay first. If there isn’t an issue with either of those components, you can check to see if adequate current is actually reaching the pump itself with a multimeter. For more information on that process, take a look at this helpful guide.
If you have ruled out the fuel pump as the cause of fuel system issues, the next place to check would be the fuel filter. Fuel filters can collect debris over time, preventing a sufficient amount of fuel from flowing to the rest of the fuel system. One of the easiest ways to test if your fuel filter is clogged is by detaching it from the vehicle (typically located near the driver’s side running board attached to an in-line fuel line) and blowing into it.
You can also pressure test the fuel system by using a pressure tester at the fuel pressure test port.
Outside of fuel system issues, spark issues are also another very common cause of a vehicle cranking but not starting. The two major components that we’ll focus on here are the spark plugs and ignition coils. Spark plugs are a critical component in an engine due to the fact that they ignite the air/fuel mixture inside the combustion chamber, allowing the engine to run. Ignition coils are another key component in the spark equation. Ignition coils convert the low current from a car battery into enough power to ignite the fuel and start the engine via the spark plugs.
If either of these components fails on one or more cylinders, it can prevent the engine from starting. In that case, since there is nothing wrong with the ignition system, the car will crank but not turn over. Spark plugs tend to be the most common source of issues. As spark plugs age or foul over time, they lose their ability to effectively translate spark from the ignition coils to the combustion chamber.
Symptoms of Bad Spark Plugs or Ignition Coils
Like with fuel system issues, it is rare for spark plug or ignition coil issues to prevent a car from starting without any prior symptoms. In most cases, you’ll notice some drivability issues before either the plugs or coils fail entirely. It is also rare for all of the spark components to fail at the same time. It is usually one or two faulty spark plugs or coils that can prevent a car from starting. Some of the most common symptoms of bad spark plugs and ignition coils include the following:
- Rough idle
- Long starts
- Poor fuel economy
- Poor acceleration
Diagnosing Bad Spark Plugs or Ignition Coils
Luckily, the tests to diagnose potentially faulty spark plugs and ignition coils are pretty straightforward. Starting with the spark plugs, the first step is to remove the plugs and inspect them. In the case that a plug looks damaged or has excessive carbon buildup, simply replace it.
If the plugs look similar to how you installed them, the issue likely lies somewhere else. If you want to ensure that your plugs aren’t the issue, most auto parts stores sell or lend spark plug-testing devices. The tester goes in line with the spark plug lead wire and the plug itself and will alert you if the plug is malfunctioning.
There is an easy test for the ignition coils as well. Simply swapping each coil with one that you know if functioning properly is the easiest way to test for a faulty coil. If your vehicle has an OBDII port, you can either purchase or borrow an OBDII scanner from a local parts store and diagnose the problem cylinder/cylinders via the stored misfire or spark-related engine codes. At that point, you can swap the functional coil/coils from the other cylinders to see if the problem persists. If the problem goes away or the vehicle starts after swapping coils, you know that the coils are the issue.
Other Potential No Crank No Start Causes
Outside of the no crank no start causes that we have covered above, there are a number of other potential failures that can create a no crank no start event. Most of them revolve around various sensors and electrical connections. The following list is a good place to start if you have already diagnosed all of the components in your ignition, fuel, and spark systems and couldn’t find an issue with any of them. Of course, there are many other potential causes of a no crank no start event that aren’t listed below, but these are the main ones.
- Faulty crankshaft/camshaft position sensor
- Bad mass airflow sensor
- Dirty throttle body
- Bad alternator
While the above issues aren’t as common as many of the other no crank no start causes listed above, they are all places to look if you have checked everything else.
Both the crankshaft position sensor and camshaft position sensor are common, yet vital, sensors that tend to break over time. An engine’s ECU needs to know the precise location of the pistons and the speed of the camshaft in order to distribute spark properly. If either of those sensors fails, the computer can’t calculate ignition timing, causing a no crank no start event.
Additionally, issues in the intake system can also cause a no crank no start. A vehicle’s throttle body is responsible for supplying the correct amount of air to the combustion chamber, so if it is excessively dirty or the throttle body plate sensor is broken the engine might not receive enough air to start. If the mass airflow sensor fails, it can fail to report the amount of air entering into the engine to the ECU which can also cause a no crank no start situation.
No Crank No Start Diagnosis Summary
It is truly frustrating when your car fails to start. Despite being one of the most common car issues overall, it is also one of the most difficult to diagnose. That is primarily due to the fact that there are so many different potential causes of the issue. While there are quite a few failures that can prevent a car from starting, it is relatively easy to narrow down a diagnosis if you know what to look out for.
The first step is determining whether the vehicle is cranking or not. If the vehicle is not cranking and not starting, the likely causes are a dead/weak battery, starter motor/starter solenoid failure, or the ignition switch. Due to the fact that the starter isn’t effectively turning the engine’s flywheel, the issue with a no crank no start situation is located somewhere before fueling and spark are introduced to the engine.
If the vehicle is cranking, it typically means that there is something wrong with either the fuel system or with spark. The most common sources of trouble if the vehicle is cranking include the fuel pump, fuel filter, spark plugs, and ignition coils. Before replacing all of the fuel system components immediately, make sure to check the corresponding fuses and relays first as it could be an easy and cheap fix. Aged or damaged spark plugs and ignition coils are also common causes of a no start, as the engine cannot ignite the air/fuel mixture inside of the combustion chamber.